England’s Women: Time to come out of the shadow
Walking inside Wembley is normally quite a stressful experience for a football fan; tension, excitement, and normally a sense of impending disappointment (if you support England at least). Sunday was no different in result but there was a different atmosphere that filled the 90,000 capacity stadium in north London on this particular drizzly afternoon.
On Sunday, England’s women walked out to the biggest audience in their history when they faced one of the world’s elite forces, and our old rival, Germany. It was their first time playing at the new stadium and the event certainly surpassed the expectations publicised in broadsheets and online.
The obvious skeptic would say before the game that, “of course people will go if you’re selling tickets for a quid,” and “ it’s not a real football game though”, but the attendance alone could shut up any critic.
Tickets sales had to be capped because of tube line maintenance that closed Jubilee and Metropolitan lines direct to Wembley Park station, with the full brunt of traffic coming through the Bakerloo lines.
By the time myself and other members of WNOL Sport got to the stadium, you could see all of the hard work organisers and the FA had gone to make this a “must see” game after the Guardian reported that ‘The FA in effect banned women’s football for 50 years in 1921, deeming it quite unsuitable for females.’ The majority of girl’s football matches in the region were suspended to encourage attendance and to provide the biggest motivation for any young girl who thought becoming a footballer could only be a hobby, and not a career.
I really enjoyed the game, more than I originally anticipated, and it wasn’t because of the party atmosphere. The skill of the women on the pitch was higher than probably anyone in the crowd was expecting, and the way they put their bodies on the line for every tackle showed their class. They certainly lived up to their rowdy reputation as the fiercer of England’s team.
The publicity after the game lent its support for the addition of further games and established a real need for mixed gender sport on television. It did, as expected, throw up questions asking the real viability of acquiring a mass fan base but personally there were some other questions that tested the validity of women’s football to the existing audience who turned up on Sunday.
Firstly, why was the fan base so different to that of what we see normally at a Premier League clash or England men’s friendly? It was the perfect game to bring your family to admittedly, as it didn’t contain some of the thuggish storylines that have previously accompanied a football match, but where were the stereotypical English bulldog fans that follow the national men’s team, good or bad?
Do the women who play in these historical games also notice the difference in audience, and more importantly do they mind? Representing your country should be a greater honour than playing for your club and sometimes the men forget that. The women have a chance to change opinions but not when there is so little coverage of them.
Great, they play at Wembley, and that is a pivotal moment, but they need to do the rounds at Fulham, QPR, and Southampton and show the country they have what it takes, not just a one off at Wembley.
I propose the focus should be on marketing their game based on the skill and personality of the players, and to market the matches and stadium as highly as the men’s. In the brochure that came out with Sundays match, there was an advert for tyres using a woman as the person holding the tyre, something unconventional and provoking. Ticket prices also need to be assessed. Although it is a different experience to some men’s matches, it isn’t a charity event. Football is more lucrative than most sporting outlets and prices need to reflect what you’re watching, so rather than £15 compared to £35 in men’s matches, lets reduce the gap but still put on a better show.
Men’s football is never out of the spotlight, but more often or not, not for the action on the pitch. Women’s football has a real chance if the marketing is done right, and if done right the World Cup in Canada, only months away, could get England’s best result yet.
Picture Credits: Jon Candy and Jessica Borrell