The most passionate football nation in Europe

This article was first written back in 2011 but is one of the top five viewed posts I’ve ever published – if you view it in terms of population of the highest ranked country, then everyone there would have read it….twice.  Below was the original article and ranking back then with an update today to see how things have changed in the last eight years.

Two weeks ago I met a chap from Iceland at Copenhagen airport.  His first words to me were “I’m the most passionate football fan in the world”.  He had seen my Lewes FC Owners badge and knew exactly who the Rooks were, what league they were in and where they were in the league.  In fact when I randomly fired obscure non league teams at it he could answer every single question on location, league and position.  Curzon Ashton, Lincoln Moorlands Railways, Quorn.  You name it, he knew the answer.  He told me he watched about twenty games a week on the TV and Online, and devoted his whole life to following the beautiful game.  He showed me his list of “favourite” teams from across Europe.  His main team was KR Reykjavik back at home but also he avidly followed (deep breath here):-

Celtic, Rosenborg, Basel, Benfica, Helsingborgs, Rapid Wien, Olympiakos, Liverpool, AC Milan, Barcelona, Brondby, HJK Helsinki, Skendija Tetovo, Buducnost Podgorica, Hadjuk Split and BATE Borisov.

But this meeting got me thinking.  Which nation are the most passionate about their own domestic league?  My new “friend” in the thumbs up Inbetweeners way had claimed the Icelanders were – with just 12 clubs and a population of 328,000 he thought that more people watched top flight football in Iceland as a percentage than any other nation.

So in a spare moment (OK, hour) last week I fed all the relevant information into the TBIR super computer to see what the results were.  Now, it is hard to be very exact and so I had to make a couple of assumptions.

  • Population figures were taken from the CIA database
  • To calculate the attendance of the league I took the league average attendance per game from 2010/11 (or 2011 in case of summer leagues) and multiplied by the teams in the league – this would roughly show the number of people who went to top flight football in a two week period (i.e a home game for each club). The bible for any statistical world is of course European Football Statistics.
  • Obviously there is a small amount of overlap with away fans attending games so I took off 10% from the total to avoid double counting.
  • I was unable to find league attendances for Andorra, San Marino or Malta. In addition there isn’t a league in Liechtenstein as their teams play in the Swiss league.  However, the remaining 49 UEFA-affiliated Leagues were included.

The results were indeed very surprising.  The top ten “most passionate” countries about their own domestic league have an average FIFA ranking of 53 (and a UEFA one of 23).  There is only three countries in the top ten that are in the FIFA top ten, and the top three are all ranked by FIFA at over 118, and over 44 in Europe.  So in true TBIR Top of the Pops style lets countdown from 10 to 1.

10th place – Switzerland (1.32% of the population watch a top flight match in 2010/11 season – Average attendance was 11,365 – Top supported club FC Basel who averaged 29,044)
Despite its peaceful aspect of mountains, cow bells and lakes, football in Switzerland is a passionate affair that often boils over into violence. The best supported team, FC Basel are now a regular in the Champions League Group Stages which has seen their average attendance rise to nearly 30,000.  Their average attendance for the Axpo Super League would be better if the two teams from Zürich realised their potential.  One cloud on the horizon in Switzerland is the financial stability of clubs – we have this season seen Neuchâtel Xamax go to the wall and several others are in a precarious position.  However, football is still seen as the number one sport, and with top flight clubs distributed across the country it is clear to see the appeal of the domestic game, especially as on the national side they have had a good few years.

2019 update – Switzerland has now dropped out of the top ten, falling to 11th place as of the end of the 2018/19 season, replaced by Sweden. Average attendance was 11,273 but for the first time in nearly 20 years, the best supported club wasn’t FC Basel.  Champions Young Boys of Berne averaged 25,781 last season perhaps indicating a shift in power in the Alps? Oh, and Neuchâtel Xamax FCS have been born out of the ashes of the original club and are now playing in the Super League, whilst neither team from Zurich has finished in top spot.

9th place – Portugal (1.35% – 10,080 – SL Benfica 38,146)
The two biggest sides in the Liga Sagres have average attendances that would not look out of place in the Premier League.  The Portuguese league benefited considerably from the investment in stadiums after Euro 2004, which saw the average attendance at the top level rise from 7,012 to 10,624 the year after the tournament was held.  The diversity in attendances at this level though is huge.  SL Benfica average 38,146 and had a highest gate of 54,991 for the Lisbon derby, whilst at the other end A Naval 1 Maio struggle to break the 1,600 barrier.  Obviously with good young players, a good distribution of clubs up and down the country, a fair few imports especially from Brazil and reasonably priced tickets, the league does have a major impact on life.

2019 update – Portugal is the big climber in the last eight years, now in 5th rank.  Benfica still remain the best supported team in Portugal although their average attendance has risen by almost 50% to 53,824 as they have won six of the last eight Primeira Liga titles.  Average attendances across the league have also risen to 11,692 in 2019. The gap between the top and the bottom still remains with five of the eighteen clubs playing in the top division averaging less than 3,000.

8th place – Denmark (1.36% – 7,049 – FC Copenhagen 17,325)
Denmark is a small country but its top league, the SAS Superligen is concentrated on the island of Jælland, where you will find Copenhagen.  In fact, if you took the average attendance of the four clubs based in and around the capital last season you would get an average of 9,369, some 33% higher than the other 8 teams.  Football is cheap compared to the other entertainment means and with alcohol and sausages forming the two other parts of the holy trinity of match days it is good to see that crowds are up by 40% from ten years ago.  As with Swiss football, the performance of the national side in recent years has had a positive effect on the domestic game.

2019 update – Whilst their % of people who attend has risen slightly to 1.43%, they have stayed in eighth place. FC Copenhagen haven’t had it all their own way in the last eight seasons, with titles being won by AaB, FC Mitjylland and FC Nordsjælland in that period, although FCK can still claim another five championships.  Their average attendance has fallen slightly to 16,982 whilst the average for the Superligen has fallen to 6,562.  Only FCK and city rivals FC Brondby currently average above 10,000, whilst at the other end, top flight new boys Vendsyssel FF average just over 2,300.

7th place – Belgium (1.54% – 11,574 – Standard Liege 25,125)
Belgium is a strange case.  To be they always seem to have underachieved at an international level and one can hope that the ridiculous expansion of the European Championships in 2016 will give them a chance to qualify again for a major tournament.  In the domestic game the shift of power has moved from the capital out to the regions, first to Brugge and then to Liege who are now the top two supported teams.  The top six clubs on the average attendance list (Liege, Club Brugge, Anderlecht, Genk, Mechelen and Gent) all anchor geographical and economic regions around the country and so continue to support the smaller clubs in terms of average attendance.  Ticket prices are reasonable starting at around €20 for the bigger clubs and of course beer is a staple part of the game.

2019 update – Falling two places to number 9th in the list as the % of the population attending has dropped to 1.33%. The Belgium league has one of, if not the, most confusing end of season play-off structures and that perhaps explains why the title has been won by four different clubs in the last eight seasons. Standard Liege lost their top spot as the best supported team six years ago, replaced by Club Brugge KV, who average 24,399.  The average across the whole of the Jupiler Pro League has fallen to 10,635.

6th place – Netherlands (1.87% – 19,296 – Ajax 47,316)
The Netherlands is the most populous country in the top ten which just goes to show the high attendances they attract in the Eredivisie are massive compared to the potential.  In fact the best two supported teams, Ajax and Feyenoord are in the best 25 supported teams in Europe. The Netherlands is a relatively small country in terms of area and so most teams are located close together.  The advantage of this is that the percentage of fans who travel to see a game is one of the highest in Europe.  The downside is the frequent occurrence of crowd trouble which has led to the introduction of strict club card based rules for fans.  Most clubs in the league have also built/rebuilt their stadiums in recent years meaning better conditions for the fans.

2019 update – Rising one place to 5th place despite seeing their percentage falling to 1.71%.  Since 2003, the best supported team honour has fallen to Ajax who last season averaged 52,987 as they won the Eredivisie title for the 34th time.  The league average has fallen to 17,998, predominantly due to the relegation to the second tier of FC Twente (averaging 26,274 in the second tier in 2019).

5th place – Norway (2.32% – 7,994 – Rosenborg BK – 14,510)
The Norwegians are football crazy.  They cannot get enough of the Premier League on TV.  In Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s excellent book – Soccernomics and why England lose, they explore the passion the Norwegians have for sport, and football in particular. The geographical make up of the country is hardly ideal – a long thin mountainous aspect that makes internal travel problematic.  But fans still support their local teams with teams playing in the bigger conurbations getting a proportionally larger ground than those in the more rural area.  The biggest club, Rosenborg, are located on the west coast in Trondheim and have invested their regular Champions League prize money well.  In the capital you can find three football clubs – Vålerenga, Stabæk and Lillestrøm although it is still the regional teams who perform the best.  Scandinavians simply love football.

2019 update – Norway’s percentage has fallen to 1.55% and they have fallen one place to 6th.  Rosenborg’s frozen grip on the Elite Serien title has now been broken with Molde winning this seasons’s title although they (and everyone else) cannot wrestle the grip of the best supported team away from Trondheim’s finest who in 2019 won the honour for the 18th season in a row with an average of 12,704.  Attendances across the league were down for the 4th consecutive season at 5,780.

4th place – Scotland (2.82% -13,670 – Celtic 48,978)
These stats prove the dominance of the big two without a shadow of a doubt.  The average attendance of Celtic and Rangers is 47,142.  The average of the rest is just 6,975.  If the “big two” were ever allowed to leave the Scottish Premier League (and I would suggest that after Ranger’s financial meltdown that is now more unlikely than ever) they would fall out of our top ten.  Football at the top level is concentrated in three main areas – Greater Glasgow (5 teams, average 21,377), Edinburgh (2 teams, average 12,950) and the East coast (3 teams, average 6,767).  Whilst most stadium are new/re-developed, average ticket prices are high, alcohol is severely restricted and away support outside the top 3 or 4 is almost non-existent.  Combine this with the poor performance of the national team and the exodus of good players south of the border and you can see the impact the “big two” has on these statistics.

2019 update – A big jump into 2nd place for the Scots, as their overall percentage has risen to 3.24%.   A lot has happened in the last 8 years in Scottish football with all of the biggest clubs, bar Celtic, spending time outside of the Premiership.  Unsurprisingly, bereft of the competition, Celtic have won the last eight titles and once again increased their average attendance thanks to redevelopment work at Celtic Park to 57,778 whilst the average across the league was at 15,990, the highest since 2007.

3rd place – Cyprus (3.5% – 3,067 – APOEL Nicosia 10,109)
Who wouldn’t want to watch a game on a summer’s evening on a Greek island with a beer in one hand and a Gyros in the other?  There is so much going for watching football in Cyprus and relative to its population of 1.1m people it is in a healthy state.  Ironically, despite the strong European performances in recent years by the biggest side in the league APOEL Nicosia which this season took them to the Champions League quarter finals, the national side have gone backwards and only the minnows of the likes of Andorra, Malta and San Marino sit below them in the European rankings.    On such a small island it is not far for the average person to travel to find a game.  The fact that nearly 1% of the population attend APOEL games sums up their draw over recent seasons.

2019 update – A fall of 4 places to 7th with their percentage dropping to just 1.53%.  APOEL Nicosia have continued their domestic dominance, securing their seventh success title in 2019.  They continue to be the best supported team on the island with an average of 4,414, significantly down on the figure from 2011.  The average across the Cyta Championship has also fallen significantly down to just 1,701, with half of the league now averaging less than 1,000 per game.  A lot of the blame for the drop in attendances has been down to the introduction of the mandatory Fan Card for all fans in a desperate attempt by the authorities to stamp out football-related violence.

2nd place – Iceland (3.69% – 1,123 – KR Reykjavik 2,148)
So my new friend at the airport was nearly right.  The Icelanders are almost the most passionate football fans in Europe.  Despite having the 38th biggest average attendance in Europe (or the 15th worst), the population of just 328,000 people means that 3.69% of the population regularly attend a Pepsi Deildin game.  It does help that nearly 60% of the league play in the capital Reykjavik, and all bar one plays within 30 miles. I am not sure that the half time snack of rotting shark’s fin soup is comparable with our pie but it doesn’t stop locals regularly coming along to a game.

2019 update – A fall of one place for Iceland as their percentage has fallen to 3.24%.  Icelandic football has been one of the success stories of the last decade.  The national team qualified for their first major tournament in 2016 and reached the quarter-finals then two years later qualified for the FIFA World Cup Finals in Russia.  They face a play-off for qualification for the 2020 tournament.  Domestically, the average attendance has fallen to 1,018 and whilst KR have continued to be the best supported team, their average attendance has fallen to 1,623.

1st place – Faroe Islands (9.46% – 512 – B 36 Tórshavn 991)
Bet that was a surprise for you wasn’t it?  The stats do not lie – with an average crowd of 512 and a population of 48,700, it seems that the major past time for the Faroese is a football match.  The clubs are spread across a number of islands although the two best supported teams are based in the capital Tórshavn,  The Faroese are massive Premier League consumers as well.  Graham Yapp, groundhopper extraordinaire went on an extended trip to the Islands last year, and you can read his excellent report here.  But one comment resonates more than most:-

“The impact of the English Premier League is everywhere in the Islands. I saw club hats and jackets at every ground I visited. The big-name shirts are on sale in the city centre, and even a rural bus-stop had a poster for a competition to win tickets to the United-City FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. The games are shown on TV, a week after the event. I can’t say that it makes me feel good as an Englishman to find this.

Most of the adults that I spoke to at the games were in touch with Premiership events and had an English team that they supported. Liverpool more than most, I’d say, especially for the 30-something-plus generation. There seemed to be more affinity for northern or coastal sides, and the original inspiration was more often than not a prima donna goalscorer.”

2019 update – Despite their percentage falling to 8.1%, The Faroe Islands is still the best supported team per capita.  Not much has changed in the rugged northern islands with the average attendance slipping to 438 and the best supported club now KÍ Klaksvík who average 731.

For those who wanted to know, England were 11th in 2011 and are now 13th, Spain 13th (now 12th) and Germany 18th (now 16th) on the list.  So the moral here is if you do meet a mad Scandinavian at the airport, keep your headphones on, look straight ahead and play dumb.

10 Comments

  1. What lowly position did Romania occupy, if you don’t mind my asking? Any chance to see a full list or at least a full ranking? That would be really interesting :)

      1. Ah, ok. I was under the wrong impression that you did the maths for all the countries. Cheers for the stats though :)

    1. Romania? What a good joke I must say! The country where the football teams became a joke, where is more important buying the games and where footballers are more interested in girls, parties, flashing cars than actually playing. Where the national team had no noticeable performance since 1994 at the World championship from USA… I am sorry, there is nothingto be passionate or proud about.

      I can’t forget the disregard the Romanian team had when they played against the Faroese one a few years ago. How disrepectful they were talking about “those amateurs”. And surprise-surprise, the policemen and the carpenters kept them very busy, especially the last part of the game.

      Just an opinion of a Romanian living in the Faroes :)

    1. Because it’s an idiotic survey. You can only fill a stadium to capacity, so this sort of calculation is always going to favour smaller nations. England did beat Germany though..

  2. It’s “Hajduk Split”, not “Hadjuk Split”. It’s not that hard, is it? :D

    If it helps to remember, keep in mind that it’s the team who beat Man Utd by the biggest margin since in the last 80+ years (6-0) ;).

    Nice article though :).

  3. If rangers and celtic leave, which they won’t for a hearty number of reasons, then it would still be Scottish people going to the game??? How would it change where the passion lies?? Dundee has a population of about 150000 and the attendance, combined average, of the two teams is over 13000, nearly 10% of the local population, even if you add in the population of the whole of Angus it’s 5%. Statistics are sometimes harder to interpret than is first obvious, Scotlands population is very centralised. In addition there are literally thousands of glory hunting old firm fans in Dundee and Angus making it even more remarkable…the same could be said of a lot of the spl sides. Aberdeen are about the only club who currently underachieve in terms of attendance, but they’ve been disgustingly bad for a while. That is all.

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