Former England captain Casey Stoney believes the crowds at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France are “disappointing” because FIFA and the local organisers failed to promote the tournament properly.
While the television audiences have been breaking records for the women’s game, attendances at the matches have been a different story.
England’s opener against Scotland in Nice, which attracted a peak UK audience of 6.1 million viewers, was watched by just over 13,000 fans in the stadium, only 38 per cent of its tournament capacity.
The same venue was only a quarter full for Sweden’s 5-1 win over Thailand on Sunday, while three of the four games staged in Le Havre so far have been less than half full.
Some critics have suggested that fans were put off because FIFA had given the impression the games were nearly sold out.
In May, the official twitter account of world football’s governing body said tickets were available for “only a few matches”, while president Gianni Infantino told reporters just before the tournament that 20 of the 44 matches were sold out.
A week later, FIFA was forced to admit only 14 matches had sold out – mainly the latter stages and the games involving France – and that a sixth of the one million tickets it had “allocated” were given out free to media, sponsors, staff and VIPs, and even this left 300,000 tickets available.
Speaking to Press Association Sport, Stoney said: “I’ve been to lots of games and some of the crowds have been really disappointing.
“I don’t think the organisers did enough to market the tournament – in some of the cities you would not know the Women’s World Cup was on until you get to the stadium.”
The 37-year-old, who played in three World Cups for England, also believes FIFA initially made it too difficult for fans to buy tickets by insisting they use cards supplied by VISA, a big sponsor, and they have not publicised the fact that tickets are available at the venues on match days.
“Why would you put up barriers to selling tickets like that?” said Stoney.
On a more positive note, Stoney believes the quality of football has been “fantastic” but the captain of Great Britain’s London 2012 team has been less impressed by the use of video assistant referees at the tournament.
“I’m not a fan, to be honest,” she said.
“I was at the Australia-Brazil game and there were three VAR interventions that took more than seven minutes to sort out. We want better decisions but it’s got to be quicker than that.
“And the decision to retake the French penalty against Nigeria was ridiculous (on Monday). She put it wide, so the ‘keeper moving early had nothing to do with it and the French players were encroaching, too.”
Stoney’s last game for the Lionesses was in 2017 and she played another season in the Women’s Super League for Liverpool before joining England manager Phil Neville’s coaching staff in early 2018.
But it did not take long for someone to offer her a manager’s job and last summer she became the first boss of newly-formed Manchester United Women. Twelve months and a Championship title later, she and United are looking forward to their first season in the top division.
Despite two wins out of two, England’s start at this tournament has not been quite so smooth, as the world’s third-ranked side have had to work hard to get past 20th-ranked Scotland and 37th-ranked Argentina.
They meet seventh-ranked Japan, the 2011 world champions and 2015 runners-up, on Wednesday but Stoney believes England are in good shape to kick on.
“The team’s form wasn’t that great coming into the tournament – we didn’t play well in the two warm-up games – but you don’t want to be absolutely firing from the start,” she said.
“It’s about getting points on the board and giving yourself something to build on – we’ve done that. This game is the first big test but we’re going in the right direction.”
Having joined Chelsea Ladies aged 12, Stoney knows women’s football has probably never been more popular in the UK than it is now but it still lags behind most men’s sport in terms of media coverage.
This is why she is supporting Adobe Stock’s “Squad Behind the Squad” campaign – a collection of pictures of five inspirational women who work in the British football industry that will be available to download and use from June 19.
“The game is in a good place but it’s not where we want it to be yet,” she explained.
“The FA has been doing a great job, especially in terms of getting more girls to play, but I always say we shouldn’t just be thinking about women.
“Men make up half of the population and a lot of them love football. They are the fathers, brothers, husbands and boyfriends of potential female players – let’s promote the game to everyone.”
:: Casey Stoney is partnering with Adobe Stock to celebrate the women working at the heart of the football industry, aiming to redress the coverage women’s football receives long-term. Check out the new collection now: https://adobe.ly/2Nablj5News Now - Sport News