As the penultimate round of qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup approaches this weekend, a special survey by EurodataTV Worldwide and TV Sports Markets analysing live free-to-air coverage of international football shows qualification matches are still a sure-fire guarantee of big television audiences, despite the difficulties some agencies and federations are currently having selling the rights.

The French football federation has yet to agree a new television deal, three months after putting the rights on the market, and no UK broadcaster was willing to show England’s final 2010 World Cup qualifier against the Ukraine this weekend.

However the survey shows that 2010 World Cup qualifiers draw average audience shares of close to 35 per cent in the top five European markets, the kind of shares matched only by top soaps and reality television programmes.

Audiences for 2010 World Cup qualifying matches so far, up to this weekend’s penultimate round of fixtures, have nonetheless fallen in four of the five markets in comparison to the Euro 2008 qualifying campaigns. Audiences in Germany are down 12 per cent, Italy 10 per cent, France seven per cent and the UK two per cent. The exception is Spain, where audiences have increased nine per cent, no doubt boosted by the national team’s status as European Champions.

In the US, ESPN’s coverage of 10 USA World Cup qualifiers has drawn an average 677,000 viewers, with a top audience of one million for the away game against Honduras in June. The reverse fixture, however, will only be shown in Latin American bars and restaurants after the Mediapro agency failed to reach a deal for the match.

In Japan, national team qualifiers have slightly less pull, drawing an average 3.5 million viewers and 27 per cent audience share for commercial channel TV Asahi. These shares are nonetheless more than double its average prime time audience share of 12 per cent.