London Hearts Supporters Club

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15 of 021

Empty seats undermine historic Scots lure

Stuart Bathgate
THREE national teams from two different sports have played in Scotland this month. Three of the best in the world – Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand.

The All Blacks are top of the rugby union rankings, just ahead of South Africa, who are also the reigning world champions. Argentina are currently the sixth best national football side on the planet, according to the Fifa rankings, but theyare arguably the most attractive visitors Hampden could hope for, especially given Diego Maradona's appointment as their coach.

Just before the season started, one of the most glamorous club sides in existence, Barcelona, came here for two games, as they also did a year earlier. They brought with them the man widely regarded as the world's best player, Lionel Messi.

You could say that we've been spoiled. Our own national rugby and football sides may be going through mediocre patches, particularly over the last year, yet really first-rate sides still want to visit Scotland and play against them, when they could just as easily pick somewhere more convenient. And warmer.

Given the small number of countries who play rugby union to any competent level, it verges on the inevitable that the top teams will come to Murrayfield every so often, but there is still an element of volition to their visits. And certainly there was nothing to force Argentina to play at Hampden: yes, they could make a profit from the trip, but larger nations might have offered more lucrative outings.

So we must still be doing something right if Scotland remains an attractive destination for the best teams. And we are entitled to feel a degree of pride about that.

But the lack of support for those three big fixtures over the past fortnight, not to mention for Barcelona's game against Hibernian at Murrayfield, is a worrying sign. Whatever the various causes for the relatively low attendances, the result of them could very well be a certain scepticism on the part of those big-name teams, if and when they are ever asked back again.

The New Zealanders and South Africans know that Scotland has a proud rugby tradition. Their players and coaches alike can recall big games between the two, and there are often members of both squads who can trace part of their ancestry to this country, without going back too many generations. The Argentines acknowledge a Scot, Alexander Watson Hutton, as one of the founding fathers of football in their country. Their affinity with Scotland is also enhanced by their recent tradition of hostility, both on the football field and, in more important political matters, towards the English.

Sooner or later, however, such romantic notions of our country will have to give way to a realistic assessment of how much we have to offer the sporting world today. For, at least judged in terms of numbers, we cannot offer anything like the fervour of days gone by.

Murrayfield holds just over 67,000 people these days. It was roughly three-quarters full for the All Blacks game two Saturdays back, and just over half full for the match against South Africa a week later.

The capacity of Hampden is 52,000. Despite the worldwide attention paid to the appointment of Maradona and his preparations for his first game as coach, thousands of seats lay empty last night.

Several reasons have been trotted out to explain the low crowds. It's just over a month until Christmas; ticket prices are pretty high; and there is a bit of a financial crisis going on at present.

The first and third of those reasons are incontestable facts. The second is true, too, at least in the sense that many of us would balk at paying the sort of sum it would cost to get into the match, to travel there and back, and to have some sort of food while there.

Nevertheless, at both Murrayfield and Hampden, ticket prices have been lower this month than on previous occasions. Indeed, the Scottish Football Association initially ruled out the Argentina match, and only put it on when lower prices were agreed.

Besides, it is instructive to compare the Scottish experience with events in Wales. In Cardiff, where it is just as close to Christmas as it is in Glasgow and Edinburgh, almost 60,000 people turned up last Friday night to watch the Welsh play Canada. That's Canada, the team who are playing Scotland at Pittodrie on Saturday before a crowd which might reach 20,000.

And before anyone points out that rugby is the national sport of Wales, we should add that support for the Welsh football team is just about as good. And that the population of Wales is considerably less than that of Scotland, that Cardiff is smaller than Edinburgh or Glasgow, and that the Principality does not enjoy immunity from the problems which have rocked the world economy.

Maybe there's not much else to do in Wales, or perhaps more Welsh people than Scots feel their leading teams are important symbols of national identity. Or perhaps they simply have a greater enthusiasm for sport right now.

Whatever the cause of it, there is little doubt that Scots' relative apathy towards our national teams will have a knock-on effect. Just as losing matches means teams drop down the world rankings, so falling attendances detract from Scotland's allure as a big sporting country.

It should be recalled that one of the factors which counted against Scotland's bid to host Euro 2008 was the fear that matches would not be sold out.

What is more, our own authorities will think again about attempting to bring the big teams if we cannot get the crowds. The first indication of that came last night when Gordon Smith, the SFA's chief executive, said that if the fans would not turn out for Argentina, he thought it unlikely that he would go ahead with a bid to bring Brazil to Hampden.

"I think we are now going to break even," said Smith last night as ticket sales hit the 30,000 mark, "I was looking for 35,000 just to make it a success." It was a remarkable position for the SFA to find themselves in, for what should be a glamour match.

As the match kicked off last night, the north and south stands at Hampden were heavily populated, but there were vast open areas behind Allan McGregor's goal in the west stand, while there were also sizeable gaps in the east stand.

Smith had previously forecast that the Argentines would be the first of a list of big names coming to Glasgow. Now it appears more likely that, for the time being at least, they could be the last.

Taken from the Scotsman

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