Football matches are often among the most viewed television broadcasts in a given year in the UK, especially when England are playing in a major international tournament.
Knockout games will typically command the biggest audiences, rather than group stage games, as the hype and interest will develop as a tournament progress.
Club games usually don’t have the same uniting characteristics and are only watched in the 10s of millions for big finals. Historically most games weren’t available to watch live on television and more recently the majority of games that are available require a subscription.
Free to air will always bring in bigger audiences than anything requiring payment.
So many factors can also determine how many people watch a particular football match, including timing or day of the week. For example, you won’t see a single game from the 2002 World Cup on this list because of the awkward timing of morning or lunchtime kick-offs.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the most watched football matches on UK television…
19. Romania vs England (1998) – 19.5m
The success of Euro ‘96 saw football enjoy renewed popularity from the mid-1990s onwards, feeding into the 1998 World Cup two years later.
An audience of 19.5m watched England’s second group game against Romania, although the fact it ended in a 2-1 defeat when Dan Petrescu scored a last minute winner perhaps explains why the following game against Colombia didn’t make this list.
18. Sweden vs England (2018) – 19.6m
England fans allowed themselves to believe a little in 2018 when the Three Lions reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup against Sweden. It was a favourable tie and England had little trouble securing a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli.
The only thing that likely stopped more people from watching was that it was an afternoon kick-off rather than in the evening.
17. AC Milan vs Liverpool (2005) – 20m
Liverpool played in their first European Cup/Champions League final in 21 years in 2005 when they faced AC Milan in Istanbul, which is one of the all-time great finals thanks to the Reds’ heroic comeback from being 3-0 down.
It drew a larger audience than the 17.5m who tuned in for the all-English final between Manchester United and Chelsea in 2008, while the re-match between Liverpool and Milan in 2007 only drew the UK audience of the 2005 encounter. More recently, Champions League viewing figures have been impacted by the competition being withdrawn from terrestrial TV.
Just over 11m watched Liverpool beat Tottenham across all BT Sport platforms in 2019, but fewer than 9m tuned in for Chelsea’s victory over Manchester City in 2021.
16. England vs Germany (2021) – 20.6m
A TV audience in excess of 20m watched England beat Germany in the Euro 2020 last 16 clash at Wembley, making it England’s first tournament knockout win over the Germans in 51 years.
Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane scored the decisive goals in a 2-0 win on an historic night that made England fans believe a first international trophy since 1966 might be more realistic than the blind hope up to that point.
15. Portugal vs England (2004) – 20.7m
Euro 2004 is the one that got away for England. A teenage Wayne Rooney burst into life during the group stage, prompting a TV audience of 20.7m for the quarter-final against Portugal.
But the nation was left in tears as Rooney hobbled off with a broken foot and Portugal scored a late equaliser to force extra-time after England had led for most of the game. England themselves had to equalise after going behind in the additional 30 minutes, only to lose on penalties.
14. Ukraine vs England (2021) – 20.9m
Euro 2020 grew and grew after the last 16 win over Germany and the audience swelled to 20.9m for the subsequent clash with Ukraine in the quarter-finals.
It was a different kind of match for England, with Gareth Southgate’s team letting the shackles off and enjoying a 4-0 rout against an opponent that had already overachieved to get so far.
There were two goals for Harry Kane and one each for Raheem Sterling and Harry Maguire in an emphatic performance in Rome.
13. Brazil vs France (1998) – 22.2m
England were long out of the 1998 World Cup by the final, but there was still a UK television audience of over 22m split between BBC and ITV for the eagerly awaited clash between France and Brazil in Paris.
This was supposed to be Ronaldo’s final, but the Brazilian prodigy suffered a mysterious fit in the build up to the game, was withdrawn from the lineup, then reinstated, but was clearly not himself. France took full advantage and Zinedine Zidane’s headed brace inspired a 3-0 win.
12. Cameroon vs England (1990) – 23.6m
Having seen the team win in the last minute of extra-time in the previous round against Belgium, England fans would have been well aware that a 1990 World Cup quarter-final against Cameroon was provided a very good opportunity to reach a first semi-final since 1966.
Fans were treated to a tense and nerve-wracking game. Cameroon had been the tournament’s surprise package up to that point and were leading 2-1 until Gary Lineker scored a late penalty. Another Lineker penalty in extra-time eventually sealed a 3-2 win.
11. Colombia vs England (2018) – 23.6m
After more than a decade of poor England performances at international tournaments, the class of 2018 really got the English public back behind the national team. That hype of good feeling pulled in a TV audience of 23.6m for the last 16 match against Colombia.
It was a tetchy affair that England were on course to win in normal time until a stoppage time equaliser. But it gave the team chance to exorcise plenty of national demons by emerging victorious on penalties for the first time in 22 long years.
10. Argentina vs England (1998) – 23.8m
In 1998, England faced old enemies Argentina in a World Cup match for the first time since 1986 when the best and worst of Diego Maradona was the difference between the sides. This was also England’s first World Cup knockout game for eight years.
It was an exciting game as the sides traded early blows, including a wonder goal from Michael Owen, and it was 2-2 by half-time. England later had David Beckham sent off and a would be winner disallowed, before losing on penalties.
9. Germany vs England (1996) – 23.8m
Euro ’96 really served as the reawakening of English football in popular culture. ‘Three Lions’ was capturing the imagination of the public and a strong England side playing on home soil reached the semi-finals, where they were to meet old adversaries Germany at Wembley.
The game is known for England’s iconic grey kits, Darren Anderton hitting the post in extra-time and Paul Gascoigne also coming within inches of turning the ball in. Gareth Southgate was the unfortunate party when he missed his penalty in the shootout that saw England crash out.
8. Liverpool vs Club Brugge (1978) – 23.9m
Liverpool became Europe’s dominant club side from the late 1970s onwards and a TV audience of close to 24m watched their 1978 European Cup final against Club Brugge. The fact it was being played on English soil at Wembley probably added to the occasion for millions of people tuning in at home up and down the country.
Liverpool were already reigning European champions and a single second half goal from Kenny Dalglish was enough for the Reds to retain their title.
7. Bayern Munich vs Leeds (1975) – 24.2m
Leeds were England’s team of the early and mid-1970s, culminating in an appearance in the 1975 European Cup final against holders Bayern Munich.
It had been a dramatic few months for the club, with legendary manager Don Revie stepping down to take over as England boss at the end of the previous season, followed by Brian Clough’s infamous 44 days in charge. Jimmy Armfield was then appointed and took them to the final.
There was a huge audience watching back home, but Bayern won 2-0 in Paris thanks to goals from Franz Roth and Gerd Muller.
6. Benfica vs Man Utd (1968) – 26m
As the first ever English club to reach a European Cup final, Manchester United’s clash with Benfica at Wembley in 1968 saw an audience of 26m tune in to watch George Best and Bobby Charlton put the Portuguese giants to the sword in extra-time.
It was a huge moment for the club, having had to rebuild following the Munich air disaster 10 years earlier, but also for English football as whole as European competition and continental glory became an increasingly important target and aspiration for all clubs.
5. West Germany vs England (1990) – 26.2m
The 1990 World Cup is responsible for several of England’s all-time iconic moments as well as spawning a significant cultural legacy. On the pitch, the TV audiences kept growing the further Bobby Robson’s team progressed in the tournament, peaking in the semi-final.
More people watched this World Cup semi-final than would go on to watch the 2012 London Olympics opening or closing ceremonies 22 years later. But the vast support back home couldn’t get England over the line, with a 1-1 draw, resulting in extra time and a painful penalty shootout defeat.
4. England vs Denmark (2021) – 26.3m
A favourable Euro 2020 semi-final against Denmark stood between England and a first major international final in men’s football for 51 years, pulling in one of the biggest audiences in British television history. As with most tournaments, the hype and interest in the team’s fortunes had been building through the previous rounds.
The game itself didn’t disappoint. England got the job done in the end but they were made to work for it. An own goal from Denmark captain Simon Kjaer cancelled out an early Danish strike from Mikkel Damsgaard, while Harry Kane converted a penalty rebound in extra-time.
3. Croatia vs England (2018) – 26.5m
Few expected England to do well at the 2018 World Cup, not least because England had been consistently underperforming at major tournaments for over a decade by that point. But there was something different about Gareth Southgate’s squad that made the country fall in love again.
England even had one foot in the World Cup final when Kieran Trippier scored an early free-kick, only for Croatia to come from behind to win 2-1 in extra-time and go through instead.
With England out and the previous level of hype and interest quashed, only an audience of 11.4m was recorded for the final between France and Croatia. It is the UK’s lowest TV audience for a World Cup final since the current monitoring system was implemented in 1981.
2. Chelsea vs Leeds (1970) – 28.5m
In many ways, Chelsea and Leeds was the perfect footballing rivalry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, bringing together opposing styles from different parts of the country. They were also two of the best teams around in 1970 in particular.
The original final at Wembley finished in a 2-2 draw and the nature of the first game in conjunction with the existing rivalry fed the national intrigue surrounding the replay at Old Trafford nearly three weeks later – there were no penalty shootouts in those days. As a result, the replay remains one of the most watched broadcasts in the history of British television. Chelsea eventually won it.
In more recent years, FA Cup final viewing figures have typically been around the 8m or 9m mark.
1. England vs West Germany (1966) – 32.3m
On 30 July 1966, England as a nation effectively stood still to watch Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and the rest face Germany in the World Cup final.
More people watched that single game than any other broadcast in the history of UK television, with over 32m sets of eyes on the match at Wembley via screens in living rooms all over the country.
Marginally fewer people watched the funeral of Princess Diana 31 years later, or the iconic moment that the Apollo 13 splashed down back to earth in the Pacific Ocean in 1970.
Hurst’s hat-trick in the 4-2 victory meant that England lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy, creating a moment in the national psyche that will never die.