Michael Pavitt

The past week has marked a significant one in the football world, off the field as much as on it.

With qualification virtually completed and the group stage draw having taken place on Friday (April 1), the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup now feels a more tangible thing.

All the trappings of the tournament were on show this week. A drawn-out draw ceremony, excitement over teams’ prospects, debate over the group of death - or lack of - and organisers facing further questions over the treatment of workers and LGBT people.

Prior to the draw, organisers revealed 804,186 tickets had been sold during the first sales phase for the competition.

Hosts Qatar were claimed to have been the top buyers of tickets, with the United States, England, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, India, Brazil, Argentina, and Saudi Arabia completing the top 10.

The suggestion from the countries listed is that the concerns surrounding Qatar 2022 have not dissuaded fans from some of the vocal critics of the tournament from wanting to travel.

A positive aspect for FIFA is that the tournament should avoid the criticisms previous major events in Qatar have had, such as the 2019 World Athletics Championships, where free tickets were given away by organisers amid swathes of empty seats.

Perhaps the question now will be how the smallest FIFA World Cup host nation will cope with the influx of fans for the tournament.

Even if the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup final is a sell-out at the 80,000 capacity Lusail International Stadium, it may have the second largest crowd for the final of an international football tournament this year.

The Lusail International Stadium is due to host the men's FIFA World Cup final ©Getty Images
The Lusail International Stadium is due to host the men's FIFA World Cup final ©Getty Images

It follows impressive ticket sales being reported this week in England in advance of the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022.

Organisers revealed over 350,000 of the 700,000 tickets for the tournament had been sold during the pre-sale and public ballot phase window.

Six of the matches have already been declared sell-outs, including the final at the 90,000 capacity Wembley Stadium on July 31.

The latest figures have opened up the possibility of record-breaking success for the tournament, having already surpassed the 240,000 tickets sold for the 2017 event in the Netherlands.

"This summer is going to be a game-changer for European women’s football and we can’t wait to showcase what will be a record-breaking tournament," Nadine Kessler, UEFA chief of women's football, said this week. "It’s going to be bigger and better than ever before."

The final could see the record attendance for the tournament more than double, with the highest attendance currently standing at the 41,301 achieved in the 2013 final between Germany and Norway in Sweden. The record for a women’s international in England could be under threat, with the United States and Japan watched by 80,023 at the London 2012 Olympic final.

Should England reach the final the hosts could potentially surpass their national record for a women’s fixture, with the current mark set in 2019 when 77,768 watched their match with two-time world champions Germany.

Despite suffering a 2-1 defeat, the occasion appeared to signal a growing momentum for women’s football, with national teams setting records and club sides beginning to open the doors of their stadiums.

The momentum was certainly checked by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the shutters having been put up across sport for the best part of two years.

The pandemic meant several potential milestones became somewhat low-key affairs, with Manchester United’s women’s team taking to the pitch at Old Trafford without the presence of spectators. Barcelona’s all-conquering side also played their first fixture at the cavernous Camp Nou under the same circumstances.

Barcelona set the official world record crowd for a women's football match this week ©Getty Images
Barcelona set the official world record crowd for a women's football match this week ©Getty Images

This week saw those wrongs righted, with Manchester United achieving a Women’s Super League season high crowd of 20,241 when beating Everton 3-1.

Barcelona significantly eclipsed that mark in midweek by selling out the 99,354 capacity Camp Nou in advance of their Women’s UEFA Champions League fixture with rivals Real Madrid.

Balon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas had claimed prior to the tie that it could mark the beginning of a new era for women’s football.

The scenes prior to the games suggested Putellas may be correct, with the tournament holders having been greeted by large crowds on route to the stadium. The type that would typically have been seen in the build-up to a knock-out fixture in the men’s tournament.

Whereas in the past teams have lauded the selling out tickets prior to matches, only for the actual attendance to drop off, Barcelona were able to set a world record crowd of 91,553 for a women’s fixture. The previous official mark had stood at 90,185, which was set at the FIFA Women’s World Cup final in the United States in 1999.

The turnout suggested that Barcelona are setting the standard for the women’s game off the pitch as well as on it, with their team treating the crowd to a 5-2 victory on the pitch and an 8-3 success on aggregate.

Putellas, who was among the goalscorers on the night, labelled the experience as "indescribable" and suggested it could be the first of many visits to a packed Camp Nou in the future.

"I'm almost speechless, this has been utterly magical," Putellas told UEFA. "When the match finished, the fans simply didn't want to go home.

"There was such a connection between them and us while we celebrated. To hear them singing that they want to go to Turin was superb.

"When tickets sold out in just three days I admit that we were all a little surprised because it tells you how much the fans want to see you in the Camp Nou, how much they want you to win.

"But to actually experience tonight has been beyond comparison, to come out and see this stadium full to the brim, indescribable."

Barcelona captain Alexia Putellas said the match at the Camp Nou was
Barcelona captain Alexia Putellas said the match at the Camp Nou was "absolutely magical" ©Getty Images

Even Real Madrid’s coach Alberto Toril looked on the bright side despite the defeat, stating that "women’s football is unstoppable - it’s going to grow and grow."

Barcelona President Joan Laporta announced today that the Champions League semi-final against Wolfsburg will also take place at the Camp Nou.

The success of the quarter-final should also offer encouragement to other clubs to follow suit in both hosting matches at larger stadia and ensuring the crowds turn out.

Real Madrid, for instance, had hosted the first leg of the tie at the 6,000 capacity Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium rather than the Santiago Bernabéu. Women’s Super League outfit Arsenal had hosted their quarter-final at the 60,260 capacity Emirates Stadium, but just over 5,000 fans were in attendance.

While lauding the Barcelona achievement and strong crowds for the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, the fixtures currently are the rarity rather than the norm. Barcelona’s return to league action yesterday was witnessed by 3,999 at the 6,000 capacity Estadi Johan Cruyff.

It is also worth noting that despite the high sales figures for the Women’s Euro 2022, the invitational Arnold Clark Cup arranged in England in February saw disappointingly low crowds for matches not featuring the hosts.

The momentum is undoubtedly back in growing crowds, but there remains a long way to go.