There was uncomfortable viewing to be had at the start of England’s opening Euro 2012 clash against France on Monday. The TV cameras spread over the vast Donetsk stadium, where patches of seats among the fans became uncomfortably clear.
When was the last time England failed to fill a stadium at a major championships? In the 2010 World Cup, England sent thousands to South Africa. While that tournament was heavily criticised for staging echoing, empty games, the England clashes were always full.
Their sold-out box office status has been around for a long time – even at the 2002 Japan and Korea World Cup they brought a strong following - so evident patches in the Donbass Arena is a real problem.
For this was no dull match against a weak nation ready to defend for 90 minutes (England v Algeria, WC 2010); nor a boring group game with nothing to play for (Sweden v England, WC 2006).
No, England v France should be a huge crowd drawer.
There are many possible reasons for why the stadium wasn’t full: expensive flights, extortionate hotel prices, reports of racial abuse, Ukraine’s distance from the rest of Europe and so on.
But maybe there is a deeper footballing reason to why fans aren’t drawn to such a historically attractive fixture? Maybe it’s just because England aren’t that good.
For in all their previous stadium-filling tournaments, England have gone in with ludicrously high expectations buoyed by strong teams. Fans don’t want to miss that memorable game that propels the Three Lions to long-awaited championship glory.
But in Ukraine and Poland, England are playing under a cloud of despondent reality and their latest Betfair Euro 2012 Odds has them at their longest prices for decades.
They are not expected to qualify from Group D, and so the proposition of spending time and money to watch your nation limp out of Euro 2012 is not very attractive.
Without the weight of expectation on Roy Hodgson’s side, the fans have stayed away – most probably saving for Brazil 2014. Though according to Betfair, they will probably struggle there too!