Football for free: will Paris FC’s brave policy raise profile of women’s game? | Paris FC

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The German club Fortuna Düsseldorf made headlines this year by trialling free entry at select home games this season, but they have since been topped by France’s Paris FC. Since the start of November, all the club’s league games – encompassing the men’s and the women’s teams – can be attended free of charge until the end of the campaign.

At the time the club president, Pierre Ferracci, described the initiative as an attempt to make football more “accessible”. Perhaps more pressingly, it’s also seen as an answer to an “operational issue” for the club – low attendances at the Stade Charléty home ground is “one of our weak spots”. The 20,000-capacity stadium, part of a multisports complex nestled in the south of the city by the main ring road, has been occupied by the club since 2007. The men’s team draw around 4,000 spectators a game.

According to Ferracci, the immediate losses would be worth around €1m (£860,000) over the course of the campaign – a figure he hopes to offset by bringing in new sponsors as well as increased sales of food and drink on matchdays.

The scheme has drawn in new support for both the men’s team and the more successful women’s section. The effect has been immediate – 13,472 came to watch the men’s Ligue 2 home game against Bordeaux in November, the team’s best crowd since 2015.

But as Paris FC look to step out of their superclub neighbour’s shadow – with Middle Eastern backing of their own, from Bahrain – it’s the women’s team and their recent success that are driving a push for new fans. Considering the side was only fully absorbed by Paris FC in 2017 – having previously won six league titles as Juvisy – it has rapidly become an integral and prominent part of the club’s identity.

A Women’s Champions League match against Real Madrid last week was an early indication of the success the scheme could have. Although the match was not part of the free-tickets initiative because of Uefa regulations, the cut-price ticketing scheme still drew 10,693 spectators – more than double what they got in the previous record.

The team turned in a performance worthy of the occasion as goals from Julie Dufour and the captain, Gaëtane Thiney, established a commanding lead within the first six minutes. The goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie kept out a penalty from Olga Carmona, although the Spanish side eventually pulled one back through Caroline Møller in the second half. Paris FC held out, though, and put their first points of the European campaign on the board.

Thiney, who was named player of the match by Uefa, led a festive lap of honour around the stadium, thanking the fans for the impressive turnout. The veteran praised the record-breaking crowd’s “incredible energy”, telling Le Parisien: “It’s great to show a big club like Real Madrid that we, Paris FC, are able to draw in nearly 11,000 people for a women’s match. I think even the Real players were happy to play in front of that many people.”

The manager, Sandrine Soubeyrand, pointed out that her players were “emotionally invested in bringing people to the stadium”. She added: “They don’t want to just play football, they want to play a part in the development of women’s football. They’re committed. Hosting 10,000 people is a success for the entire club.”

Stade Charléty drew 10,693 fans for Paris FC’s Women’s Champions League match against Real Madrid. Photograph: Footeuses

At the derby against Paris Saint-Germain the following weekend there was a lower turnout – the 9pm Sunday slot and the freezing temperatures would not have helped, on top of the fact that the PSG men’s team were playing at the same time. The attendance of 4,002 was nevertheless a marked increase from the usual figure for a major fixture. Around 2,400 had turned up for the league game against Lyon at the start of November, a 6-1 defeat, just before the free tickets scheme came into effect.

The hosts enjoyed a similarly fast start against their cross-town rivals as Thiney converted a penalty four minutes in. PSG soon equalised with a spot-kick of their own through Sandy Baltimore, before Marie-Antoinette Katoto scored their eventual winner just before the break.

Despite some second-half heroics from Nnadozie to keep them in the game, Soubeyrand’s team were unable to draw level. Despite the result, Paris remain second, three points ahead of PSG with Lyon eight points clear at the top of the table.

Moving the Goalposts spoke to some of the fans at the derby and Christophe, a Lyon native who now works in Paris, is a regular at Charléty. He commended Paris FC for the work they do in “democratising women’s football”, saying he finds the team more “accessible” than their rivals. “For example, you always see Gaëtane Thiney come over to thank the fans at the end of the game, players like Clara Matéo come over as well,” he said.

The match also won over some first-timers – Sandie, who previously had watched the odd Paris FC game on TV, had never been down to the stadium. Despite the defeat, she intends to come back again, having been won over by the buoyant atmosphere and the spectacle on the pitch. She points out, though, that the free entry scheme can’t last for ever: “It would be good for fans to contribute in some way as well.”

Whether the initiative translates into long-term sustained growth, beyond the big games, remains to be seen. Despite steady year-on-year increase, attendance figures in the French women’s top flight still lag badly behind their English and German counterparts, with an average of only 841 a game last season. The hope is that Paris FC’s scheme can spark an upturn in numbers, at least in the French capital. Swinging open the stadium gates to all will, in any case, bolster the club’s credentials as a more humble alternative to the bright lights of the Parc des Princes.

Having returned to action this autumn after a year-long absence because of an anterior cruciate ligament injury, PSG’s Marie-Antoinette Katoto had been struggling for form so far this season. Her well-taken winner in the derby at the weekend, though, shows the French international is very much on track for a return to her devastating best.

In the latest edition of Women’s Football Weekly, Faye Carruthers is joined by Sophie Downey, Anita Asante and Chris Slegg to discuss a north London derby win for Spurs and moments of season so far.

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