So hosts Holland won Euro 2017…and deservedly so. Full of outstanding young attacking players like Linke Martens, Jackie Groenen, Danielle van de Donk, Shanice van de Sanden, and – above all – Vivianne Miedema all of whom are 25 or younger and therefore still have growth potential. They were the most entertaining team on view and a team who were impossible not to like – unless you were a member of the Euro 1988 winning Dutch men’s team (I’ll get to him later).
Holland also took the tournament to their hearts. Every Dutch game was a sell out the record attendance for a women’s game in Holland was broken three times during the tournament and the Final attracted 5.4 MILLION viewers on Dutch TV (the highest audience for any programme in Holland since the 2014 men’s World Cup). Holland has gone women’s football mad. But the question is : Can, will the interest be sustained?
There is a historical precedent of a marginalized group of footballers winning the hearts of a country in a home tournament….but the interest was not sustained. I’m going to write about that event before comparing it to Euro 2017 to see the differences and the similarities.
Let’s go back to the summer of 1989. It was not good. Jive Bunny were number one in the charts for five weeks (oh dear) and England got hammered 4-0 in a gruesomely one sided Ashes series in which England used 29 (!) players in six Tests compared to Australia’s 12. Meanwhile football in England was reeling from the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster and in Scotland there was a sensation when ex Celtic star Maurice Johnston joined bitter rivals Rangers becoming that club’s first ever Roman Catholic player.
Also in 1989 Scotland hosted the FIFA Under 16 World Cup the biggest football event hosted in Scotland (still is). But at first the country did not take much notice. Scotland drew 0-0 with Ghana in the tournament’s first game in front of just 6,000 spectators at Hampden Park. And that was the biggest attendance of the first round of matches. It looked like the tournament was going to be a flop.
But two pieces of luck boosted the tournament. First of all there were late night TV highlights shown on Scottish Television (STV). Viewers noted that the football was entertaining and a refreshing contrast to the safety first sterility of the adult game and that encouraged fans to go to the games. Secondly the host nation started to improve. Scotland beat Cuba 3-0 in front of 9,000 spectators at Motherwell (a 50% increase on their first game!), drew with Bahrain (in front of 13,500 another increase) and advanced to the Quarter Finals. The team went on to beat East Germany 1-0 to qualify for the Semi Finals at Tynecastle in Edinburgh.
And then it got a bit crazy. Scotland beat a Portugal team including future Barcelona and Real Madrid star Luis Figo (along with Roberto Carlos of Brazil the biggest future star that played in this tournament). What was crazy was the crowd. The kick off was delayed by 45 minutes to let a crowd of 29,000 into the ground. 29,000! For sixteen year old boys! The police and the ground authorities totally underestimated the interest in the game. And Scotland were in a World Cup Final which is something that football fans in the country had fantasised about. The squad of 16 year old kids were national heroes.
So on to Saturday June 24th 1989. Scotland were in a World Cup Final on home soil. The game at Hampden was televised live on STV yet 50,956 fans turned up for the Final against Saudi Arabia – only 3,500 less than turned up for a Celtic v Rangers Scottish Cup Final in 1977 that was also televised live. Football fever was sweeping Scotland and it was all for 16 year old boys. When Scotland roared into a 2-0 lead it looked like the fairytale would be completed. But two Saudi goals and a missed penalty by Brian O’Neill meant the game finished 2-2 after extra time. Scotland lost the shoot out 5-4 with poor O’Neill being the only player to miss his penalty. The fairytale was over and to make it worse there were suspicions that the Saudis had fielded overage players. Even twenty years later then SFA secretary Ernie Walker felt that Scotland had been cheated of glory.
There were differences between the under 16 team and Euro 2017. While the interest in the under 16 World Cup was a mainly Scottish phenomenon England, Austria, Denmark and France as well as Holland had record TV ratings and increased interest. Another difference is that no one said either that the under 16 team were inferior to adult males or that they should be in the adult Scotland team. In contrast Arnold Muhren a member of the Euro 1988 winning Dutch men’s team said that the women’s team could not compete with a men’s fifth division team (totally irrelevant). On the other hand a banner at one of Holland’s games said “Who needs Neymar when you have Linke Martens?”. But Martens plays for Barcelona’s women’s team not the men’s so the comparison is irrelevant. The Under 16 team were accepted for what they were. Sadly women’s football is still not treated the same way.
Another difference is that the Dutch women’s teams first game was a sell out which means that there was an interest there before the tournament started. Unlike the 1989 under 16 team where (see above) interest started low but there was a bandwagon effect and the Scottish public were swept along on a tide of national euphoria. It won’t be a surprise to know that an under 16 game in Scotland has never attracted 50,000 spectators again.
And that is the challenge for women’s football. The World Cup and the Euros have established themselves as major events. Fans are happy to support a successful national team regardless of whether it is an under 16 team or it is a female team. The problem is that the women’s club game is still struggling as the collapse of Notts County in England earlier this year proved. What women’s football needs is for at least some of the fans who watched on TV and at the ground to remain fans and watch the regular League games. It also needs more and better coverage of those League games. For example in England the Women’s Super League (WSL) fixtures were announced yesterday. If only a tenth of the four million people who watched England lose to Holland in the Semi Final of the Euros watch the WSL next season it would be a huge boost to women’s football in England.
There is no doubt that the standard of women’s football is rising because of professionalism. Young players like Miedema, Stenia Blackstenius and Ada Hegerberg are amazingly good. However if fans don’t go to club games professionalism in women’s football might not be sustainable. If women’s football is to realise it’s full potential fans must realise that women’s football is for life. Not just every two years…