Twin Tragedies of Brussels and Bradford Helped Intensify English Soccer's Woes

Associated Press

Fans are staying away, sponsors are pulling out and television broadcasts are on hold. In England, the cradle of soccer, the professional game is in trouble.

Facing crippling salaries and falling attendance, once-wealthy clubs are heavily in debt. Some teams, like the Wolverhampton Wanderers, which fell from the first division to the bottom of the third in two years, are close to folding.

Domestic soccer has been off the television screens since August following a long-running financial dispute between the clubs and the TV companies. Earlier this month, the deadlock intensified when officials announced that broadcasts would be suspended at least until the end of the current season.

The double tragedies last May, when 56 fans died in a fire at Bradford and 39 fans were killed in Brussels during a riot, were thought to have fanned the wave of disinterest.

Because English fans were mainly responsible for the rioting that led to the Brussels deaths at the European Champions' Cup final, English clubs were banned indefinitely from the three European club competitions, traditional crowd-pullers and important incentives for success.

But fans and sponsors contend that professional soccer in England was on the skids even before the Bradford and Brussels disasters.

A survey conducted by the international magazine, World Soccer, showed that the average attendance at English first division games has dropped more than 30% in the last 15 years, from 30,204 in 1970 to 20,517 last season.

Where have all the fans gone?

Michael Hancox, from the central English industrial town of West Bromwich, watched his local soccer team for more than 20 years until he became disillusioned and took up rugby instead.

"Watching professional soccer just didn't interest me any more. I was watching vastly overpaid prima donnas serving up rubbish for fans who had to put up with lousy facilities.

"Season after season, the players' wages went up and the supporters' entrance charges went up, but there was no improvement in the ground facilities or the standard of play," said Hancox, a 38-year-old factory worker.

Rundown stadiums and rowdyism are factors, but it is the low quality of soccer that really upsets the fans. Although the English soccer league is regarded as highly competitive, experts say the skill factor has been replaced by work-rate speed and overzealous defense.

Bill Goulden, who runs a photo-publishing business in central England, has witnessed the decline of soccer and the boom in other spectator sports, especially ice hockey.

"I used to think nothing of paying out 40,000 pounds ($60,000) in advertising and sponsorship of a local soccer club, but now I don't see what I get out of it and I don't bother," he said.

Peter Sinclair, managing director of a computer manufacturing company, said the $14,000 he is spending this year on sponsorship and advertising at soccer grounds represented about a quarter of his outlay in previous seasons.

He, too, has decided to plow roughly $35,000 into hockey.

"I have been a soccer fan all my life, but I just became disillusioned with the game, especially at the end of last season when the Bradford and Brussels tragedies occurred," Sinclair said.

Millionaire rock star Elton John, chairman of the English first division club Watford, said soccer's apparent decline has forced him to shelve plans to build a new $4.2 million spectators' stand.

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