The FA should have shown more ambition when selecting the venues for Euro 2022. Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir’s criticism is understandable.
Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir hit the headlines this week with a pretty scathing assessment of the venue choices for Euro 2022.
The Iceland midfielder left no-one in any doubt concerning how she was feeling about her country turning out at the Academy Stadium during the group stages, branding the Manchester City Women’s stadium a “training ground” and calling it “embarrassing” to be playing at a venue with a capacity of just 4,700.
“It’s not the respect [we deserve],” Gunnarsdottir told podcast Their Pitch. “Watch women’s football today, they are filling out the stadiums. You see Barcelona and Madrid, 95,000 watching the game. [Euros organisers] are not prepared that we will sell more than 4,000 tickets.
“It’s disrespectful towards women’s football because it’s so much bigger than people think. You think women’s football is getting two steps ahead but then something comes up like that it’s just a step back.”
Iceland play their first two group fixtures at the Academy Stadium; both sold out within three weeks of going on general sale.
Here's the full Euro 2022 match schedule with venues and kick off times. pic.twitter.com/XzUF9tolE5
— Rich Laverty (@RichJLaverty) October 28, 2021
In defence of the Football Association, the decision over venues for Euro 2022 was made back in August 2018. Crucially, this was pre-2019 World Cup. The tournament was a watershed moment for women’s football in England, with millions tuning in to watch the Lionesses’ run to the semi-final (and predictable heartbreak). WSL sides subsequently rode on a wave of post-World Cup momentum, hosting fixtures in Premier League stadiums and shattering attendance records.
But the 2019 World Cup was not the singular, defining occasion in women’s football in England. There have been a series of milestones that have culminated in the game being where it is today, from Team GB beating Brazil at the 2012 Olympics in front of a jubilant, partisan crowd, to Lucy Bronze’s iconic long-range screamer against Norway at the 2015 World Cup.
Four million people watched England’s Euro 2017 semi-final defeat to the Netherlands; the popularity of the game was not suddenly sprung upon the tournament organisers a fortnight ago.
“We believe that with two of the biggest football stadiums in England [Old Trafford and Wembley], four venues with a capacity of 30,000 or more, two venues over 10,000 and two stadiums under 10,000, the right mix of stadiums has been chosen to provide the tournament with a platform to fulfil its potential,” a Euro 2022 spokesperson told BBC Sport in response to the criticism.
It’s about striking a balance. A bustling, full capacity Academy Stadium is preferable in terms of atmosphere, appearance and financial sensibility compared to a half-empty Premier League or Championship ground. But with two of the three fixtures that the Academy Stadium will host already sold out, it’s fair to argue that organisers could have been a little more ambitious with this particular venue selection.
Barcelona showed what can happen when a club shouts unapologetically about their women’s football team and puts them on the biggest stage, attracting a world-record attendance at Camp Nou for their Champions League quarter-final victory over Real Madrid. The fans waving their scarves and banging their drums did not care if it was women’s or men’s football; it was simply Barcelona, and it was simply football.
Euro 2022 can be the 2012 Olympics, Bronze’s screamer or Bend It Like Beckham for an entire generation. But it needs to be equally as ambitious and unapologetic as Barcelona if it is to succeed in being the culture-shifting game-changer it has the potential to be.