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As women’s football searches for a World Cup legacy Arsenal’s Joe Montemurro calls for realism

Joe Montemurro stands in a corner of Arsenal’s training complex at London Colney, having his picture taken. ‘You look beautiful,’ one of his players says, as she walks past, grinning.

Montemurro is unabashed. He could be Nice Guy Eddie from Reservoir Dogs but without the menace. The photographer asks him to rest his chin on the back of his hand. ‘Ah,’ Montemurro says, ‘The Thinker.’

The Arsenal manager looks around him as the champions of England stride in. Chairs are dotted around in pairs on the artificial turf, ready for interviews.

Camera crews are in position. Leah Williamson, the England defender who has signed a sponsorship deal with Swarovski, wanders over to where a journalist she knows is sitting on the floor, lap-top on his knee, and shakes his hand.

Arsenal Women's boss Joe Montemurro has big ideas for the growth of the sport

Arsenal Women’s boss Joe Montemurro has big ideas for the growth of the sport

Jordan Nobbs, working her way back from the serious knee injury that cost her a place in England’s World Cup team last summer, chats animatedly with another writer before they sit down.

Danielle van de Donk larks around with a photographer’s camera, taking pictures of Beth Mead while Mead is being interviewed for a football magazine.

Outside, in a different world, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is sliding out through the gates of the training ground in his gold sports car, a symbol of the distance that has grown between fans and players in the men’s game. That distance does not exist in women’s football. ‘We can’t lose that,’ says Montemurro, 49.

And yet with the greater reach the game craves, distance creeps in. It is inevitable. ‘I still can’t get used to the fact that I can’t just go grocery shopping any more,’ said Jackie Groenen, Manchester United’s new signing.

Women’s football stands on the cusp of something. It is close to reaching a tipping point where its popularity cannot be turned back and where acceptance no longer has to be demanded but is given.

It is not there yet but sponsorships are rolling in and FIFA are recognising that they can sell the sport without including it as an add-on to the men’s game. Women’s football is being ‘unbundled’.

Montemurro warns that women's football only gets one opportunity to make itself huge

Montemurro warns that women’s football only gets one opportunity to make itself huge

Montemurro has a wealth of talent in his Arsenal side such as Holland's Danielle van de Donk

Montemurro has a wealth of talent in his Arsenal side such as Holland’s Danielle van de Donk

There are still frontiers to be crossed. 

The Women’s Super League season started on Saturday, Arsenal begin the defence of their title today with a home match against West Ham and Montemurro, who is admired for the way he has revived Arsenal’s fortunes with an emphasis on clever, creative, passing football, and who is respected for his openness and his honesty, knows a search for significance is afoot.

The BBC’s coverage of England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by the US in July drew an audience of 11.7million, a record for women’s football, and provided more evidence that the sport is leaving its place in the shadows and moving mainstream. The dawn of the new domestic season will help to gauge the accuracy of that optimism.

Growing the popularity of the WSL, which was given a huge fillip when Barclays paid £10m to be the league’s title sponsor, is the next important step to be taken so that there is no longer the kind of attention-deficit between major tournaments that characterises the way sports like rowing and cycling are treated between Olympics.

The league started with a big statement on Saturday when 31,213 fans watched Manchester City play newly-promoted Manchester United at the Etihad Stadium in the WSL’s first ever Manchester derby. That, too, was a record, smashing the previous highest attendance for a WSL game. Today, Chelsea’s match against Spurs will be staged at Stamford Bridge. A capacity crowd of 41,000 is expected. There is an intoxicating feeling of change.

After decades when it was variously banned, under-funded, mocked, ridiculed or just plain ignored, each World Cup takes the sport one more leap forward. The quality of football in France in the summer — particularly the quarter-final between the US and France — raised the game.

The league started with a big statement as 31,213 fans watched Man City play rivals United

The league started with a big statement as 31,213 fans watched Man City play rivals United

Last week, the Finnish football association emulated their Norwegian counterpart by announcing the women’s national team would be paid the same as the men. A struggle for equal pay, led by articulate, persuasive and charismatic players such as Megan Rapinoe, also formed the backdrop to the US’s triumphal World Cup.

The issue is not just confined to sport but it is often in sport where it is at its most visible. Last week, the New York Times accompanied their coverage of the US Open tennis with a history of the struggle and captioned it: ‘The long fight for pay equality in sports.’

It all adds to the sense that women’s football in this country is at a critical point. It has made huge strides already since the days when our leading players had to wear men’s hand-me-downs for kit and juggle their careers with part-time jobs. More and more have been able to turn professional.

Many of today’s players are still grateful for the chance to earn their livings playing the game they love, still grateful for the sacrifices and the efforts made by those in the generation below.

But that gratitude is turning into a realisation that they are athletes who deserve to be recognised for their talents, women on the verge of becoming box office.

Montemurro, whose Arsenal team play their home games at Borehamwood’s Meadow Park ground and other sage voices within the sport like United boss Casey Stoney, temper their own optimism with determination that the league does not overreach itself but there is still a feeling that this is a sport on the rise.

Part of the reason there is so much interest in the start of this WSL season is that, until now, there has been a disconnect between the interest the World Cup attracts and the often sparse crowds in the WSL. Attendances have gone down, not up. Last season the WSL average attendance was 833 compared with 1,128 in 2016, in the aftermath of England reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in Canada the year before.

‘We have to be careful in women’s football,’ says Montemurro, ‘because if we are expecting Stamford Bridge or the Emirates to be full every week, it won’t happen. A one-off, yeah. A derby, yeah. But if we expect middle teams to be getting 30,000 or 40,000 people, it’s not going to happen. We have to be smart about that.

The spotlight was firmly on women's football as the Lionesses reached the World Cup semis

The spotlight was firmly on women’s football as the Lionesses reached the World Cup semis

‘The fact that all the England games in the World Cup were on free-to-air was fantastic. Now there’s association with players. The normal fan who is interested in football but maybe didn’t have an understanding of women’s football can associate with Ellen White or Viv Miedema or Leah Williamson. They know who they are.

‘It’s the sustainability of the viewership that interests me. The more we put games on television, the more people are going to watch it, the more people are going to come, the more people are going to say, “There’s a great game round the corner, Arsenal are playing”.

‘But we also have to accept that to host a game at the Emirates is expensive. We don’t want to have a situation where we are saying there were only 5,000 people there and we have lost ‘x’ amount of pounds.

‘We can’t afford that. We can’t afford that in the women’s game. If there’s a television deal where we know there is ‘x’ amount of dollars and we can allocate seven games at the Emirates because we have got the money, then absolutely.

‘But at the moment, we don’t. So let’s fill the stadiums we’re playing in now. Let’s fill Borehamwood. Let’s make a statement and say we are getting requests of 10,000 or 20,000 wanting to come to Borehamwood and then you have got a case. But we don’t have that at the moment. So we have to be realistic and honest, too.’

Part of Montemurro’s vision for the WSL is for clubs to play at purpose-built ‘boutique stadiums’, places where it is possible for fans to enjoy a modern match-day experience without dwarfing the sport in the Premier League’s giant arenas. The last time Chelsea’s women’s side played at Stamford Bridge, a Champions League tie against Wolfsburg in 2016, only 3,783 fans turned up. That may begin to change.

Arsenal currently play at their modest Borehamwood stadium which holds a 4,500 capacity

Arsenal currently play at their modest Borehamwood stadium which holds a 4,500 capacity

Saturday at the Etihad was a step forward. Later this season Montemurro’s Arsenal will play Spurs at White Hart Lane, another that should attract a bumper crowd. Every WSL match will be available on an FA Player service. Visibility, familiarity, accessibility growing.

‘We are on an upward curve,’ says Montemurro. ‘It is all brand. You get an Arsenal-Barcelona semi-final in the Champions League in women’s football, you’re going to get the crowd. Purpose-built boutique stadiums with 10,000 or 15,000 capacities, let’s fill them, let’s make them attractive. 

‘Then the product on television is going to be attractive. The viewers will see a game in a beautiful little stadium, great football, more attractive, more fans. These athletes are amazing and the growth will happen but let’s grow it organically. Let’s not take three or four steps back.

‘We don’t get many opportunities in women’s football. We only get one opportunity to showcase it and make it good and it’s got to work then. If it doesn’t, you go back to the dark ages and we can’t afford that.

‘Let’s make it purpose-built. There will be select games like the North London derby in bigger stadiums but we have to grow prudently and we have to grow smart.’

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