The UEFA Women’s Euro in England, delayed for a year, kicked off with a bang at Old Trafford, the so-called ‘The Theater of Dreams’ in Manchester as a crowd of 68,871, a new record for the competition, watched hosts England defeat Austria.
Arsenal’s Beth Mead scored the first goal of the tournament, cleverly lifting the ball over her club team-mate, the Austrian goalkeeper Manu Zinsberger. Speaking after the game, Mead revealed “we had a bit of fun after the game, she was a little bit annoyed I scored against her but I know her pretty well, playing with her week in, week out so I know she’s pretty good at stopping the ball around the body so going over the top was probably the best option at the time.”
It was Mead’s 15th international goal of the season, extending the all-time England record she broke last month held for over half a century by legendary men’s striker Jimmy Greaves. She has now scored 23 goals for her country in 40 appearances and should she maintain her profilic current strike rate, catching her team-mate Ellen White’s goalscoring record of 50 could be within her sights of her. “I’m after her, I’ve already told her that!” Mead told me after the match. “No, I’m only joking, I’m just happy to get the goals and help the team get the win that we needed.”
She admitted holding onto the 1-0 win was a relief after the prolonged build-up to the championship. “The first game’s always nerve-wracking, the Opening Match of the tournament. A big crowd, a big occasion, big expectation. Yeah, it’s nice to get the win and settle us down. I had my mum and dad here, I blew them a kiss after my goal so hopefully that made them pretty proud.”
After an extravagant media launch in February 2020 announcing that the Opening Match would be staged at Old Trafford, England’s biggest club stadium, the 13th edition of the women’s European championship seem to be bedeviled with ill-luck as the global pandemic created a dominance of cancellations which resulted in the women’s Euro being postponed for a year until 2022.
In retrospect, the extra year gave promoters the time to dial up the hype around the tournament to the extent that 517,000 of the 700,000 tickets have now been sold. Almost a third of those tickets were for tonight’s Opening Match and the sold-out final at the 90,000 Wembley Stadium on 31 July.
Before tonight, the previous record attendance in the competition had been the 41,301 who watched the 2013 final between Germany and Norway at the Friends Arena in Stockholm. Playing in that match for Germany was Nadine Kessler now UEFA’S Head of Women’s Football. Tonight’s record breaking attendance, which almost doubled the previous mark, is a testament to the work she has instigated since taking the role in 2017 after a succession of injuries ended her glorious playing career.
Previously the biggest crowd at a UEFA Women’s Euro group stage match was also in Manchester when the last tournament in England kicked off in front of 29,092 fans at the Etihad Stadium in 2005, yet these figures were not sustained across the tournament where the average attendance eventually fell below 8,000. Now with many of Europe’s top stars playing in the English Women’s Super League there is the belief that tonight’s match will not be an outlier for the tournament and average crowds will be over 15,000 at the end of the finals.
Tonight’s attendance is not a record for a women’s match in England which remains the crowd of 80,203 which witnessed the 2012 London Olympic final between the United States and Japan at Wembley Stadium. However, with Wembley long since sold out for the end of this competition, it seems only a few weeks before that record is broken too, particularly if the hosts continue winning and play in it on July 31.