EURO 2022: An opportunity to take centre stage

THE UEFA Women’s European Championship kicks off on July 6, 2022 and ticket sales have been very encouraging. Ordinarily, the summer of 2022 would have had a World Cup in the way of the women’s competition, which may have tempered enthusiasm and affected attendances. As it is, EURO 2022 has the opportunity to demonstrate positive momentum and growing appetite for the women’s game, with no distractions.

In 2017, the average attendance at the Euros was down on 2013 by around 700 people per game. The average was 7,969 but already, 410,000 tickets have been sold for the competition. Presumably, 80,000 tickets represent the Wembley final, but even so, the response from the public has been strong and the average crowd should beat all previous Euros (currently, 1989’s average of 8,875 is the record). No wonder UEFA are billing it as “the biggest ever”.

This is an important tournament for women’s football in England. Crowds at Women’s Super League (WSL) games do not seem to be increasing, even though the PR suggests they are on the rise. Certainly, there is no shortage of publicity and the presence of women on the punditry stage reflects a welcome attempt to introduce greater diversity across football, but as a spectator sport, it still has a long way to go, diluting any call for pay equality. More noise doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in popularity, no matter how convincing the campaign.

The WSL wants to triple attendances by 2024, so a successful EURO 2022 could provide a boost towards achieving that objective. Football habits die hard, though, and in order to lure more people to women’s games, those who regularly watch men’s football have to be persuaded that the quality and substance is there. The standard among the top clubs is quite good, but already the WSL has noticeable imbalances that are almost a mirror image of the men’s game – for example, the top teams are: Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United.

It does seem as though it is going to be a very competitive European Championship, with no fewer than half a dozen nations capable of winning the trophy. The favourites, unsurprisingly, are Spain, who are in a tough group that includes Germany, Denmark and Finland. Although they will be without their record scorer, Jenni Hermoso, who recently signed for Mexico’s Pacucha and has been ruled out with a ligament injury, Spain still have many of the all-star Barcelona line-up that won the Champions League in 2021. Irene Paredes, Alexia Putellas, Aitana Bonmati and Mapi Leon will all be available. The Spain squad comprises 19 of a squad of 23 from Barca, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid.

England are second favourites with most bookmakers, with host nation status expected to help them along. But importantly, they have a coach with a good track record in Sarina Wiegman, who led the Netherlands to the 2017 title. She has also shown her professionalism in excluding the partially fit Steph Houghton from the squad, resisting the temptation to include her for old time’s sake. The squad, as one would expect, is largely drawn from the top four clubs, with Manchester City providing nine of the 23. With Austria, Northern Ireland and Norway in their group, England should get through quite comfortably.

The holders, the Netherlands, should get through their group alongside Sweden, who are also highly-fancied. The Dutch are coached by Englishman Mark Parsons, who made his name in the US. He has a squad that includes nine of the side that won the 2017 final, including the player of that tournament, Lieke Martens, who is now 29. Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema, who scored 23 goals in 39 games in 2021-22, is also likely to catch the eye.

France are currently third favourites and will face Italy, Belgium and Iceland in their group. Almost half the squad has been drawn from European champions Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, including France’s imposing captain Wendie Renard, Melvine Malard (both Lyon) and PSG’s free-scoring Marie-Antoinette Katoto.

In addition to these four countries, Germany, Norway, Denmark and Sweden cannot be discounted. It should make for an interesting and ideal 16-team tournament, one that will be more open than many past European Championships and World Cups across both genders.

But no summer competition is without its controversy and there’s been – with some justification – complaints about the choice of venues. Old Trafford, Brighton, Southampton, Brentford, Milton Keynes, Bramall Lane are decent stadiums, but the use of Manchester City’s academy ground, next to the Etihad, seems a little inappropriate. Other games are being played at Leigh and Rotherham. With the greatest respect to these sites, and the City stadium is a nice, compact arena, but if UEFA want to raise the profile and credibility of their product, the right stage has to be available. The decision to appoint these grounds suggests they are a lack of priority. At a time when women’s football is building a reputation and momentum, it deserves better. What was the Football Association thinking, especially when it has poured so much energy into promoting women’s football? But this is not going to be allowed to dampen the enthusiasm for this summer’s biggest football event.

It’s hard to name a winner, but there’s one thing that’s certain in EURO 2022 – there will not be a repeat of the scenes we witnessed at Wembley last summer. Get ready for the well behaved fan experience.

Europe gets the women’s Champions League

IT WAS an astonishing occasion and a landmark for women’s football – 91,500 people watching the Champions League quarter-final between Barcelona and Real Madrid. This crowd owed as much to the enduring appeal of El Clásico as it did the appeal of the women’s game, but it also underlined the fact Barcelona are the best in the world right now.

When the two clubs met in the first leg, the crowd was just 3,318 at the Alfredo Di Stefano stadium. Clearly there was a lot of marketing around the second leg and despite the weather, it worked. The crowd of 91,500 even put the men’s Clásico – crowd of 86,422 – into the shade. If the rain had held off, they might have had even more people in the Camp Nou as they had sold 99,000 tickets!

Most of the Champions League quarter-finals had promising crowds. Apart from that Real-Barca first leg, the smallest attendances was the 5,018 that went to Arsenal versus Wolfsburg at the Emirates. What a pity the game, involving the only English club left in the competition, could only attract a sub-10,000 gate. By WSL standards, 5,000 was a very decent crowd, but switching to the Emirates should have attracted a much better turnout. Over the two legs, Arsenal’s answer to Wolfsburg’s high-octane approach – along with the way Chelsea were dismantled by Barca last season – reminded the WSL it still has some way to go, despite its preference for hiring big names.

Elsewhere, Paris Saint-Germain drew over 27,000 against Bayern, Juventus versus Lyon in Turin (the appointed venue for the final) was watched by 9,000-plus and Wolfsburg’s second leg win against the Gunners had a crowd of 11,000. 

Of course, the competition is the pinnacle of the club game, so it should be well supported, but it should not overlook the fact crowds are still not flocking to bread and butter league games. Barcelona Feminí usually play in front of less than 3,000 at their home games. They have won all 25 of their league fixtures, scoring an average of more than five per game and have conceded just seven goals.

The average crowd across the Women’s Super League is around 1,600 but France’s top division barely draws 1,000 per game, although Lyon have an average of 4,500. Germany is trailing at present and its average this season is 700 with Eintracht Frankfurt the best supported at 1,300. 

The WSL gets a lot of publicity, but general interest still seems lack lustre compared to the enthusiasm for the women’s national team. The Football Association’s ambition of 6,000 crowds for the WSL by 2024 looks a considerable ask at the moment and the pandemic may have put back that aspiration by a year or two. Hosting the European Championship this summer may provide a boost, but will the expected upsurge interest extend beyond internationals?

It is hard to see anyone stopping Barcelona from retaining the Champions League trophy they won so impressively last season. They have lost just one league game in three seasons and they are packed with star names, such as Alexia Putellas, the 28 year-old midfielder who fulfilled her dream as a young girl of playing for Barca. She’s also Spain’s most-capped player. Barca also have Caroline Graham Hansen (Norway), Jenni Hermoso (Spain), Irene Paredes (Spain), Lieke Martens (Netherlands), Aitana Bonmati (Spain) and Mapi León (Spain) in their squad.

Barcelona meet Wolfsburg  and Lyon and PSG provide an all-French tie in the semi-finals. These are four of the top five teams in Europe according to UEFA’s club co-efficients, so the quality couldn’t really be any higher. These should get the turnstiles clicking again.

Mirror image – UWCL includes familiar names

THE UEFA Women’s Champions League has reached the quarter-final stage and the eight teams involved are: Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Wolfsburg. It could almost read like the A to Z of men’s football in Europe, with the exception of Lyon and Wolfsburg. Five of the eight have appeared in at least seven quarter-finals in the past decade and in the past five years, six have taken part in at least four. The men’s game has actually been less polarised since 2017-18.

Clearly, money talks in the women’s game almost as much as it does with men. The leading clubs are almost all affiliated to elite European clubs and unsurprisingly, those teams are dominant in their domestic leagues. Of the last eight of the Champions League, the leaders in Spain (Barcelona), France (Lyon), Germany (Wolfsburg), Italy (Juventus) and England (Arsenal) are all in the mix. While men’s football took decades to create huge imbalances, women’s football seems to have reached that stage at a rather extraordinary speed.

Barcelona, the holders, demonstrated how superb their team was when they swept Chelsea’s women aside in 2020-21 in the Champions League final. In the league this season, Barca have won all 24 of their games, scoring an astonishing 136 goals and conceding just six. They have already been crowned champions. Likewise, Lyon are unbeaten in France, winning 16 of their 17 games and PSG, Arsenal, Juventus and Arsenal have all lost just one game each. 

The elite in women’s football have financial strength and this enables them to lure the top players to their clubs. For example, the Guardian’s top 100 women footballers, published at the end of 2021, included 13 from Barcelona, 10 each from Lyon and PSG, nine from both Arsenal and Chelsea and eight from Bayern Munich. In total, the current last eight of the Champions League accounted for 58% of the top 100.

The Women’s Super League in England is dominated by three clubs: Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. Chelsea have won five titles since 2015 while Manchester City have been runners-up six times in that same period. Arsenal’s most recent championship win was in 2019, although they lead the table in 2021-22.

Interest is growing in the women’s game in England and the average WSL crowd is now around 1,600 with Arsenal the biggest draw with gates of just under 2,600. Chelsea average 2,500 and Manchester City 2,200 and another half dozen generate more than 1,000 with Manchester United just under 2,000. There’s no shortage of media coverage these days and the profile of women’s football is growing all the time. Currently, there is considerable momentum behind the levelling up of wages, notably in the FA Cup, but while the highest level of women’s football has attendances comparable to step two or three non-league, advocates will have to be prepared for a long game.

Only one WSL team has won the Champions League or its equivalent, Arsenal in 2007, who beat Swedish side Umeå 1-0 on aggregate. The winning goal was scored by none other than BBC pundit Alex Scott and the combined crowd from the two games struggled to get to 10,000. The last Champions League final with a crowd drew almost 20,000. This year’s final will be played in Turin.

The names might be familiar, but the Champions League should make for compelling viewing over the coming weeks. Can anyone really stop the Barcelona machine?

Quarter-final draw: Bayern Munich v PSG (22 March, 30 March); Juventus v Lyon (23 March, 31 March); Arsenal v Wolfsburg (23 March, 31 March); Real v Barcelona (22 March, 30 March).