A fantastic season for women’s football in Europe, ended with an entertaining and fiercely fought UEFA Champions League final on 21 May. A sign of just how far the women’s game has come in a couple of decades, the final was watched by a world record audience of 3.6 million. One and a half months on, women’s football returned to Europe last week, when England took on Austria at Old Trafford in Manchester to kick off the Women’s Euro 2022. The home of Manchester United FC set a new attendance record, with 68,000 people in the stands. Just like it happens with men’s football, home games were all sold out, even before the 16-team tournament started. Tickets for the final were gone in just an hour after sales opened.
There’s more good news. During a Wimbledon week in London, the city’s landmark buildings had larger than life images of English footballers Ellen White, Leah Williamson and their colleagues projected on them, instead of pictures of Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. For the first time, newspapers and broadcasters in Europe are giving the tournament the full treatment: Previews, player profiles and multiple tournament trackers. Media coverage of the tournament rivals the type you’d expect for men’s football. An army of reporters are covering the games from every angle, while BBC and Sky Sports have committed £24 million in broadcast money over three years for the women’s game. To top it all, for the first time in the history of women’s Euros, all players in the tournament are professional footballers, barring a handful. The Italians became the most recent group to be granted professional status.
Women’s football has come a long way, and this year is proving to be a breakthrough year for it, globally. And the ongoing Euros are impacting women’s football in India as well, say women footballers, and fans of the women’s game in the country. With the country set to host the Under-17 women’s World Cup in October, 2022 could mark the beginning of something special for women footballers and fans alike.
Tanvie Hans, 31, a midfielder who has played for Tottenham Hotspur Women, and now captains the Karnataka women’s team says that the global popularity of the women’s game is encouraging many more girls in India to start playing the game from an early age. “Women’s game has grown tremendously. A lot of schools and colleges have girls football teams now and there are age group competitions specifically for them—something I didn’t have. Today, there is widespread interest among many girls to play.” Hans started playing the game while at school in New Delhi, two decades ago. Things have come a long way since then: An Indian player, Manisha Kalyan, is all set to play in the Champions League next year with the top club team from Cyprus, Apollon Ladies FC. “That is so good for the game in India,” Hans says.
“Watching women play to packed stadiums, and hearing about the huge demand for tickets, normalises the fact that women play at the highest level, and football fans want to buy tickets to watch world class athletes play the game,” says Radha Gupta Lath, founder of She Talks Ball, a digital media platform dedicated to women’s sports in general, and football in particular. “When you break attendance records every two days and make headlines, the sport is bound to develop… and there is a global audience as well to witness that. So, it’s a no brainer that these Euros are developing women’s football in England, Europe and globally too.”
Despite all this, Hans and Gupta feel that a lot more needs to be done for the women’s game in India. Both point out that though the Indian women’s teams are playing a lot more friendlies and tournaments these days, the local women’s leagues run for just a couple of months every year. Hans points out that players who don’t make the cut for the national team don’t play in an organised set-up for the better part of the year, and that gap shows when the players return on the pitch.
There’s a big difference between women’s football in European countries and in India, says Gupta. “The leagues in England, Spain, France and Germany are played throughout the year. Their players are fully professional. Football is their career. Hence the exposure of the Indian players is much lesser. Even the funding of European teams is much better and the game is taken more seriously.” Hans draws attention to the poor scouting infrastructure in India, due to dismal funding and the second rung status of the game. “Indian women footballers are still not paid enough to be able to afford a decent life, and are forced to have a parallel career along with playing football,” she says.
The attitude of broadcasters in India to women’s football still remains poor. Sony Liv, which is showing Women’s Euros in India, has already skipped showing some games. “The reality is women’s football is yet to be taken seriously in India. It is not considered a business yet and that needs to change,” says Gupta. Despite these challenges, Gupta feels that watching women play in packed stadiums at the top level lends hope to girls in India who are passionate enough to try and make a career in the beautiful game.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.