This week the Iceland midfielder Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir voiced her frustration over the choice of venues for this summer’s women’s Euros in England. She questioned why two of her country’s games would be played at the 5,000-capacity Manchester City Academy Stadium and her remarks highlighted a number of important questions, chiefly among them whether the FA was ambitious enough in its choice of stadia and whether it has done enough to adapt to the accelerating growth of the game? Arguably, the answer to both questions is no.
There can be some sympathy towards the position the FA has found itself in four years on from crafting the bid to host the tournament. Back in August 2018, when the FA revealed its plans, and in December of that year when the solo bid was revealed to have been successful, women’s football was in a very different place.
However, the signs of potentially rapid growth were already there and were either overlooked, ignored or woefully underestimated. A staggering four million people had tuned in to watch the Lionesses’ semi-final exit to the Netherlands on Channel 4 the preceding summer. The Dutch, who hosted the tournament, rode to victory in the Euro 2017 final on an orange wave, with mass carnival-like fan walks to the grounds swamping Dutch streets before every sold-out Netherlands game.
As Gunnarsdóttir pointed out when speaking to the podcast Their Pitch: “I don’t know what’s going on in their heads or if they’re even following women’s football. Because if you would, it’s just common sense. Women’s football’s exploding, it’s getting so much better, and it’s just stupid to speak about it because it doesn’t even make sense.”
It was, and always has been, clear that major international competitions qualitatively impact the growth of the women’s game. Each tournament dramatically accelerates the development of the sport. With a World Cup in 2019 on the horizon, the launching of the WSL as a full-time professional league in September 2018 and the target of doubling the fanbase and participation domestically by 2020 in place, legitimate concerns were raised when the grounds to host the 2021 (now 2022) tournament were unveiled.
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Brighton’s Amex Stadium, Wembley Stadium and Brentford Community Stadium in London, Milton Keynes’s Stadium MK, Nottingham’s City Ground, Rotherham’s New York Stadium, Sheffield’s Bramall Lane and Southampton’s St Mary’s completed the lineup.
This list felt hugely unambitious then, and looks almost ludicrously low-key now. It seems to have been drawn up at a static moment in time, one shortly after the 2017 Euros, that looked to build on the 240,000 tickets sold across that event but was overly cautious about the likely growth of the game in the coming years.
The FA has been caught out. The governing body’s head of tournament delivery, Chris Bryant, hinted at that when he told the Guardian in March: “What I would say is that the level of expectation for women’s football is massively growing, to the extent that we’re keeping up with that and managing expectations, which is maybe not the easiest thing to do. We’re definitely doing it, but the event we deliver this summer will be far bigger than the event we planned and assumed when we were bidding. France 2019 was a massive part of that, it was a wake-up call.”
The tournament delivery ambitions have been out of sync with the strategy for the development of the women’ game in England, one that pushed for accelerated growth and predicted huge strides.
The FA was not unaware of the problem and the addition of Old Trafford as the venue for the opening game of the tournament highlighted a willingness to expand its ambitions. However, the announcement that the woefully inaccessible Leigh Sports Village, with a capacity of 12,000, would be replacing the 30,000 capacity City Ground and hosting three group games and a quarter-final was extremely disappointing.
With those changes around 700,000 tickets have been made available for the tournament. That number is far beyond the 240,000 sold (of 480,000 on offer) in 2017 with an average attendance of 7,969 but two years later at the 2019 World Cup, in neighboring France, over 1.1 million tickets were sold and the tournament had an average attendance of 21,756.
It is important to say that clubs and cities had to bid to be a part of the tournament and many top Premier League sides and councils did not throw their grounds into the mix. However, just how much pressure was put on those in positions of power and to what extent the huge potential of the tournament was explained, at a time when many clubs were still waking up to the women’s game and its potential, is unknown.
So far, eight fixtures for the Euros have sold out, including the Old Trafford opener, all of England’s group games, the Wembley final and Iceland’s two fixtures at Manchester City’s Academy Stadium, which prompted Gunnarsdóttir’s criticism. Uefa responded to Swedish website fotbollskanalen that they feel they “have the right mix of stadia”.
Gunnarsdóttir certainly did not hold back. “It’s shocking,” she said. “You’re playing in England, you have so many stadiums, and we have a training ground from City. It’s just embarrassing. Women’s football today, they’re filling out the stadiums. If you see Barcelona against Real Madrid, we have 95,000 [official attendance was 91,533] watching the game,” she said.
Two ends of the Academy Stadium are standing terraces and one end of Leigh Sports Village is also standing only – something not permitted in Uefa competitions, meaning capacity will be reduced from the 7,000 and 12,000 maximum capacities respectively, or a temporary seating solution will have to be found.
The psychological impact of hosting games at the biggest and best stadia is often overlooked. Those grounds have a pull as the twice sold-out Nou Camp for Barcelona’s Champions League quarter-final and semi-final or the WSL record-breaking crowd of 38,262 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in November 2019 demonstrate. More importantly though, putting the women’s game on the biggest and best stages shows it is valued, is being championed and it is not second best.
If we want fans to treat the women’s game the same way they do the men’s game, then women’s football has to be treated the same way by the FA, clubs and other footballing bodies.