I have never forgiven myself for attending the 1991 FA Cup final. Tottenham Hotspur versus Nottingham Forest. I had broken my leg very badly playing football a year earlier, and a blazer-wearer I knew at the Football Association had kindly sent me a ticket to cheer me up. I am a fan of neither Spurs nor Forest but, having never been to an FA Cup final, I was excited to be there. Well, I was excited until the moment I took my seat, whereupon my feelings turned to something more like guilt or shame.
I was sitting between an ardent Forest fan and an ardent Spurs fan. Both were telling me of the lengths to which they had gone to score their tickets – and how many of their fellow fans were missing out. I felt terrible. As a neutral, I had no business being there. Football is no place for neutrals. If my team ever got to a major final, I would be livid to have to share the experience with someone who didn’t care either way about the result. I was deeply uncomfortable about being that someone. Spurs won 2-1; it felt like being at the wedding celebration of strangers or, in Forest’s case, the funeral of someone I didn’t know.
On Wednesday night, 43,883 people will watch Glasgow Rangers and Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League final at Seville’s Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán stadium. Only 19,000 of them have been allocated their tickets as supporters of the two teams. The other 24,883 tickets have gone to corporate guests and neutrals associated with various other clubs. Those 24,883 people need to take a long look at themselves. If they’re Rangers or Frankfurt fans who managed to wangle a seat from somewhere, fair enough. But the rest of them won’t be getting into footballing heaven, at least if I’m manning the pearly gates.
The neutral fan or, even worse, the corporately entertained, there-for-a-night-out non-fan has been killing football for a good while now. The further your team goes in tournaments and cup competitions, the worse it gets. Working at the 2006 World Cup final in Berlin, I shared a coach from the park-and-ride at the Olympic stadium with a bus full of Samsung executives. They were all in suits, accessorised with lanyards – their golden tickets into suites wherein they would find huge tables groaning under the weight of mountains of fine food and drink. Outside the ground, I bumped into a guy I had met filming on a gas rig in the North Sea a couple of years earlier. The thing was, I remembered him telling me that day he wasn’t into football at all. I asked him what he was doing there. He told me his son’s girlfriend’s dad had been given some tickets; he was high up at McDonald’s, you see. In the stadium, proper fans of France and Italy were jammed into shamefully small areas behind each goal. It all felt terribly wrong.
It was just as wrong – worse, actually – when I next went to a World Cup final: France versus Croatia in Moscow in 2018. This time, having Croatian heritage, I had a dog in the fight. I was there as a fan, and a fervent one at that. But next to me I had a sharply dressed middle-aged bloke who had plainly never been to a football match before. His lanyard told me he was Mexican. He celebrated goals for both sides with equal enthusiasm. He did so by standing up and dad-dancing while taking selfies. On the final whistle he celebrated France’s victory in the same way, if a little more vigorously. I glowered darkly, murderously, at him. Honestly, I would have been less offended by a jubilant Frenchman dancing triumphantly in front of me, playing an accordion and blowing Gauloises smoke in my face.
Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist