Dubai: The popularity of women’s football has been on the rise since the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final in Canada and then well over 1.2 billion people watched the 2019 France editon on TV. More and more women are taking a keen interest in the beautiful game and with several Manchester City Women’s football team players visiting the Dubai Expo 2020 and doing their best to promote the sport via the #SameGoals initiative, it’s a great opportunity to talk about the future of women’s football back home in England and here in the UAE.
Manchester City have enjoyed some great results recently having just beaten fierce rivals Manchester United in front of a record-breaking crowd at the Academy Stadium in the derby and they are to play Chelsea in the final of the Continental Cup next month.
So, goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, defender Esme Morgan and midfielder Laura Coombs are in buoyant mood as we talk football - but they cannot hide their excitement at being at the Expo. It has exceeded their expectations with the women’s pavilion in particular really impressing them. “The whole thing has just really blown me away,” says US-born English footballer Bardsley. “It’s really cool to see all the different countries that are represented here and bringing what makes them special. I’ve absolutely loved the UAE pavilion because it just showcase what can happen when a lot of people pull together to make it work, and the vision that they had. We were lucky enough to get through the women’s pavilion and I felt really inspired by everything. You know, there were a lot of stories that were showcased that I’d actually never heard, that I think more people need to know about.”
The former Sky Blue FC star is not surprised why Dubai is an attractive destination for sports teams and athletes and believes more will continue to come to the emirate. “Obviously the weather is helpful in the winter and it’s one of these places where you can do anything, something’s always available at your fingertips. And then with the associations that they have with things like this, or with football clubs, particularly like World Cup coming across to the region, I just think really there’s a huge wave of excitement that people are just riding.”
Morgan, who has spent her entire career at City barring a loan spell at Everton, adds, “I think it’s such a comfortable place to visit from the minute you arrive to the UAE you are made to feel so welcome and it’s like your home even though you’re merely a visitor.”
Former Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal star Coombs believes the world-class facilities helps attracts top players and clubs. “I think the facilities are just amazing it’s no wonder people want to come in and train and spend their time out here. It’s amazing place to be.”
Bardsley is keen to see more female participation in the sport and has been impressed with the UAE National Team’s achievements in the AFC women’s Asia cup and feels the interest in the sport can grow here a lot more. “It seems like there are a lot of really strong, powerful women that are showcasing what they can do. So, if that opportunity is available in the UAE, then really it’s just getting people to participate and then see where it can go.”
#SameGoals rewards every girl who shares a video of them scoring – or saving – a goal on social media with an exclusive, limited-edition football provided by PUMA and has inspired over 5,000 girls worldwide to take part since 2018. Morgan hopes more girls will be attracted to the sport. “Having the statistics about the involvement in the same goals campaign, it’s increased by a thousand percent since last year, so I think that progress in just a year is frightening really and exciting to see how the interest could continue to grow.”
The trio are also pleased with the development, growth and progress of the Women’s Super League. “I’ve been talking about it a lot lately about the amount of change that we’ve seen, the rate of change that we’ve seen,” says Bardsley. “Earlier a lot players were working as part time teachers and had other jobs while playing football. But midway through 2014, we got professional contracts because the club realized it needed to step it up and make that jump. So, that set us all off in the right direction. Then when we went over to the Man City academy, and we were fully integrated into the boys set up as well and got to see what high-performance coaches were doing, you were learning the methodology, you were getting to know the players, and then you were changing their perceptions of women’s football as well. So that, that was pretty cool, but we did go through just a season of ups and downs at first.”
City qualified for the Champions League in 2015 and then in 2016 they blew everyone away in the league. And now with Sky and BBC signing broadcasting deals the sky is the limit for women’s football. “I think it’s brilliant,” says Coombs. “It definitely adds more professionalism. I feel like I need to make sure I’m doing everything I can to make the best product on the pitch. I know a lot of the teams feel the same and I think sort of the knock-on effect is that it’s just going to keep pushing each other really. So, we just need to make sure that the quality on the pitch is a good spectacle for everyone watching.”
And that is a sentiment all three City stars share in terms of the development of women’s football in the UAE.