England head coach Phil Neville has called on FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL) clubs to “open their stadiums” after Juventus and Atlético Madrid welcomed record-breaking numbers of fans to recent league games against Barcelona and Fiorentina, respectively.
More than 60,000 watched Atlético take on Toni Duggan’s side last month, while a little less than 40,000 were in attendance to see Sofie Junge Pedersen score a late winner in a clash at the top of Serie A.
Attendances in the FA WSL regularly struggle to surpass 2,000 at the top end and even 1,000 in the bottom half with games at men’s team’s stadium at a premium.
While calling upon the top clubs, including FA Women’s Championship leaders Manchester United, to bring games to their main stadiums, Neville also believes the FA WSL has a better foundation for increased growth than some of its European counterparts.
“Looking at the attendances in our league on Sunday, I would say that’s better than the one-off games in Italy or Spain,” said Neville.
“There were over 1,500 at Solihull to watch Birmingham versus Arsenal, over 2,000 at Kingsmeadow, we’ve got a good foundation and I see games in Spain where there are 100 to 150 people watching. As a baseline, I think we’ve got a bit more sustainability. What I would say is now there are some teams, the big teams, who have got to open their big stadiums and fill them. Let’s blow the rest of Europe away because I think the game in this country is at a far better place than what it is in Spain or Italy.”
Arsenal’s win at Birmingham on Sunday, coupled with Manchester United’s win at Tottenham, means there’s a distinct chance both titles will be won before the final day of the season on May 11th.
With both Joe Montemurro’s and Casey Stoney’s sides playing at home on the final day, Neville wants to see games played away from Borehamwood and Leigh Sports Village to bring in larger crowds.
“If Man United or Arsenal win the league, throw open your stadium,” he said passionately. “Chelsea have a big Champions League game, why not play it at Stamford Bridge? I think now my players are at a level where our big clubs have got to open their stadiums and let’s blow away the rest of Europe.”
Neville added, regarding giving away free tickets to games: “Why not? Man United let people in for free at Leigh so why can’t you let them in for free at Old Trafford? Why can’t you fill Stamford Bridge for the Lyon game? It would be incredible.
“I was at Wolfsburg in midweek, Bev [Priestman] was at PSG, and those are the kind of atmospheres we need. They were electric and people will laugh but even when I went to Chelsea’s home game and there was a bit of a kerfuffle before the game, it told me the women’s game was going places.”
A coach carrying PSG fans to the first leg last month was searched by police, who found knives, knuckle dusters, and Class A drugs on board, as well as criminal damage caused to Kingsmeadow on the morning of the game.
In the return leg, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes praised the PSG fans for the atmosphere created and while not condoning the behavior of the minority, it appears it had a similar effect on the England head coach.
“I know it wasn’t a nice thing but it told me the women’s game is important now. I don’t want any of the rubbish but fans aren’t just turning up now to bring their kids or eat the chips, they’re coming because they want to support their team.”
England can expect to be playing in front of capacity crowds in France this summer and have had prior experience of partisan atmospheres after facing hosts Netherlands at Euro 2017 and the 2015 World Cup hosts Canada in Vancouver four years ago.
More than 22,000 were in attendance for the recent SheBelieves Cup encounter against the United States and Neville admits he wants to “expose” his players to such occasions.
“SheBelieves was perfect for that because we had over 20,000 for the USA game,” he said. “Lucy [Bronze] has played in front of big crowds for Lyon in the Champions League and they need to experience that.
“We’ve got a sellout at Man City on Friday and more for the game in Swindon and 70 percent of my squad now might not have played in front of those sort of crowds and that’s why I’m excited about these two games. We’re going to play in front of a lot of people in the summer and there will be a lot of people watching at home on TV, we need to expose our players to that.”