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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Lycett

Booing, banter, and Russo: Why rivalries in women's football just got serious

This weekend, Alessia Russo returned to Manchester United's Leigh Sports Village for the first time since leaving on a free for Arsenal.


On social media, the backlash against Lessi was strong when she left her former club. United fans turned on her even before it was official. Arsenal fans were vocal in how much they wanted the move to happen.


At the game, United fans booed her from the moment her name was read out. They booed her whenever she touched the ball - and they cheered if she lost it.


Now, let's put this into context.


Some have pointed to Jordan Nobbs leaving Arsenal for Villa as the equivalent situation, saying that we never thought of booing her.


Lessi Russo leaving United is not at all the same.


Jordan left for game time, knowing it could be her last chance to go to a World Cup. At Arsenal, she didn't fit in Jonas's squad, he made that clear.


For Arsenal, the equivalent would be Katie McCabe going to Chelsea.


I'm not picking a name out of a hat there. Back in January, Chelsea put a bid in for Katie. Arsenal refused to sell her.


The story goes that clubs don't put in bids unless there's interest from the player, which makes sense.


The player would likely have to uproot and move, and the bidding club wouldn't want to lose face if it was a straight no.


Nevertheless, at that time, it sparked debate aplenty in the WhatsApp group chats I'm a part of.


Would she go? Would we be angry if she did?


People were divided. Some said they'd be angry as Chelsea are a direct rival, and she'd only be going for money - so they'd give her stick at games. That's football.


Others were adamant they wouldn't, as it's her choice to leave and it's simply a job, at the end of the day. They'd wish her well.


Both are logical - and valid - arguments. I tend to agree with the latter, but it's difficult to test how the majority would react unless put into practice.


So, back to Russo where we got to see the fallout of similar circumstances.


Lessi left United for a rival club. There will of course be reasons behind this decision that we'll never truly understand, so I'm not going to debate them here. However, on paper, that's a fact.


The United fans chose the "be angry and boo" route - an unusual occurrence in women's football unless associated with the player's on-pitch antics. We booed the Liverpool players aplenty during their many time-wasting stints in the first of our WSL games of the season.


My initial take on United booing Lessi: why spend so much energy booing a player not on your team? Why not spend some of that energy cheering for the players still in your team?


You're simply showing that you care more about another team's player than your own if you do it that much.


The Sky commentators picked up on how it seemed to give Lessi a boost.


Other players have talked about that before, with City's Ellie Robuck saying our chants fired her up to win.


Alessia Russo is a professional footballer. Yes, she's young, but she'd be prepared for it, and seemed to find motivation in it - and hopefully from us singing for her too.


She was so close to scoring, and she deserved it with the shift she put in. She rarely plays a full 90 minutes, but she did against United. Coincidence..?


When Stina and Cloé scored, Lessi was in the thick of it, celebrating hard, as she had every right to do.


We were giving as good as we got as Arsenal supporters too.


United beat Arsenal twice last season, so we had a score to settle.


We celebrated like we won, even if we simply took home one point.


We also wanted some banter with the fans. We weren't just singing in support of Lessi. We were chanting about Mary Earps leaving on a free too.


It was almost a derby atmosphere, with Pitch Perfect-style, sing-off banter continuing well into the night at the pub after the game.


Our chants likely heightened the emotions of the day, pushing United fans to counter - and for us to come back louder in response.


Had we not been there to answer in support of Lessi, it may well have seemed more like bullying.


As it was, it became a call and response that simply allowed us to show that Lessi had made the right decision to join us. It gave us the chance to show our support, and I hope she heard and felt that, loud and clear.


Rivalries are born off the back of moves and moments like this.


This was one of the most high profile transfers in the world for women's football. We took their star player, on a free, no less (pun intended…).


United fans were going to have feelings about that. Although I personally wouldn't choose to boo - and I feel the amount they did was excessive - the fact that they expressed their bitterness in that way demonstrates the very real passion in the women's game.


All in all, booing is reflective of the tribalism football evokes. You want your team and players to win. You're invested in your club - and want your players to as well.


Strengthening a rival is not it.


Of course, rival fans will give you sh*t if your player joins them, and of course you'll want to respond. It's natural that the player is the subject of some of the resentment too.


As more transfers to rival clubs taken place, this will become more the norm. I'm not saying it's nice to be booed, or to boo.


Players will have to learn mental resilience against it. But, as long as it's not your current club, at least they can understand the reason behind it, logically.


This is simply the next stage in women's footballing rivalries; not just wanting your team to win, but being fiercely protective of your players and feeling the betrayal of a player that leaves for a rival.


Until that happens next to us at Arsenal, I'll be glad that we have that passion in the game and the chance to really wind up our rivals.


But I'll also keep supporting our players and singing "We've got 👏👏 Lessi Russo, we've got 👏👏 Lessi Russo…"

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