LONDON (Reuters) - Another milestone in women’s soccer was reached on Sunday when a record Super League (WSL) crowd of 38,262 saw Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-0 defeat by champions Arsenal at their new stadium but such matches in big grounds are still the exception.
Total attendances on a packed day of top-flight women’s games in England was almost 75,000, with 23,500 at Anfield to watch Liverpool lose 1-0 to Everton in the Merseyside derby.
The record crowd who flocked to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, hosting its first women’s game since opening in April, eclipsed the previous WSL best of 31,213 for the Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium on the season’s opening weekend.
The numbers highlight the effort to capitalise on the England team’s run to the World Cup semi-finals this year.
But while the number of WSL games at bigger stadia are increasing, some players believe that the fact they remain special occasions and are being staged during an international break in the men’s game needs to change.
“If I’m honest it shouldn’t be a moment. It should be something that hopefully becomes the norm,” Spurs coach Karen Hills told a news conference.
“You want to see these women playing in big stadiums, you want to see these big crowds come along, and so hopefully it won’t just be an occasion, it will be the norm of women’s football.”
Hills was, though, more focused on her team’s wasted chances in the match than the number of people watching.
“Very disappointing, we set ourselves up to win every game, we held our own and were unfortunate not to go in at halftime 1-0 up. We created good opportunities, but (are) disappointed not to get the three points,” she said.
Fans lined the streets around the stadium before the game on a sunny autumnal day, enjoying the festivities which included live music and special appearances by players in the club shop.
Inside the ground supporters were given flags and ahead of kick off the 62,000-capacity venue pulsed with loud music amid anticipation for the first league meeting between the rivals.
The gulf in quality was stark with Spurs playing in their inaugural season in the top flight, having enjoyed successive promotions in the last two years.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have been at the top of women’s football for almost 30 years, hoovering up honours including a record 14 FA Cup triumphs.
Tottenham did well to frustrate their illustrious opponents before their resolve was finally broken by Kim Little after the hour mark.
Netherlands’ World Cup runner-up Vivianne Miedema scored Arsenal’s second goal to kill the game off late on, though the fans still stuck around to applaud the players.
Attendance figures are an important barometer of the popularity of the women’s game, especially as after just six rounds in the WSL more people have attended matches this season (119,000) than in the whole of the last campaign (92,000).
But Arsenal coach Joe Montemurro was keen to stress that competitiveness on the pitch should be the focus - even if his side did bring a sell-out away contingent of 3,000 to Spurs.
“We can talk about playing in big stadiums on a regular basis but the reality is that one-off occasions do bring the crowd. I just think let’s fill up Meadow Park, let’s make that our home, let’s lock people out because they can’t get in,” Montemurro said.
“But I think football has always got to be the winner. Good football. A good game of football, good occasions – the crowds will come,” he added.
The fact that Tottenham, favourites to finish bottom at the start of the season, held their own for large parts of the match against the champions and are sixth in the 12-team division reflects the increased competitiveness in the women’s game.
“We’re gutted with the result but the performance shows how far we’ve come over a short period of time,” Spurs midfielder and captain for the day Josie Green said.
Another revealing statistic, however, came at Kingsmeadow where 4,790 watched Chelsea beat Manchester United 1-0.
The crowd was a record for a WSL match at a non-Premier League stadium, perhaps showing that table-topping Chelsea are leading the women’s game in more ways than one.
Reporting by Christian Radnedge; Editing by Ken Ferris