You’ll never fly alone
It’s 7am on a cold Friday morning at Arlanda and the bars are booming. The mood is jovial and a buzz of anticipation hangs in the air as old and new friends admire shirts and scarves and exchange stories like soldiers back from the front. From the far corner near check-in, a 60s song, recognized by sports fans the world over, starts to waft quietly above the general hum of chatter. Within seconds a choir-like chorus breaks out, reaching a crescendo at the chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The penny finally drops – Liverpool must be playing at home this weekend.
For the hundred or so Liverpool fans at Stockholm’s airport, a weekend trip to the UK is a monthly, or even bi-weekly, ritual. And it’s not just Liverpool fans – the chances are that if you’re at a game at Manchester United (and to a lesser extent City) or Arsenal, you’ll hear Swedish and Norwegian voices in the stands.
Top five international visitors attending live football in Britain
1. Irish Republic
For SAS, direct flights to North West England from Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm provide a reliable revenue stream from a customer group renowned for its loyalty and enthusiasm. The upside for the clubs is also obvious. The guaranteed influx of overseas fans has allowed many European giants to invest in hotels near, or actually in, their stadiums. And on a national level, soccer tourism means big business.
In Spain, for example, the largest tourist attraction in Barcelona is the Camp Nou football ground, outstripping even the Picasso Museum. A report by VisitBritain estimated that last year over 800,000 tourists came to watch soccer – nearly one in every 43 arrivals – spending over €800m in the process. The Irish were the most frequent “soccer tourists,” followed by Norwegians and then Swedes. All of which will come as no great surprise to those who have witnessed the weekly spectacle at the airports in Oslo and Stockholm.
The roots of the Scandinavian love -affair with British soccer can be traced back to when English games were first broadcast live on Scandinavian television. The first live TV match, in 1969, saw Wolverhampton take on Sunderland. And for that reason alone, both clubs still enjoy a Nordic following nearly 50 years later. These clubs’ Scandinavian fan base however is nothing compared with the likes of Manchester United, whose Norwegian fan club alone boasts over 40,000 members. Liverpool’s has some 30,000.
Ask a native Norwegian or Swede who they support and the chances are they will first say an English team (most commonly Liverpool, Manchester United or Arsenal) then a Scandinavian one. And it’s not uncommon for youngsters to have visited the likes of Old Trafford in Manchester or Camp Nou in Barcelona more often than seeing their local team.
“I fly over at least four times every season as part of the official United fan club,” says Norwegian Manchester United fan Martin Axelsberg. “It started when I was a teenager, over 20 years ago, and even today many of the people in that group still make the journey, some much more often than I do. There’s nothing like experiencing the atmosphere and everything around the culture of English soccer firsthand.”
Norwegians are especially renowned for taking their obsession to enormous lengths. One couple this year named their daughter “YNWA,” pronounced “Yeenwa,” after the aforementioned Liverpool anthem while another couple named their daughter “Everton.” Numbers from Norway flying to England for a game are almost double those from Sweden, even bearing in mind the huge success enjoyed by Swedish Arsenal favorites Anders Limpar and Freddie Ljungberg.
For tour operators, even allowing for Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s sojourn in Paris and the likely increased interest in flights to Los Angeles, following his move to LA Galaxy, England is still the prime market.
“The Premier League is by far the most popular league for us,” says Klas Hanson at specialist sports travel company Steve Perryman. “I would say about 80% of that part of the business for European leagues is to Premier League matches. It’s much bigger than national teams, although that of course depends on how well they are doing. There is always an upturn for us when one or more of them reaches a World Cup or European Championship, and we work together with the Swedish Football Federation, but it is still nowhere near the numbers who want to see big league matches.”
Not everyone is jumping for joy though. While foreign visitors provide an almost bottomless money pit for many vested interests, it often comes at the cost of the local fans, many of whom who are simply being priced out of seeing the clubs they have followed since childhood.
And if the clubs lose their traditional fan base, younger fans will disappear, the atmosphere at stadiums will be dampened, and sooner or later the TV companies paying the megabucks for the rights every year may well question the wisdom of the business model.
The problem isn’t confined to England either, with similar concerns emanating from Spain. Arguably the biggest club match in world soccer is El Clásico, between Real Madrid and Barcelona, which attracts huge global interest both in the stadiums and on TV. With tickets on the black market starting at the €250 mark, it’s not unusual to hear of local fans selling their tickets for what is for many the highlight of the year, because that one match alone finances an entire season ticket.
These concerns however are unlikely to change the fact that a trip this summer to the World Cup or to a big derby match in London, Manchester, Milan or Madrid is still on many people’s bucket list. And the clubs therefore are hardly going to discourage this trend, at least in the near future. So, never mind walking, no one boarding a plane to the northwest of England will be flying alone anytime soon.
Published: May 23, 2018
Last edited: May 23, 2018