Women's soccer gets another boost with huge crowd in Italy
By DANIELLA MATAR
MILAN (AP) - The setting was a major European soccer stadium, the actors on the grassy stage were playing themselves, and the scene was an Italian league women's match - one like never before.
More than 39,000 people packed into the Allianz Stadium to watch Juventus Women beat Fiorentina Women 1-0 on a sunny Sunday afternoon, a record attendance in Italy that far eclipsed the old mark of 14,000.
This was no Hollywood movie, though, this was another shining example of the exceptional growth of women's soccer.
"You come out in those three seconds, you look around and you say to yourself, 'What is this, a cartoon?' But no, it's reality. And that's the beauty," Juventus coach Rita Guarino said. "We need experience, we need to make it become the norm."
It was the first time the Juventus Women played at the same stadium that the men's team calls home, and tickets were free. But besides the huge crowd, one of the biggest ever for a European club match, it also drew more than 1 million unique viewers on television - nearly double the previous record for a women's soccer game on Sky in Italy.
On March 17, there were 60,739 people at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium to watch Barcelona beat host Atletico Madrid 2-0 in a women's game. That followed a match in January which Athletic Bilbao said at the time was a European club record when 48,121 attended a Spanish Cup match against Atletico at San Mames Stadium.
The match in Turin was another leap forward in the quest for wider acceptance.
"When these numbers become ordinary, then it will be extraordinary," Fiorentina coach Antonio Cincotta said. "This has to be a starting point, not a point of arrival."
The record attendance for any women's match was set at the 1999 World Cup when 90,185 people watched the United States beat China in the final at the Rose Bowl. But interest in women's soccer has seen its share of highs and lows.
The Juventus players will surely notice a drop in adrenaline when they play their next home match against Tavagnacco on April 13. That game will be played club's training center in Vinovo, which has a capacity of only 500.
That is among the lowest in the league, but no women's Serie A team plays in a stadium with a capacity of more than 4,000.
"I don't think it's necessary to play in the same stadiums as the men play," AC Milan midfielder Lisa Alborghetti told The Associated Press. "It's necessary that there are facilities able to hold a big number of fans and that can give the women what they need, simply that."
Besides several recent instances of big attendance numbers, women's soccer has been making gains in other areas as well.
In the United States, the women's national team filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation over equal treatment and pay. The players said they were subjected to "institutionalized gender discrimination" that includes unequal pay with their counterparts on the men's national team.
And in Denmark two years ago, the women's national team signed a four-year collective bargaining agreement with the federation to end a dispute that saw the cancellation of a World Cup qualifier.
Video review is also expected to be used at this year's Women's World Cup in France, like it was at the men's tournament last year in Russia, while artificial surfaces for the competition have been ruled out.
At the club level, the Women's Super League in England will receive record levels of investment after securing a sponsorship deal reportedly worth more than 10 million pounds ($13.2 million) over the next three seasons.
Italy is a different story altogether, however, because women's teams are classified as amateur. But the growth still has been impressive to many.
"When we played, if there were 100 fans that was a lot," said Barbara Garbagnati, a former player who attended the match in Turin because she is friends with Juventus goalkeeper Laura Giuliani.
The fans inside the stadium made a day of it, too, cheering and chanting throughout the match while creating a relaxed atmosphere that made it a perfect opportunity for a family outing.
Sofie Pedersen, who scored the lone goal against Fiorentina, was already impressed with the positive attitude in Italy even before the match started.
"I think there is a lot of attention around women's football, more than I've (experienced) in other countries," said Pedersen, who has previously played for clubs in her home country of Denmark as well as in Sweden and Spain. "I really feel that people have respect. They respect us and that's really amazing to feel that."
Alborghetti, now 25 years old and a member of Italy's World Cup-bound national team, has seen the "incredible growth" of women's soccer in Italy firsthand, starting from the days when she was the only girl on her local team.
"Sometimes it was difficult, but above all because of the judgments, the people who would say, 'Oh, that team has a girl.' But then at the end of the match they would say, 'Well done, you have a girl.'
"It happened almost all the time, all the matches," she said. "The opposing teams would come on the field and be like, 'You have a girl,' and laugh. But at the end of the match they weren't laughing anymore."
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