“I’ve got to say, I think everyone’s missing fans” admitted Phil Neville as he announced his England squad to play their first international game in seven months earlier today. “Everyone – the journalists that go to games, the players, the managers. I think we’ve just got to make sure that it’s safe”.
On 27 October, the Lionesses will travel to Wiesbaden to play Germany, the return of last November’s fixture at Wembley Stadium which was witnessed by a staggering attendance of 77,768. At the time, it seemed there were no limits to the records being set by women’s soccer fans around the world. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March however closed all stadium gates to the new audiences hungry for the women game.
Following six months of playing matches behind closed doors, a decision by the UEFA Executive Committee two weeks ago allowed for the possibility of the partial return of fans for this month’s international matches, where local laws permitted, up to a maximum of 30% of the stadium’s capacity. Germany is one of 27 European countries that has allowed fans back into stadiums.
Last week, the German men’s team played their first international match with spectators since the pandemic at Cologne’s RheinEnergie Stadium. However, the projected audience of 9,200 fans had to be reduced the day before the match to just 300 after the daily infection rate in the North-Rhine Westphalia region rose above the permissible figure of 35 per 100,000 inhabitants. For tonight’s Nations League match with Switzerland at the same venue, the German Football Association (DFB) did not even submit an application to admit spectators.
Today, SV Wehen Wiesbaden announced that they would not be admitting fans to their third division league match this weekend due to an infection rate of 44.9 per 100,000 in the region. Only last Monday, a crowd of 1,390 watched the club’s home match with 1. FC Kaiserslautern. Wiesbaden’s Brita-Arena will stage the German women’s international against England just ten days later making it now highly unlikely that the match will be played with spectators.
After a brief trial with matches allowing up to 1,000 spectators at the start of last month, England’s spiralling infection rate has led to a cancellation of all test events. The frustration of soccer fans in the country is exacerbated within the women’s game where average attendances are around the 1,000 figure which could be safely regulated and implemented with the mandatory social distancing.
England will next play Norway at the 32,050-capacity Bramall Lane stadium in Sheffield on 1 December, a match that under current UEFA regulations could admit up to 9,000 fans but Neville believes that the safety of the general public is the overwhelming priority. “I think we’re at a critical time in our country, in the world, where it doesn’t seem as if things are getting better and people are still suffering and people are still getting the virus, so first and foremost we’ve got to make sure everyone’s safe”.
Last month, a Women’s Super League match between West Ham United and Arsenal was watched by 734 spectators during a test event at Dagenham and Redbridge’s Victoria Road stadium. Due to the size of the crowds, Neville feels the women’s game may be better placed to reintroduce crowds than the men’s game. “I think we are in a position in the women’s game where I think it would be good for us to start introducing fans back in as soon as it’s safe and possible that the government allow us to. I think we’ve got some really good stadiums that are fit for purpose. We’ve seen it at the West Ham v Arsenal game. Just having the fans there and hearing different voices in the stadium really lifted everyone, talking to those players. So it’s something that we all want sooner rather than later, but ultimately I think, in this moment in time, thinking about what the government messages were yesterday – and we all tune in – is that there’s still something really critical going on in the country that we need to be responsible for, that we need to respect and we need to make sure that everyone is still safe because there are still people dying, there are still people ill through this virus and it looks like it’s here for the foreseeable future”.
A positive COVID-19 in Neville’s international training camp last month deprived him of the chance to work with Manchester United’s Katie Zelem. Having only returned to first-team action last week following her mandatory two-week isolation period, Zelem was not deemed fit enough to make the squad on this occasion as Neville explained, “obviously after the positive test, she had to go through COVID process to return to play and she only played her first game at the weekend. It’s disappointing for her because obviously she had the chance to come in. Next camp, she just needs to keep her levels and hopefully we can get her back in soon and give her some kind of exposure, but yeah, it’s because of her return to play”.
Only two members of Neville’s 28-player squad are black, compared to almost half of the men’s squad. As the United Kingdom marks Black History Month, Neville was at pains to explain why the women’s game does not represent the diversity of the country’s population. “It’s a difficult one. It’s a difficult one because I think now from an FA’s point of view, we are committed to making opportunities, to giving opportunities to BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) coaches. I think there’s some great programmes being run at the moment and I’ve been a part of those where I’ve given lectures or seminars on them. I think it’s two-fold really. I think we obviously want to see more black female coaches in women’s football. We want to see more female coaches getting opportunities too”.
“I know it’s Black History Month and with Black Lives Matters it’s obviously at the forefront of everyone’s mind. We’re educating people on our camps now. The players are asking for education. They want to make it part of our curriculum, our scheduling. So in this camp, we are running a workshop on diversity and inclusion. We’re probably going to make that on every camp now going forward because I think education is the biggest thing that we need to do and the players have been fantastic in terms of their desire to want to learn and to want to improve and to make things better”.