Manchester United have the best fans in the world.
OK, so this article is going to cause some controversy because loads of fans think they are the best in the world.
The most commonly stated observation about United fans is that most of them come from outside Manchester...or outside the UK.
Frankly, that's stating the obvious, because you can't fit 333 million into Old Trafford. What's wrong with people from outside Manchester supporting United? Everybody who loves football has a favourite team, but for how many is it the hometown team, if there is one?
The English Premier League is the most watched in the world. So why should it be a surprise that the most watched team is the most successful and most people's favourite? It's no accident because for at least the last 66 years, United have played attractive attacking football.
It's taken several managers and millions for Roman Abramovich to find one who will do the same and Villas-Boas for the time being at least is playing attractive football. So is Mancini. Will it last? It will at Old Trafford, because that is the legacy that Sir Matt Busby laid down and passed on all the way to Sir Alex. Whoever follows will be expected to do the same.
So then some say that Old Trafford is like a cathedral, populated by what Roy Keane called the "prawn sandwich" brigade. Certainly, it was quiet against Basle last week, because United were playing badly.
The trouble is that when you are a passionate supporter of United, used to so much success, such as winning the last 19 Premier League home matches (a record), you sit there with a feeling of nervousness or even dread until the first goal is scored. We're just not used to losing, especially at home.
One of the reasons for United's abiding widespread popularity is the aftermath of the Munich air crash. The disaster captured a nation's attention, and much of the world sat up and took notice. There was a universal mourning, not only for the deaths, but for the loss of possibly the most talented generation that ever wore the red shirts.
Overnight, the Reds became most people's favourite second club after their own. This remained largely the case until United's burgeoning success in the Premiership years.
Sadly, resentment is part of the "British disease." While in countries like the US, success is recognised, applauded and celebrated, in Britain, people and teams are put on pedestals so that they can be smashed off.
Luckily, Mr. Abramovich saved the day and Chelsea became the "most hated" until Sheikh Mansour poured his millions into City, who now have that mantle.
Whether a club has the best fans in the world is a subjective opinion difficult to back up with facts. So, as just one measure won't suffice, we have put forward a number of factors which collectively make Red Devils fans the best in the world over the last 60 years or more.
If you disagree, fine, but please give counter-arguments and facts to support them.
We start with the overwhelming case of sheer global support.
Manchester United has the biggest fanbase in the world, estimated at 333 million, according to TNS Sport research in 2007:
There are over 200 officially recognised Manchester United Supporters Club branches worldwide, in at least 24 different countries:
United also has a customer database of 11 million, that is, fans who have had at least one financial transaction with the club, and, according to their commercial director, no other club on the planet is shown for at least two hours every week to a potential audience of 80 percent of the world's televisions.
Manchester United has the biggest, most active total following online.
In the latest available figures, they had twice the number of unique visitors per month of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Also, 43 percent of these were from England, whereas Madrid (33 percent) and Barcelona (26 percent) had a lower proportion from Spain.
To be fair, Real Madrid and Barcelona currently have marginally more Facebook members, but United have almost as many in total as Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City put together. Figures are:
Real Madrid: 20,111,625
United also have the most actively engaged fans, according to the latest available figures from March 2011, together with the most the most posts, comments and likes.
Finally, they have by far the most "Wikipedians," with over 257 pages of registered names (approximately 52,000) compared to Arsenal (167), Liverpool (148), Chelsea (76), Real Madrid (six) and Barcelona (zero).
Old Trafford was bombed during the last war, but before that, the highest attendance was 76,962 in 1939.
The reconstructed ground was originally built to hold 80,000 people. This was reduced dramatically to 44,000 after the Taylor Report demanded all-seater stadiums and has been progressively increased to the current 76,212, with future designs taking it to 95,000.
The current capacity of Real Madrid is 75,328, and Barcelona's capacity is 99,354.
In the English Premier League, United consistently have the highest total and average crowds. For the first few matches of the 2011/12 season, the highest averages were:
For comparison, the average La Liga attendances last season were:
Real Madrid: 68,123
However, United average ticket prices are 30 percent more expensive than Barcelona, but Old Trafford is always full to 99.5 percent or more, whereas based on the above averages, the Camp Nou is on average 79 percent full, and the Bernabeu, 90 percent.
Finally, United's fans have never wavered in their support, irrespective of the team's success. Here are the average attendances for the five decades before the Premier League:
1980s: 43,090 (lower capacities due to all-seater stadium regulations)
Barcelona's crowds can be more fickle. In the relatively unsuccessful 2007/8 season, while United's crowd held up at 75,691 (99.3 percent), the Camp Nou was only 68.4 percent full, with an average of 67,560.
Manchester United fans collectively travel further than any other football fans in the world. If it's true that most United fans come from outside Manchester, then any of these travelling to Old Trafford for a match are effectively "away fans."
Every match, there are hundreds from Ireland, fans from the Far and Middle East, from all over the United Kingdom and many far-flung places across the globe. Every match, there are the routine visits to the shop, the photos outside the stadium and the photos inside the stadium.
According to the survey quoted later, United fans travel the furthest on average to watch home matches at 77 miles, but Liverpool are close behind with 74.
But let's talk about the real away fans. They have been described as arrogant and obnoxious, but no fans could match those of Leeds United, for example, in that department. It was not smart for United fans to take an Istanbul banner to Elland Road, but Leeds fans have been chanting distastefully about Munich since the 1960s, and they are far from being alone in this.
Some of the visiting fans who come to Old Trafford are frankly brilliant, and a credit to their club. For United travelling away, there is always a hard core following that represents a mere fraction of those who would like to watch the team. For example, last season at Wigan, there were probably more Reds fans than local supporters at the match.
It has been claimed that there are as many as 40,000 applications from United supporters for every away match. They are one of only four teams who had a 100 percent sellout of away allocations over a period of four seasons.
Subjectively, many would say Newcastle were the best away supporters, and last season, Blackpool scored highly in an end of season review.
The simple fact is that if Old Trafford is almost 100 percent full season after season, with a capacity of 76,000, it stands to reason that, given no limits on the number of tickets, they would have the highest away attendance. There are simply more United supporters than anyone else. End of story.
The results of a recent National Fans survey are attached below. Among the most striking conclusions that support United being the best fans were:
Of non-season ticket holders, the lowest percentage who had ever held one (eight percent), and therefore, the lowest rate of lapsed holders. Reds fans daren't give theirs up, because they wouldn't get them back.
Arsenal.Liverpool and United all had the highest percentage of fans who would only watch their own club on TV at 60 percent.
These were tough to write because there were so many to choose from. Between these two articles alone, there were 20 heroes, most of which are still sung about, talked or written about by United fans on a regular basis. Some are still playing.
The ones which would be recognised and acknowledged by football fans in general would include:
Sir Bobby Charlton
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Now. which club can match that list of lasting legends, still lauded by their fans? But those who didn't make the lists included: Peter Schmeichel, Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes and several others that fans in general would recognise.
So how is commercial revenue relevant to who are the best fans? Simply that two large components are matchday revenues and merchandising.
Now, it would be fatuous to say that United, Real Madrid or Barcelona have a bigger ground capacity, because they can only sustain this because of the size of their fan base.
A capacity of 76,000 at Old Trafford is over 99 percent full season after season. In one sense, it doesn't matter where the fans come from. Manchester City claim that most of their fans come from Manchester, but they only have a 44,000 average attendance. Who is to say that 44,000 of those in Old Trafford don't also come from Greater Manchester?
Deloittes is one of the most respected Accountancy firm in the world. Every year, they survey football business and its finances. Taking the 10 years to 2009/10, the highest overall ranked club in world football for revenues was Manchester United, with an average of 2.0, Real Madrid was 2.3 and Barcelona, 2.8, with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Milan way behind.
Clearly, average attendances are a major component matchday revenues. Only Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund have higher crowds.
One set of figures doesn't make a trend however, and, as recently as 2008/9, United had the highest average in Europe, with Barcelona third.
As far as matchday revenues are concerned, United are second only to Barcelona.
United have arguably the best and the most football songs and chants of any club in the world. Most of these originate from the famous Stretford End. These are truly great fans with an endless sense of fun and humour.
Here are 35 chants/songs about the team, most of which you will hear at Old Trafford during a season.
And 73 about past and mainly current players.
And 29 about the opposition.
Finally, 34 records about United have been commercially released.
So, which other fans in the world can match that catalogue?
Kevin Moran was the first player ever to be sent off in a FA Cup Final, in 1985. These were lean years. But the crowd got behind United as they always do, and Norman Whiteside scored the winning goal for the 10 men left on the pitch. Such is the fortitude of the team and the fans.
Although Manchester United became very popular for a wider audience from the moment Sir Matt Busby took over and created the "Busby Babes," their appeal was enhanced after the Munich disaster.
Throughout his tenure from 1945 to 1969, United were on average more successful than they had ever been before, culminating in the European Cup win in 1968.
Sadly, as soon as Sir Matt retired, the team's fortunes went steadily downhill under a succession of managers. Although they bounced straight back, they were relegated to the Second Division in 1974.
While Liverpool flourished, United slumped, which is why Sir Alex's stated aim was to knock their age old rivals "off their perch," as they duly did in 2010/11 with their 19th title.
From 1967 to 1993, the Reds only won one title: the old Second Division. While the highest they finished was second, their average position over that period was only 7.4, 10th or worse on no less than seven occasions.
In fact, apart from the European Cup, at the very end of Sir Matt's reign, United won only four FA Cups and one League Cup during that barren period.
And yet throughout the 26 years, the crowds were never less than 40,000 on average, an extraordinary testament to the fans' loyalty.
For comparison, both Real Madrid and Barcelona attendances have declined in the last 10-15 years. Barcelona averaged 87,300 in 1997 and 85,000 in 1998, down to 73,357 in 2005, and, although they have recovered recently with the club's stellar performances, 2010 crowds at 78,000 were still more than 20,000 short of the capacity of 98,900.
At various times in history and over different periods, different clubs could claim to have the best fans. In general, the reckoning can often be subjective and circumstantial.
For example, Stoke City's home crowd can fairly claim to be regarded as a "12th man." But then, so can the Old Trafford crowd when called upon by Sir Alex, but especially when they need to score a goal, are rampant in attack or are playing their main adversaries, especially Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or City.
It's hardly surprising they are quiet when West Brom or Norwich come to town. Other home crowds may be more desperate for success!
Nothing can match a European night against one of the greats like Barcelona or Juventus. The crowd was magnificent when the original Ronaldo came to town with Real Madrid—and very fair too—the great man got a standing ovation when he was substituted.
So who else comes close?
Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund or Real Madrid on numbers.
Newcastle, Spurs or Arsenal on away fans' noise.
Stoke City or Sunderland on home ground noise.
But taking consistency over at least 66 years, away ticket applications, humour, creativity and volume in chants and songs, loyalty and commitment under difficult circumstances or just driving the team to yet another last minute goal, over all counts taken together, nothing can beat the Red Devils fans.