We spend a lot of time on Leading the Line talking about fan experience with the desire to increase support and coverage of women’s football becoming heightened as a new Scottish season starts to emerge on the horizon. With that in mind editor, Chris Marshall, used a December trip to Madrid to see how things are done in Spain as Atlético Madrid Femenino hosted Athletic Club at the Centro Deportivo Wanda in the historic town of Alcalá de Henares.
Alcalá is one of a number of beautiful towns situated in the Communidad de Madrid, a university town littered with historic cathedrals, buildings and bars aplenty. Sadly though the Centro Deportivo Wanda, which was opened in September 2019, is found in one of the town’s less picturesque spots in an area that led a decade long Madrilèno to say, “I don’t think I’ve ever been to this part of town before.”
A train (more recognisably known as the Cercanias) from the centre of Madrid whether it be via Sol or Atocha takes approximately 45 minutes and should you choose to alight at either Alcalá de Henares or Alcalá Universidad, it will be another half hour walk before you reach the ground. Buses are also available from Avenida de Americas and again these take around 45 minutes but do at least drop you a little bit closer to the Centro.
In 2017 the men’s side moved from the iconic Vicente Calderon (in the south) to the more modern but significantly less characterful Wanda Metropolitano (in the north), a move that sees fans of Los Rojiblancos who reside in the clubs traditional heartlands have to make an hour plus journey north to their new home. With the opening of the new facility in September 2019 the women’s side also found themselves somewhat displaced moving from Majadahonda in the North West to Alcalá in the east.
In terms of pure distance, the Centro Deportivo Wanda lies 40km from the site of the old Vicente Calderon, 58km from their previous home in Majadahonda and 26km from the Wanda Metropolitano home of the men’s side, where a record crowd for a women’s club match of 60,739 saw Atléti defeated by perennial title foes Barcelona.
Whilst the displacement and distance from a clubs traditional roots has had its negatives, having a set fixed abode with top end facilities where you are the priority, something that is not the case for many Scottish sides at present, has its benefits and the move has been viewed positively by those who follow the club as I made my way towards the ground I could see why.
The ticketing process was pretty straightforward, even though the Spanish penchant for last minute fixture scheduling (a trait that can be found in both genders of the game), meant that it was only five days in advance of kick-off that both the time and date were determined. Tickets could be printed off online in advance for 10€ or alternatively purchased at the kiosks located beside the main stand prior to kick off for the same price whilst club members, or socios as they are better known in Spain, could enter the game for free using their membership cards with all seating unallocated barring the top tier of the main stand. I had decided to purchase in advance, something that turned out to be a good decision as there was a decent sized queue present at the kiosks with just five minutes left before kick-off.
As a regular attendee of Scottish Women’s football games I was a little in awe as I scanned my ticket through the electronic barriers and onto the open air concourse that led to the stands. Whilst there are only three sides to the ground this 2,700 capacity all seated arena was a world away from what I was used to. The main stand was unique in design and gave an impressive focus to the low tiered seating that was found on the other two sides of the superbly manicured grass pitch. One of the best vantage points came from an elevated corner of hard standing which we decided to perch ourselves on although I certainly could have coped without the net behind the goal beside the entrance, one of the scourges of modern football that I’ve yet to understand as to why at some venues it has become a thing.
There was, at a guess, around 1,500 in attendance as Atléti hosted Athletic Club, currently Spain’s most successful club having captured five Primera titles to date, with the Bilbao club’s success made all the more remarkable in that they too only select players of Basque origin.
There was a good mix in the stands of which two things immediately stood out. Firstly there was a strong and colourful contingent supporting Athletic and secondly, the solid number of older male faces in the crowd, the type of faces that some elements of women’s football discourse tells you, aren’t that interested.
The atmosphere was very good throughout, aided by some questionable officiating and a superbly entertaining game that swayed back and forth before both sides had to make do with a 2-2 draw and the point that came with it. An atmosphere that sells is perhaps one of the biggest challenges women’s football in Scotland faces and whilst this did not have the feral undercurrent that a game between the two men’s sides may have had there was still plenty of chanting, shouting and cheering to be heard with the tone set early with the Atleti anthem ringing out as both sides entered the fray. One gentleman in particular, wireless hanging from his ear, was living and breathing every kick of the ball. This year’s Scottish Cup Final was the closest we have come to match something like this in our own backyard so far.
As we made our way out of the ground with the post-match buzz still tingling in the air as players mingled with fans, taking pictures and signing autographs as women’s footballers almost always do, I was struck by how “big-time” it was all made to feel. The stadium and pitch were sparkling, the required facilities were there and in full whilst the tannoy and the person operating it boomed and encouraged with the fans in attendance more than happy to play along.
The most encouraging thing though was that for my three companions, well-travelled football fans and current Madrid residents, who had come along with me for their first taste of Primera football in its natural habitat it was an experience that all were looking forward to doing again.
Spain has not been a long-term picture of success in women’s football but has been quick to react to the game’s global growth, using the power of their footballing brands to elevate it at an expedited rate. They haven’t always got it right, see the recent player strikes the CD Tacon/Real Madrid mess as cases in point, but I left that day quietly confident about the game’s sustainability and growth in Spain a feeling I hope is replicated when the new Scottish women’s football season comes around at the start of 2020.
Remember you can follow Leading the Line on Twitter, @LeadingtheLine. Here there will be live insight from the games, comments on the breaking stories from the world of women’s football news as well as early sight of what will be coming via the podcast and on the website. It’s right good!