Ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, FSE spoke to Deborah Dilworth, who is running the Free Lionesses fans’ embassy in France on behalf of the Football Supporters’ Association, the new English fan organisation created after the Football Supporters’ Federation and Supporters Direct voted to merge with one another.
FSE: Let’s start with a simple question: what is a fan’s embassy?
DD: A fans’ embassy provides supporters of national teams with a central check-in point for each game in a major tournament or qualification campaign. We offer a wide range of services, including a free guide which covers travel, host cities, and other useful information, such as the location of the British embassy and consulate. Fans’ embassies also act as a meeting point for people to socialise.
FSE: Is this the first time that a fans’ embassy has been run for a women’s competition?
DD: Yes. For the past twenty years, the Football Supporters Federation (the forerunner to the FSA) has been running a fans’ embassy called Free Lions for those who follow the England men’s team, but this is the first outing for Free Lionesses. It definitely won’t be the last!
FSE: How does it work on the ground? Who do you work with, who provides support, and so on?
DD: There’s two aspects to the embassy. First, there’s the fan guide, which we produced with the help of the Football Association (F.A.) and She Kicks. Second, there’s the physical embassy itself, which is open the day before the match and on matchdays. There’s someone coming in from the University Campus of Football Business (UCFB) to help me on the desk, and someone from Derby University will be helping with some of the content we’ll be producing.
The F.A. also run a fan hub. We try to work together and help each other out, but we’re providing two different services. The fans’ hub deal with ticketing, official merchandise, and things of that nature.
FSE: How many fans are you expecting to follow England in France?
DD: The tickets are sold partly through the F.A. and partly through FIFA. I think around 1,300 tickets have been sold by the F.A. and FIFA have sent another 11,000 or so to UK postcodes. I’d say roughly 13,000 all in all.
FSE: And there have been issues with the ticketing?
DD: Yes. The F.A. scheme has been fine, but a lot of people who bought their tickets from FIFA have encountered problems. Fans who bought several tickets for themselves and their family or friends soon realised when they downloaded them that they were allocated in different areas of the stadium, sometimes even in different stands. Unfortunately, many people are still waiting for their tickets to be reallocated together, so we’re helping them with that.
You have to wonder how this has happened. I mean, how many tournaments have they run? And why have things been so difficult during this one? It’s a real shame because there’s a lot of good work going on within FIFA and other organisations around the women’s game, and this has, to an extent, undermined it.
FSE: Are there any challenges that are specific to running a fans’ embassy for fans of women’s national teams?
DD: There is a difference. As we’ve witnessed over the past few days in Portugal, a minority of England fans caused a lot of trouble, and the Free Lions have condemned it. We probably won’t have to deal with that kind of behaviour.
We’ll likely be focusing on the more logistical aspects of away fandom—ticketing, travel between host cities, that sort of thing.
But that doesn’t mean that one embassy is more important than the other. They’re both there to help fans.
FSE: You haven’t been there long, but what are your initial thoughts on France as a host nation?
There have been questions about whether there’s been enough publicity around the host cities, but I drove from Nice down the coast and there was a lot of PR. There were also signs and posters about the World Cup in the airport. There could always be more, I suppose, and that’s certainly been a criticism going back to the previous European Championship.
FSE: Do you think this is a big opportunity to showcase the women’s game to the world?
DD: There’s been a marked increase in the amount of interest in the women’s game over the past few years, but it still has a long way to go. A lot of people are holding onto archaic views, especially back home, which can be trying. But the more and more attention the women’s game receives in the media, the easier it will be to change those attitudes.
The way that the England squad was announced, with one player revealed every hour, is a good example of that. It created a lot of buzz and engaged a wider audience.
But there’s still a barrier there. You know, I wanted to see England flags go up in house windows and on high streets, but I haven’t seen that where I live, and a lot of people still don’t know the World Cup is happening.
FSE: What is the state of fan culture in the English women’s game?
DD: There’s definitely a distinct fan culture around the women’s game in England, and it’s completely different to the one that exists in the men’s game. I think it’s fair to say that it has a more collaborative vibe. I don’t want to generalise, but a lot of people feel a sense of goodwill towards the women’s game. Even if you support Arsenal, you’re still happy that Tottenham are doing well. You don’t really get that in the men’s game.
Fandom is growing, too, and that’s where the FSA come in. At the moment, it’s in a precarious position because there aren’t any regulations governing supporter engagement, which means fans are not necessarily consulted on important issues.
FSE: When it comes to developing fandom in the women’s game, do you think England can learn anything from other countries?
DD: The U.S. are bringing the most fans to France and they’ve got a good track record when it comes to investing in the women’s game. I don’t want to get into a debate about American fan culture, but, at the very least, the whole country seems to get behind the national team during big tournaments. That doesn’t happen to the same extent in Europe.
FSE: And finally, who do you think will win the World Cup?
DD: I’m going to stick with England. I think we’ve got a good chance, or at least I hope we do!