A quick post so I can dash off home to watch the Women’s Euro semi-final between Germany and host country Sweden. I won’t be alone, this is a highly anticipated match in Sweden – having sold out and expecting a large TV audience in the soccer mad Scandinavian nation. The total attendance for the Women’s Euro has already broken the record set four years ago in Finland, and there are still four more games to go. The tournament has met with such success that it has forced a men’s game between Swedish powerhouse IFK Gothenburg and Helsingborg to shift so it will not conflict with the final. Should Sweden get to the final they are expecting that the TV audience will surpass the 3.8 million that watched the 2003 World Cup final between Sweden and Germany, that’s over half the population of the country – so it’s not just the women watching. I’m glad the women’s game can attract such a high level of attention, as it bodes well for the game not just in Sweden, but in other countries that have latched onto women’s soccer.
Once you’re reaching those sorts of numbers for a country, you’re looking at Superbowl-like numbers, where the game becomes one of those shared cultural experiences. I’m thinking about the importance of the ’72 and ’87 Can-USSR hockey series, or even the recent Olympic gold medal hockey games and how they become important moments for the nation. While these are usually more important as wins, Canadian soccer has its own pivotal moment during the Olympics last year when the women lost to the USA in the semi-final, and won the bronze vs France.
All of which sets the bar very high for Canada in two years when we host the Women’s World Cup. Will we be able to generate the interest in our own country to support the games? The growing interest in the sport in general and the women’s team in particular bodes well. However, the lack of women’s professional soccer within the country makes it difficult for fans to follow on a regular basis. While the CSA is supporting roster spots in the NWSL, there is no franchise located in Canada. It takes time for fans to identify with a team and it’s stars, so Canada is going to need a good performance in some friendlies ahead of the tournament to really highlight who their players are.
But despite the growing popularity, the women’s game still faces a number of hurdles – in a recent post on BBC Sport about the English team’s elimination from the Women’s Euro, almost half of the comments were deleted because they didn’t meet the moderator’s rules or various other offences that get your comment banned from a forum. While yes these are mostly trolls, the degree of banned comments shows a high level of hostility to the women’s game. It was worse than most North American forums where the argument goes that soccer isn’t a sport. Then again, the class connotations of the game in England are far different than in North America. English football is a working man’s game both in play and spectatorship – few Englishmen I met found David Cameron’s interest in Luis Suarez at all convincing. In North America, the “soft” reputation of the sport and its elitist middle and upper class associations has given the women’s game a level of acceptability, and to some degree popularity that is unusual in women’s sport. So oddly, the very class association that has held back the acceptability of the men’s game in North America has given the women’s game a firm base from which to grow.