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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Lycett

What should fans expect of the players in women's football?

Updated: Mar 4, 2023

Over the weekend, Arsenal women had a bad game. They lost 2-1 versus Manchester City - a team that they'd beaten three days before.

There was no cohesion in the team, and our defence - normally the most solid aspect of our game - collapsed. We clawed a goal back in the second half, but the damage was done. Title race probably over. Champions League qualification potentially slipping out of our grasp.

But it was after the game that things escalated.

Only a couple of the players clapped the travelling fans. Then they all dashed off, heading to their respective national team base camps. One headed to the Brit Awards. Few stopped to take photos with the fans, as they often do.

A selfie later with a City goal scorer at the awards sent Twitter reeling. Was the player taking the game seriously? How could she congratulate her opponent who mere hours before had cost Arsenal three points in the title race?

The criticism and reactions encapsulated a lot about expectations in the women's game and the issues it has to face as it grows.

A lot of the criticism levelled wouldn't have come to light if Arsenal had won.

The team lost with, to be fair, a performance that could be easily criticised - and that coloured the reaction of many fans.

We lost, and they couldn't even spend time with us.

We lost, and they couldn't even be bothered to clap for us.

We lost, and they had the audacity to have a social life after.

First point to make here is that losing is part of football. If a win was guaranteed every game, would you watch? I wouldn't. Sport is all about the tense wait and the exhilaration of a win. Losing feels terrible - but it makes the next win even more satisfying.

Fans do deserve a good game. They deserve something to cheer for - but it won't always happen. Emotions run high after a loss, people head to social media to vent, and it's in that space that criticism mounts up.

Fans shouldn't expect to meet the players as a consolation prize after a loss.

Meeting Arsenal women players has always been a luxury - and that's now changing.

Girls and boys have been able to meet their heroes in the women's game, the players that inspired them to play, for years. With small crowds, it was easily possible. Male players, on the other hand, are not accessible. They're untouchable. Would you allow rowdy football fans near someone that cost millions?

The Arsenal women's team will often come over to take photos at the end of the match, but it's no longer a guarantee and shouldn't be an expectation, even in the face of a loss.

The game is growing, and so is the fanbase. From audiences in the hundreds - if that - to stadiums full of 40,000 people, players will never satisfy everyone that wants to meet them. Post-euros, for many fans it's now about meeting the celebrity, often at the expense of the game. Teens with signs asking for shirts get angry when they're ignored.

The fact of the matter is that players are contracted to play football, not to meet fans. That's something that they've simply chosen to do, to give their time freely. They're not commodities - when we buy a ticket, we aren't buying access to a player. We're paying to watch the game. Meeting a player is a nice extra, not the sole purpose of being there.

Clapping fans at the end of the game is more nuanced.

In the men's game, players normally clap the fans. Supporting the men's game is a lot more expensive than the women's game. That's starting to change as the number of fans that follow the Arsenal over land and sea is growing too - and that means extra expense, even if the ticket prices stay low.

Some Twitter comments say it's the fans' choice to travel to watch - why should players be obliged to clap them? But surely the growth of the game wouldn't happen without those same fans? It swings in roundabouts.

However, there's more than one way for players to acknowledge the fans.

As much as social media is used to share negativity, players use it to express their gratitude to the fans too. We know they hear us. We know they appreciate the efforts we make to bring energy to the game. We don't need them to clap us in person to validate that appreciation.

In both instances, we need to recognise the human in the players.

Off the back of a game where the team played poorly, it's understandable that the players wouldn't want to paste on a smile and go and meet or wave and clap at the fans that they've just disappointed. Anyone among us would rather go home, and find a way to avoid ruminating in that situation.

Football, as with any sport played at the top level, is all about mental strength. If players need to step away from the pitch, quickly, to maintain that, then so be it.

Players being friends with opponents or, heaven forbid, socialising when they've lost, also shouldn't be criticised. Players are allowed to leave the game on the pitch and be friends with whomever they wish. In fact, that's admirable. That's resilience right there.

In other industries, we turn off our computers or leave the office or workplace, and there's a line drawn (unless you're a workaholic, but that's a different issue).

Footballers should have that privilege too, without the peculiar weight of expectation - unique to the women's game - around what players owe the fans. In reality, aside from getting out on that pitch and giving it their all, they don't owe us anything more.

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