The EM 2022 starts with the opening match between England and Austria and sets a record attendance beforehand. The mood around Old Trafford in Manchester is positive, but some question marks remain.
The EM 2022 starts this Wednesday, with England’s game against Austria at a packed Old Trafford. A handful of construction workers are still busy the day before erecting a fan park in Manchester city center. A few kilometers northeast of the site, UEFA’s head of women’s football takes the stage in a hospitality room at the stadium. “I have so many different emotions, but I can’t wait for it to start now,” said Nadine Kessler, who played 29 international matches for Germany between 2010 and 2016. “I think it’s absolutely incomparable to my time as a player. I might have to provoke a bit. But I think in my time people paid more attention to how my shirt fit me than to the result. We have a long one way behind us.”
Ahead of the tournament, a lot of thought has gone into the development of the game over the past few years. But on the eve of the tournament – with unfinished fan parks, sporadic billboards, and a reported shortage of England women’s team fan shirts in major sporting goods stores – one feels the organizers failed to anticipate the level of interest and demand.
Football’s coming home?
But logistical successes or failures will temporarily take a back seat when the ball rolls from Wednesday evening. “We really hope that the whole nation is behind us,” England’s record scorer Ellen White told DW ahead of the tournament. “Obviously we know our group games are sold out, which is very exciting for us, and that home advantage is very important. We’re looking forward to facing some very, very talented European sides.”
The first of these teams is Austria, the surprise semi-finalists at the 2017 European Championships in the Netherlands. The guests will do well to build on their performance from back then because the quality of international football continues to improve. England’s Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman, who led Team Oranje to the title five years ago, knows the challenge and expectations are even greater this time.
“The development of women’s football has been so rapid. The big difference between 2017 and now is that there are so many more countries playing at the highest level. It’s really exciting,” Wiegman said in an interview for the Project Football podcast DW. “You can feel that energy. We’ve had a few games across the country, in different cities. You can feel that people are excited. And so many tickets have already been sold.”
Pre-sales were indeed brisk: more than half a million tickets were sold at affordable prices before the start of the tournament. There are still about 200,000 tickets left, but many games are already sold out. Kessler, who won the EURO 2013 tournament as a player, says she is “obsessed” with monitoring sales figures on UEFA’s internal systems.
How big is big enough?
However, the choice of stadiums for the tournament continues to be a source of debate. Icelandic international Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir, who meets Belgium in the opening game of the European Championship, criticized Manchester City’s small stadium with only 4,700 seats. “I’m a bit disappointed with some of the stadiums we’re supposed to be playing in,” she said on The Pitch podcast in April. “It’s shocking. When you play in England you have so many stadiums and we get City’s training ground. It’s just embarrassing.”
Chris Bryant, head of tournaments at the FA, believes the right balance has been struck. “We’ve set our goals incredibly high,” Bryant said in response to a question from DW on Tuesday. “Of course, we have set ourselves goals and we are exactly where we wanted to be.”
Bryant defended the selection of the smaller venues, which include Rotherham’s stadium, which will even host a quarter-final. “We are very happy with the choice of venues. There are still tickets for sale. We want the venues to be sold out, that’s an important part of our strategy,” says Bryant. “It’s not just about England. We want all teams to have a great atmosphere in all stadiums.”
At least in the opening game, this goal should certainly be achieved. An England win is likely to add to the positive mood in the host country. UEFA and everyone who has invested in women’s football then hope that momentum will continue as the tournament progresses.