A match at a sold-out Old Trafford or Wembley was unimaginable in women’s football for a long time. That is a fact at the upcoming European Championship, which starts on Wednesday with England-Austria at Old Trafford. More and more fans are finding matches in women’s football, breaking record after record.
Sherida Spitse could well remember the atmosphere of her debut match for the Orange Women recently. It was sixteen years ago, at the Charlton Athletic stadium, against England. Less than 8,000 people were in the stands of the then Premier League club.
In Spitse’s sixteen-year international career, public interest in women’s football has exploded. Two weeks ago, nearly twenty thousand people were in the stands of the Leeds United stadium for the friendly match between England and the Netherlands.
That number is in stark contrast to the upcoming European Championship, which will provide a new spectator record. UEFA reported on Friday that a total of 500,000 tickets had been sold, shattering the old European Championship record. That stands at 240,000 tickets sold at the European Championship in the Netherlands five years ago. 700,000 tickets have been made available for the European Championship in England.
The development of women’s football can also be seen in the stadium in which the final is played. The Orange Women conquered the European title five years ago in De Grolsch Veste, the stadium of FC Twente that can accommodate 30,000 fans.
The iconic Wembley has been chosen as the final stadium for the European Championship in England. That turned out not to be a megalomaniac plan: the 87,200 tickets were sold out within an hour in March. Tickets are no longer available for the opening match of the tournament, the one between host country England and Austria at Old Trafford. That means that more than 74,000 people are at the game.
FC Barcelona played twice in a sold-out Camp Nou, which led to a new spectator record.
Also club teams in large stadiums
In women’s football, the sold-out matches in large stadiums do not come out of the blue. The women are also increasingly able to fill the mega stadiums of the men, even though lower entrance fees are charged for women and most clubs play their league matches in a small accommodation or on a training or amateur complex.
For example, FC Barcelona made a breakthrough in women’s football last season by playing the Champions League matches against arch-rival Real Madrid and VfL Wolfsburg in Camp Nou. Both matches were sold out within a few days, setting a new spectator record in club football (91,648 fans).
For star player Alèxia Putellas, who tore her anterior cruciate ligament on Tuesday, those matches marked the beginning of a new era in women’s football. “The match has inspired a lot of people, especially girls who have come to the stadium or watched on television. We will reap the benefits of this in the future. This will make many girls dream.”
More and more clubs are tackling: for example, the women of Arsenal, the club of Vivianne Miedema, will play six times in the Emirates Stadium from next season. That happened four times in the past season. In the Netherlands, The Classic between Feyenoord and Ajax was played in De Kuip in May.
The increasing stadium attendance in England is partly due to the growing interest from the media. 35 matches in the Women’s Super League have been broadcast live by Sky Sports, the country’s largest sports channel, since last season.
Iceland has to play two group matches in the small Manchester City Academy Stadium.
Also criticism: Iceland in a mini stadium
Although the European Championship will set a spectator record, UEFA has also been criticized. At Iceland, they are furious that they have to complete their group matches against Belgium and Italy at the Manchester City Academy Stadium. Because UEFA forbids standing, only 4,700 fans are allowed.
“This is disrespectful to women’s football,” said Icelandic star player Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir, who plays for Olympique Lyonnais. “It’s so much bigger than people think. You think women’s football is going to take two steps forward at this European Championship, but now it’s taking a step back.”
“I don’t know what’s on their minds or if the organizers follow women’s football a bit. Women’s football is exploding today. It’s so much better than this. This makes no sense at all.”
The tournament organization decided not to look for another location after Gunnarsdóttir’s harsh criticism. The matches in the mini stadium in Bradford are therefore a slur on a tournament that raises women’s football to unprecedented heights.