The prospect of any World Cup is always mouth-watering but this summer’s Women’s World Cup filled me with particular excitement.
I’d only just started watching women’s football a year ago, so this would be my first experience of a female international tournament. I really looked forward to increasing my knowledge of all the players, managers, federations and all their respective histories… and, having been on a football hiatus since Wrexham’s play-off defeat in early May, I had a real football itch again.
Thankfully, two tickets for the girlfriend and I to see England take on their British counterparts Scotland in their opening group game were booked in December. We managed to find some affordable flights and accommodation in the following six months and travelled to France’s most southerly host city, Nice, to see the best footballers in the world first hand. (And also take in some sun.)
World class line-ups
After keeping tabs on the FA Women’s Super League last season – and much of the qualifying campaign which saw Wales lose out on a finals place to England – I knew about many of the Lioness players. I’d already seen Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, Nikita Parris and Georgia Stanway help Manchester City beat Arsenal in the WSL last year and I was very excited to see them again, along with other quality players such as Lyon’s Lucy Bronze and Reign FC’s Jodie Taylor.
My knowledge on their opponents, however, was less well-rounded, so I watched a documentary on the Scotland Women’s National Team before heading over to France. It was a useful watch as I gained some insight on manager Shelley Kerr, captain Rachel Corsie and midfield superstar Kim Little, while it also cranked up my anticipation level at the prospect of seeing Erin Cuthbert play live.
The 20-year-old forward had a breakthrough campaign for Chelsea this season that earned her their player of the year award. Watching her impact on the Scottish team during qualification only left me more hopeful of seeing a wonder goal or superb display of individual skill from the Irvine-born youngster.
Before the game, the starting line-ups were read out by a very excitable American in a beige tuxedo. He announced the inclusion of Houghton, Scott, Parris and Bronze before revealing Ellen White had been chosen up front ahead of Taylor. I wasn’t too disheartened to miss out on seeing Taylor, though, as White is a player I also admire, both for her goal scoring feats and her spectacle goal celebration.
The Scotland team also dropped a big-name centre-forward in West Ham’s Jane Ross but their front four consisted of Orlando Pride winger Claire Emslie and Manchester City’s Caroline Weir, plus Little and Cuthbert. It really felt like we were going to see a battle between two sets of world class players and I couldn’t wait to see it unfold.
First VAR experience
Scotland came out with real intent in the opening 10 minutes before England started to show why they’re ranked third in the world rankings. A number of fine passing moves caused panic and that led to my first ever live experience with Video Assistance Refereeing.
Fran Kirby whipped in a cross that looked quite poor from the opposite end of the stadium. But moments later the game stopped and it left many of us confused. The big screens said that a possible penalty was being reviewed which stunned many of those in attendance as the England team let the game carry on without any major appeals.
After a minute delay, where we weren’t shown any replays, the referee pointed to the spot. I joined in with the Scotland boos until a couple of replays were finally broadcast in the stadium. It showed the ball hitting full-back Nicola Docherty on the arm inside the box.
It probably was a penalty but the way it was given felt awkward and jarred the flow of the game. The point of VAR and was surely to stop gross incorrect decisions rather than to review every penalty appeal in a game. A challenge-based system would be a better concept. That way, it offers teams a chance to appeal if they feel aggrieved by a wrong call, keeps the flow of the match going and makes the audience part of the process.
The Scottish team failed to recover from the penalty decision. Parris took the spot-kick and hit a sublime strike into the top corner as many Scotland fans continued to jeer while England supporters celebrated. The Lionesses then dominated the rest of the half.
Parris was their star player, making several runs on the right-hand side and linking up well with Bronze, Kirby and White. A goal from the latter was correctly ruled out for offside before her volley was superbly saved by Lee Alexander in the Scotland goal. Eventually the pressure told, though, and White pulled out her goal-scoring spectacle celebration following a defensive error by Corsie to make it 2-0.
England should have added to their tally in the second half but Alexander stopped White again with a fine reaction save and a Beth Mead goal was ruled out for another late offside call. The misses proved costly, too, as an injury to England centre-half Millie Bright and a more relaxed approach let Scotland back in to the game.
Houghton’s loose pass led to Emslie grabbing her country’s first ever goal in a Women’s World Cup finals. That was quite a moment that I enjoyed with the Scotland fans around me and it should have ignited an exciting final 15 minutes. However, there was very little urgency for Scotland to attack. Ross stayed on the bench and much of the added time was spent passing the ball around the back.
The teams may have only been separated by one goal at full-time but it really was a comfortable win for England. It feels like Scotland’s main tactic to reach the last 16 is to defend against England and Japan, concede as few goals as possible and then beat Argentina in their final group game to get a third place spot. That could be very risky and may well be a wasted opportunity for a squad blessed with quality attacking players.
England, meanwhile, should go deep into the competition based on their first half display. They have mass strength in depth and if they are more clinical, they could blow many teams away.
No tournament vibes
Coming away from the Allianz Riviera, sadly, I felt a little relieved that I had no more Women’s World Cup matches lined up as the anti-climactic game emphasised how much Nice failed to deliver as a host city.
Three years ago, the vibe was a lot different when I travelled to Bordeaux for Wales’ Euro 2016 opener against Slovakia. Fans of teams that weren’t even playing for another week were walking through the streets wearing their team’s shirt. In the city centre, a fan zone was set up for people to watch live games. There was a real buzz around the city.
In Nice, however, there was very little indication that a tournament was even on. It was only on the day of the match that we found fans wearing England and Scotland jerseys. Meanwhile, at our AirBnB, I found we could watch the Welsh men’s team lose 2-1 to Croatia on terrestrial TV but the World Cup matches being held in the country I sat in was on a premium channel.
The lack of tournament atmosphere, unfortunately, extended to the stadium too. Only 13,000 seats were sold in a ground that holds 36,000, while having the fans unsegregated also took an edge off the contest. There were free shuttle buses to and from Nice city centre but this was about as far as the hospitality went.
Although we got to see amazing players for a ridiculously cheap price of €12, I felt quite disappointed with my World Cup experience.
I heard that the game broke records back home for people watching on TV, with around six million tuning in. Clearly the problem is not a lack of interest in women’s football, then, it’s convincing people to come out and see it live.
For me, that’s down to marketing. People need to understand that they’re seeing world class female athletes all over the field for a tenner. Meanwhile, the country hosting the tournament can at least try to acknowledge that the world’s best are heading over by promoting it more.
My only hope is that Nice was an anomaly. It’s pretty cut off from the rest of the host cities based in the north and has been affected by terrorism in its recent history. That may have convinced people to stay away. But I do feel like something else was missing from those running the show.
England 2 – 1 Scotland
Best of the Rest
On a brighter note, Nice did give us significantly better weather than England with temperatures never falling below 17 degrees even at night. The old town was a beautiful place to get lost in and also led us on a climb up Colline du Chateau, where we found the best look-out spots of the local beach which stretched all the way to Nice Cote d’Azur Airport.
Also on Colline du Chataeu was a phenomenal cemetery that we entered while a thunderstorm brewed above our heads. It gave the whole place a dramatic energy and filled us with adrenaline as we overlooked some amazing backdrops. Further down, a man-made waterfall allowed us to cool off as we hiked in near-30 degree heat.
Other places we scoped out in Nice were the Musee Matisse, the Musee D’Archeologie and the National Musee Marc Chagall. I found all these to be quite overpriced for what they offered but EU citizens under 26 could experience Chagall for free while a 10 euros pass gave you access to many other municipal museums besides the two aforementioned, so there were some bargains in there. Plus, Matisse’s grave was just around the corner from his museum.
The real highlight of our trip was visiting Monaco. The principality was a 25-minute train ride from Gare de Nice Ville and cost €8,20 for a return. It was worth the journey, as Monaco was stacked full of things to see and do despite its small size. We checked out Monte Carlo casino, which was free to look around in the foyer, and also took in the spectacular views and gardens around the prince’s hilltop palace.
We were also fortunate enough to see the remnants of the Monaco Grand Prix being dismantled around the city and also found AS Monaco’s Stade Louis II. Although it was hard to see anything from the streets, adjacent was the Stade Didier Deschamps – named after France’s current World Cup-winning manager – which sat on the French side of the border.
The only downside to our visit was our failure to meet Novak Djokovic or anyone else that high-profile in the wealthiest country on earth. But I’m sure I’ll be back once this blog takes off and he’ll come over to shake my hand while I’m polishing my yacht.