Wales v South Korea: Why crowds are dwindling for friendlies in Wales

Gareth Bale after Wales' friendly against Belarus in 2019
Gareth Bale played in front of a crowd of only 7,666 for Wales' friendly against Belarus in 2019

International friendly match: Wales v South Korea

Venue: Cardiff City Stadium Date: Thursday, 7 September Kick-off: 19:45 BST

Coverage: Live on BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, BBC Sounds, BBC Sport website and app, plus live text

Highlights: Match of the Day Wales. BBC One Wales from 22:40 BST and later on demand

The Red Wall will have a few holes in it this week.

In fact, there is a danger that Wales could run out in front of their lowest home crowd in four years when they face South Korea in Thursday's friendly.

At one stage there were fears the attendance at Cardiff City Stadium would fall below the 7,666 present to watch a friendly with Belarus in September 2019.

A late surge in sales has saved the searches further back through the record books for attendances.

And the figures of 11,500 made public 48 hours before the game are a long, long way from some of the barrel-scraping numbers during Welsh football's struggle with apathy around the national side a decade or so ago.

Still, there are those who will be quick to suggest that having a home stadium less than half full is hardly the stuff of the brave new football dawn Wales was supposed to be experiencing.

With the Football Association of Wales (FAW) proud of the upturn in home attendances, and how significant gate receipts are to their balance sheet, there will be more than just nerves in the dugout this week as tension builds in their error-strewn Euro 2024 qualification campaign.

So is it a case of supporters voting with their feet after recent results? Or is talk of the bucket hat bubble bursting premature?

'As much as it's about the occasion, fans want to see a winning side'

The FAW has - rightly - won much praise for the work that went on to generate a new feeling among Wales fans to match the golden generation developing on the pitch a decade ago.

An organic evolution, it saw Wales find a true base at Cardiff City Stadium and increasingly regular sell-outs.

Supporters found a home and a voice, the hardcore let in the wider fanbase on their 'best-kept secret' of following Wales and a sense of occasion at games developed.

A connection between team and fans was key (even the Red Wall moniker was coined by the players), harnessed by the association's staff - many of whom were fans themselves.

However, ultimately the side was winning - and winning often.

Three major finals in the space of six years for a side who had not reached one in almost six decades was always going to ensure the turnstiles kept ticking.

But there is no greater marketing strategy than winning games.

Attendances for qualifiers have not dipped; there was a near-capacity crowd of 32,774 there for the last home qualifier and many have taken advantage of campaign 'season' tickets.

But as much as the statistic irks manager Rob Page, winning one game in 12 will not help, no matter how you look at it.

"In the past the fans had to help generate support," says Paul Corkery of supporter group FSA Cymru. "There has always been a hardcore of fans and it has been brilliant to see the numbers in recent years.

"But for everything that goes with going to a game, the entertainment, it's still a results business.

"As much as it's about the occasion, fans want to see a winning side. After the World Cup, the way we performed against Armenia, we're not on a wave of good feeling."

The players aware aware and understanding, with Neco Williams admitting that turning around fortunes is the only thing they can control.

"We know how much they support us and they've been there from the start," said the Nottingham Forest defender.

"Listen, if a thousand turn up, that's our 12th man, if 20,000 turn up even better. We can only look on the football side and get the three points in Latvia to hopefully bring back the fans to a full stadium. Yes it's a friendly on a Thursday and it's difficult especially for the people in the north, but even if there's only a thousand there, we would be happy."

Maybe it is more than just results, with some of the more vocal on social media unhappy with the style of play, while Page has come under heavy fire for the performance in defeat to Armenia last time out in Cardiff.

Wales fans v Ukraine, 2022
Wales have grown accustomed to sell-out crowds, such as this one against Ukraine in 2022

Friendlies foe

Page's issue with that recent record of results is that it does not take into account - in the main - the quality of opposition.

After all, the run includes three games at the World Cup and six games in the top tier of the Nations League.

There was once a time that the only way Wales fans would get to see such high-class opponents would be in one-off friendlies.

Not any more, with those games becoming fillers in the schedule or genuine warm-up fixtures for bigger challenges.

Under Chris Coleman, Wales eschewed friendlies in order to boost their Fifa ranking, preferring extra training, before Uefa demands stopped that strategy.

Still, with Nations League games now bumping up the fixture list, Wales have played just five home friendlies in four years - two of which were affected by Covid.

Their last home friendly, with the Czech Republic in March 2022, did not break the 13,000 barrier, while their last 10 friendlies at Cardiff City Stadium have had an average crowd of 14,598.

And only once in recent times have Wales attempted to try money-making from a friendly, with 50,232 turning up to watch Spain at the Principality Stadium, a move many fans were against.

Page has made no secret that the South Korea game is about preparation, with focus fully on Latvia on Monday.

"The game's important for us to get some minutes on the pitch together and work on a few things before going into a big game," said captain Aaron Ramsey, who appears unlikely to start.

With all that in mind, the lure of playing opposition for the first time and the attraction of watching the likes of Tottenham's Son Heung-Min will easily be lost on fans.

Fans counting the cost

All in all, this will likely mean disappointment for FAW chief executive Noel Mooney. Much has been made of promises to invest in grassroots and facilities, with the senior men's side the key driver of income. Without their success, without ticket revenues, everything becomes trickier.

Fine weather and easy availability of tickets may mean something of a decent walk-up crowd to soften the blow, but many on social media have argued the cost for a friendly is prohibitive.

Swathes of supporters travel from the north for games, often battling against poor to non-existent public transport for midweek matches.

Even the hardcore could be forgiven for missing South Korea, as there are away games in Latvia and, next month, Armenia to prepare for.

Tickets are set at £25 for this game, with accompanying children at £5, but they are still an increase on past prices as the cost of living affects many.

"We've been lucky over a number of years that it's cost less to watch the national side than it has a club side," says long-serving fan Gary Pritchard, of Ynys Mon. "It was inevitable prices would increase, but it's a shame it's come at a time where people are really having to look at the cost of everything.

"And if you live anywhere north of Aberystwyth, you're also looking at taking a day's holiday to get down to the game."

Pritchard has sympathy with the FAW, pointing out that broadcasters and Uefa would have decided to play on a Thursday night, but added: "Fans who don't live within a couple of hours' drive of the capital will have to weigh up if they can afford the petrol, the cost of the tickets and perhaps hotel, not to mention the time off - and all that when you have games with Croatia and Turkey at home coming up.

"I think those same questions will be asked no matter who we were playing in a friendly and no matter how big a winning streak we were on."

Next month's friendly game - preceding a key trip to Armenia - will be in Wrexham against Gibraltar. It will make it easier for some, but the same issues are likely to remain for both fans and the FAW.

"We fully support the FAW's grassroots initiative, but personally I think many fans aren't in a position to pay," says Corkery, who says there will be seven supporter coaches for him to welcome to the game on Thursday. Ordinarily he would expect 38.

"When you've got transport, food, all those things to take into account when people are making choices about how they spend their money, it's an easy game for fans to decide to miss," he says.

"And it looks like many are."