France 1 Iceland 1

Monday 18th July 2022 – UEFA European Women’s Championship – New York Stadium, Rotherham

After missing three games I had tickets for due to COVID, I was making my Euro22 debut in the game nobody wanted to attend. In every major tournament there’s always one game where there’s more supply than demand. Back in Germany in 2006 it was Saudi Arabia vs Morocco in Munich, whilst for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar it appears to be Switzerland v Cameroon. Price of the tickets isn’t the issue, it’s just the interest in the game and how it is promoted by the tournament organisers.

I’ve been to Rotherham a couple of times, enjoying Magma and the fine local ales, but sitting so close to Sheffield is a challenge in winning hearts and minds of visitors. The game between France and Iceland was scheduled for a Monday night which didn’t help, whilst the record-breaking heat may have put off the late surge in potential attendees, but whatever the case, you could’ve still rocked up at 7:59pm and got in for a tenner. The irony of this was that prior to the tournament Iceland’s captain Sara Bjork Gunnarsdóttir had said it was embarrassing to the tournament and women’s football in general that such small stadiums were being used. And here we were, in one of the smaller venues and there was plenty of available seats.

The tournament so far had been excellent but driving into Rotherham and parking no more than a five minute walk away you’d had been hard pushed to know there was a tournament, let alone a game on. When you got closer to the stadium there was some signs – the stall holder selling unofficial merchandise was doing a decent trade in selling flags and hats but there was little else. There were no visible merchandise points around the stadium that we saw nor any of the usual pre-match buzz around mobile bars or food trucks.

Rotherham’s stadium is named after the area of the town where factories used to make fire hydrants for New York City. There was a commercial aspect too, hoping to lure dollars across the Atlantic with the name. The stadium is smart, functional and perfect for the ambitions of the club, hemmed in by roads, railway lines and the river. It had been a coup landing some games in the tournament and hopefully it might inspire the club to invest in their women’s team.

France were already through to the Quarter-Finals and consequently rested a few of their first choice players. Iceland, on the other hand needed at least a point and ideally Belgium and Italy to draw their game to progress. They’d drawn both games 1-1, showing a steely resistance and cheered on by a few thousand thunder-clapping fans. It wasn’t a surprise to see the neutrals were supporting the Icelanders who certainly made their physical presence felt on the pitch in the opening exchanges.

France got the perfect start when Melvine Malard slotted home from the edge of the box with barely a minute played. Having put five passed Italy in the opening half against Italy, the fears from the Iceland fans were they could do it again. But they responded strongly and could have equalised in the 11th minute when Jónsdóttir hit the bar.

The second half saw Belgium take the lead in Manchester against Italy. That meant Iceland needed to win and the message was passed from the bench to the players. However, France stepped up a gear, coping with the 35 degree heat better than the cool Icelandics. With 20 minutes to go France and Malard appeared to have scored a second but a lengthy VAR check ruled the goal out. History repeated itself in the 90th minute when Geyoro’s smart flicked effort on the line was overruled by Big Brother (or Sister) for a handball no one saw. Iceland were enjoying the luck, they just needed to convert it into goals.

Six minutes of added time were to be played. Belgium were going through. A last gasp corner for Iceland was cleared by the French but then the referee was alerted by VAR of a infringement in the area, again which no one else appeared to see, nor did the players appeal for. After two minutes of twiddling our thumbs a penalty was given.

Brynjarsdóttir stepped up and scored. Was there hope? Alas no, it was to be the last kick of the game. Belgium were through, Iceland were out. They’d ended France’s year long run of victories and gained many new fans in a very well matched, competitive game.

The official attendance was 7,392, suggesting the ground was 75% full – it wasn’t but those who were there will have enjoyed the game. In the last week of the school term I’m sure the tournament organisers could have done more to fill the ground rather than hope for a desperate late rush of ticket purchasers.

The success of the tournament won’t be just measured on whether the Lionesses win. It will be determined by the legacy for the women’s game it creates. There’s thousands of new fans of the game as a result of being up close and personal to the players and whilst the fan experience is different to that of a men’s game there’s no harm in that. Build it and they will come. Back it and they will return.

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