From getting black-out drunk and starting fights to sitting back and consuming sunflower seeds and a half-time sandwich, the matchday experience across footballing Europe is polarising. Allow me to take my broadest brush and paint a picture of the countries I have visited so far.
Note: this is purely atmosphere and matchday experience. The product on the pitch is another topic entirely.
Having seen games in all four professional leagues in England, the level of support each club gets on any given matchday is incredible, first and foremost. The fact a team in the fourth or even the fifth tier of football can still draw a crowd well in the thousands is an incredible testament to the passion people have for the sport, and it’s something you won’t see anywhere else in the world. They usually come with a wide array of chants as well, some of which are genuinely funny or clever, and they’ll be very involved during games.
Now for the ‘but’. In no other country I’ve been in does football go so synonymous with alcohol. Sure, this can lead to comedic gold – a fully stripped-down man at Molineux belting out the club hymn on a freezing cold winter night springs to mind – but it leads to incredibly toxic atmospheres as well.
For every happy drunk there is an angry drunk. Hostile atmospheres can be good to intimidate opponents – I love it. The line is crossed too often, however, by seemingly drunk fans who misbehave due to uncontrollable rage. When the result isn’t going the home team’s way, the crowd becomes a place you just don’t want to be a part of, and the alcohol elevates annoyance to aggression.
Don’t get me wrong; you’ll struggle to find better overall atmosphere than in England (maybe Argentina?), but don’t be surprised when things go very sour once the home team trails.
In the Netherlands, almost all of my matchday experience comes from visiting Ajax games as I grew up in Amsterdam. Just as a disclaimer.
Nationwide, attendance is excellent but the vast majority of grounds simply aren’t very big. Nine of the 18 teams hold 15,000 or less and truly electrifying atmospheres are therefore rare.
Albeit on a much smaller scale, overall atmosphere in the Eredivisie is comparable to the Premier League. The only thing I do really miss is a wide variety of chants – especially those improvised ones that make you laugh.
Catch a big game like De Klassieker, Ajax – Feyenoord (Holland’s Clásico), and there will be a spine-tingling atmosphere. Catch any of the 25 games where Ajax or PSV obliterate their opponents without really trying and it will be nothing more than a pleasant afternoon watching the footy. The variance is very high.
Discounting the big teams, the rest of the league is comparable to lower league atmosphere in the UK: small but relatively intense and supportive of the local team.
German grounds are very, very loud. With an average crowd of 43,300, the Bundesliga is the best-attended league in Europe. And they don’t just sit down and watch.
One of my best experiences at any ground was at Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park when I visited a Europa League knockout-game back in 2016. The only food you could buy inside the ground was a pretzel or a Bratwurst, very on-brand, and the atmosphere was incredible. The famous Yellow Wall urged the rest of the 80,000 people or so to never sit down during a game, and nobody did. Even though it was a comfortable 2-0 win, the noise levels never lulled.
This is a trend nationwide. 13 of the 18 Bundesliga clubs boast attendance rates over 95%, and massive flags are waved all over the stands. You’ll also notice the relationship between the announcers and the crowd after a goal is scored; he’ll say the first name of the goal scorer and the crowd will belt out the last name, followed by a “Danke! (Thank you!)” from the announcer and a collective “Bitte! (You’re welcome!)” from the crowd. It’s great. I love German football.
Watching football in England and Spain really is like day and night. And it’s not just the weather.
Something you’ll immediately notice is the number of families present at games. Entire families, that is. You’ll see more women and kids at matches in Spain than in almost any other place, and they come armed with an entire picnic worth of snacks. Sunflower seeds, pipas, are eaten by the millions, leaving behind a mountain of shells underneath seats at full-time.
While Spanish people will get very agitated in that typically passionate Meditteranean way, the family-like atmosphere (and crucially, the ban on alcohol inside stadiums) does prevent things from really kicking off. Even at a Clásico, fans of both clubs can peacefully stand next to each both inside and outside of the ground.
Still, a real issue in Spanish football is poor attendance. Even the big clubs struggle to fill their stands – Barcelona are under the league average 75% attendance rate – but it’s the lower end of La Liga where you’ll see largely empty gradas. Espanyol average just over 22,000 spectators at a beautiful stadium that holds 40,000. Getafe can’t even fill two-thirds of the Coliseum Alfonso Pérez despite enjoying one of their best-ever league campaigns.
This, combined with the lack of alcohol and the family-friendly atmosphere, means there won’t be as much noise and chanting as you’d find elsewhere, but it’s still very fun in a completely different way.
I’ve only been to two games in Italy, and I don’t have a lot of good things to say about it, to be honest.
When visiting Lazio – Napoli back in 2016, Napoli took an early 0-2 lead through Jose Callejón and Gonzalo Higuaín, and Lazio’s star player Antonio Candreva went off injured. What happened next really shocked me.
Every time Napoli centre back Kalidou Koulibaly would be on the ball, the largely empty Stadio Olimpico would imitate monkey noises. Not just infamous Lazio ultra’s, either. Kids around me were doing it. It got so bad referee Massimiliano Irrati had to stop the game and gather all the players in the middle of the pitch (pictured below).Embed from Getty Images
The stadium announcer’s pleads to the fans to behave fell on deaf ears – they whistled all the way through the statement. When play continued, the fans continued with their utterly racist behaviour. Koulibaly was clearly shaken. He got booked late in the game for lashing out after a foul. I never felt so embarrassed.
Apart from Lazio, who probably have the worst fans in all of Europe, the rest isn’t very good either. It’s like Spain with the very poor attendance and the families, but without the good side. Maybe I just went to two really bad games. I’m not tempted to have another trip, however.
Special mention – Brazil
I haven’t been to Brazil, but I went to England – Brazil at Wembley in 2017. There were tens of thousands of Brazilians present.
The game itself was probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but those Brazilian fans are just something else. Armed with trumpets, whistles and a lot of drums, they were just making music, dancing and singing the whole game. It was so infectious. I didn’t care about the game after a while, I was just watching the fans.Embed from Getty Images
In conclusion, I don’t have a favourite country to watch football. It’s just fascinating to see through what lens football is seen across the continent. For some it’s a family day out, for some it’s a religion. For some it’s an excuse to get drunk and be obnoxious. Either way, I can’t wait to explore it in more countries.