A record number of spectators, a new highest attendance in England and sell-out crowds. Euro 2022 will provide further proof, if any was needed, of the direction women’s football is travelling in.
Around 410,000 tickets have already been sold for the 31 matches to date, dwarfing the overall attendance at the 2017 competition, which saw 240,000 fans attend across matches in Holland. The sport is riding a wave of momentum and more and more fans are gripping on for the ride.
It has already been a watershed year following the incredible scenes at Camp Nou during the Women’s Champions League. The attendance record for the female game was broken in March as a sold-out 91,553 crowd watched the quarter-final second-leg between Barcelona and Real Madrid. A month later, the record was broken again as 91,648 watched Barcelona beat German side Wolfsburg 5-1 in the first-leg of their semi-final.
Wembley will host the Euro 2022 final this summer, which has already sold out
In England, too, records have fallen. The FA Cup final between Chelsea and Manchester City saw 49,094 packed into Wembley – a record for a domestic fixture in the UK. More than 22,000 went to St James’ Park to watch a fourth tier game, too, involving Newcastle United Women’s.
With interest soaring, the expectation is that a summer tournament will only help the sport capture the imagination of many more – both in the UK and further afield.
It is why there have been eyebrows raised and criticism thrown at UEFA and the FA for some stadium choices at a tournament that possesses the potential to take the game to new heights.
Some players have taken umbridge with some of the venues, such as the Academy Stadium
Financially and optically, ticket sales are key. UEFA have been keen to blow their own trumpet about the early success of getting bums on seats for the tournament.
The final at Wembley is already a sell-out, ensuring a record attendance for the showpiece, while seven other matches are already at capacity, including two quarter-finals and two of England’s group games. Their third – the tournament opener at Old Trafford – has only a handful of hospitality seats in the Stretford End still available for sale.
The other three matches sold out at this stage are being hosted by Academy Stadium, the home of WSL side Manchester City. It’s a good look, until the numbers get in the way.
Based in the club’s Etihad Campus, the stadium has a capacity of just 4,700 for the tournament, due to UEFA’s ban on standing. That’s below the average attendance for group games not including the host country in 2017.
It is this ground in particular that has angered players. Most vocal among them Lyon and Iceland midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir.
The Scandinavian nation feel they have drawn a short straw with two of their group games slated for the tournament’s smallest venue. The country took an average of 2,000-3,000 fans to each Euro 2017 match and their allocations for Manchester – around 700 – sold out in minutes, leaving family members of the squad struggling to attend.
‘I am disappointed with the arenas we have been given,’ said the Iceland captain, whose side will play against Group D rivals Italy and Belgium in Sportcity.
Leigh Sports Village – which plays hosts to WSL matches – is another ground being used
‘It’s shocking – we play a tournament in England with several large arenas, and we get to play at a training facility that takes around 5,000 spectators.
‘It’s just embarrassing and it’s not the respect we deserve. They haven’t prepared for the fact that we can sell more than 4,000, it is disrespectful to women’s football.’
UEFA immediately bit back. ‘Manchester City Academy is not a training ground. It is the official home stadium of Manchester City Women’s Football Club,’ a spokesperson responded.
‘It has been used previously for Uefa Women’s Champions League fixtures and will generate a great atmosphere worthy of a Women’s Euro.’
Theground is one of two that will hold less than 10,000. Leigh Sports Village – the home of Manchester United Women’s team – will have a capacity of 8,100 due to the same restrictions placed on the Etihad Campus. It will host group games involving Portugal, Switzerland, Holland and Sweden, as well as one quarter-final.
‘If you want to give women’s football the space to grow, get more spectators and actually have that pressure on matches,’ Sweden’s captain Caroline Seger said back in November.
‘[UEFA] have always said that it will be the biggest championship in women’s football ever, but then I have a very hard time seeing why you choose the arenas you do.
Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir has voiced her frustration over the choices of venue this summer
‘Give women’s football what it deserves and the arenas that actually take people so that we can show the football that is played and that you get the absolute best conditions to invite the audience to it.’
The frustration of the likes of Gunnarsdottir, given the boom in the women’s game, is understandable. Having been part of a Champions League winning side that lifted the trophy in front of 32,257 fans in May, a European Championship clash in front of less than 5,000 is undeniably a huge step down.
From UEFA’s point of view, though, there are mitigating circumstances. Their final list of venues was submitted three years ago, but moreover there was a balance to be struck.
While wanting to allow as many fans as possible to attend, they were also keen to avoid swathes of empty seats being picked up by television cameras – images any organiser wishes to avoid.
Indeed, hundreds of thousands of the cheapest tickets are still available for matches at most venues, which include Premier League ground St Mary’s, the Amex Stadium and Brentford Community Stadium. EFL grounds Stadium MK, Rotherham’s New York Stadium and Bramall Lane will also host games.
‘It’s natural if your match is sold out then you want to be in a bigger stadium, I understand the comments,’ UEFA women’s football chief Nadine Kessler told Sportsmail last month.
‘The women’s Euro in the Netherlands, the average match attendance without the Dutch team involved was 5,500. We picked pretty big stadia. In England, there is of course Wembley and Old Trafford but there is three or four 30,000 (stadiums) in there, another over 15,000 and then two smaller ones.
‘The concept back then was really to just have a variety to be able to be flexible and have different capacities to choose from whilst also going for those host cities that genuinely wanted to be part of this bid.
‘You have to reach for the highest possible ambition without losing reality. That’s the true honest answer to [choosing] the Man City Academy.’
Rachael Corsie and her Scotland colleagues were left frustrated by SFA’s ticketing approach
Striking the balance is a perilous task, as demonstrated by the row between Scotland’s players and the SFA earlier this year.
An orchestrated Twitter campaign by players, including Chelsea’s Erin Cuthbert, attacked the ticketing strategy at Hampden ahead of a World Cup qualifier with Spain after only certain areas of the ground were made available to purchase.
The country’s association hit back, insisting that their measures followed the same workings as for a men’s game and suggesting demand was not at a similar level. Captain Rachel Corsie suggested inequality was at work.
The Scotland players used the crowds at Camp Nou this season to justify their anger at the lack of belief being shown in just how strong appetite is for the women’s game. Chelsea boss Emma Hayes is another that agrees those scenes must serve as inspiration.
‘I’ve said it before; Barcelona should serve as an example to us all, on and off the pitch,’ Hayes said in April this year.
‘For us now it’s a big summer for England, sell out grounds, sell out stadiums.
‘We have to push the big, big games in a much bigger way. We need to commit the right marketing to Wembley and the FA Cup final and every stadium for the Euros.’
Hayes is thinking bigger, as are Gunnarsdottir and Seger. UEFA might want to consider joining them if the game is to reach its full potential.
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