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27 September 2011

Only girls allowed

Turkish club Fenerbahçe hosted a historic night of football on which no men were allowed in the grou

By Nilpa Shah

Spending a “girls’ night out” at a football match might appear to be something of an oxymoron. Yet in what is thought to be a world first, more than 41,000 women and children aged under 12 packed the Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium in Istanbul last Tuesday evening – home to Turkish first division side Fenerbahçe – in a league match where men were banned from attending.

The Turkish Football Federation (TFF) had initially ordered that the club play their first two games of the season behind closed-doors in a bid to combat violence and hooliganism after fans had invaded the pitch during a pre-season friendly against the Ukrainian side, Shakhtar Donetsk. However authorities had a change of heart and instead decided to admit only women and children for free to the matches.

Following the game, both the players and the Turkish football authorities felt the “experiment” had gone well and called for a greater push to increase the number of women and families present at football matches. The vice-president of Fenerbahçe, Ali Koc who was speaking to CNN, described the atmosphere as being one of a kind and “historic in the sense of Turkish football as well as international football”.

One fan, American-born Charlotte Surmeli told the Guardian that “grandmothers in their 70s with their daughters and their grandchildren [were present]. For these women it could be the first and only match they ever go to but I really hope they continue to do it”.

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Players from both Fenerbahçe and the opposing side, Manisaspor, tossed flowers to the women in the crowd and were eager to champion the whole experience as a great success. Fenerbahçe’s captain, Alex de Sousa revealed that the memory of the night would stay with him forever whilst Everton loanee, Joseph Yobo said “we have to thank the ladies for coming to support us. It is difficult playing without fans.” Omer Aysan, midfielder for the opposition, agreed saying it was “such a fun and pleasant atmosphere”.

After reading about this historic game, it got me thinking about whether the idea would be feasible for a Premier League game. There are already a large number of women attending football matches in England. According to a Populus survey in August 2010, 19 per cent of match attendees in the 2008-09 season were women.

A stadium packed to the rafters but with no men present would certainly be quite a sight. But it would no doubt also feel strange. The man launching a foul-mouthed tirade at the ref and the guy offering his expert analysis at half-time are an essential part of the English football experience.

Hooliganism is not as much of a problem as it once was and there have been some initiatives taken by some clubs and the FA to broaden their fan base and make it more diverse. For example, at England matches, the FA has launched a discounted price for a family ticket of four, which allows the match to be enjoyed from a specially designated enclosure.

Karen Espelund, the first women’s delegate appointed to the UEFA executive committee, who was speaking at a UEFA meeting in Cyprus, has also advocated the need to involve more families in the game. She said “the answer has been quite clear that the more families you have in the stands, the better the atmosphere you get”.

The Premier League and other divisions should definitely learn from Fenerbahçe’s experiment and attempt to increase the number of families present at football matches, but it’s hard to imagine a Premier League match attended by women alone. If the scheme were ever to be implemented over here, I fear we’d have a riot from football-starved males on our hands.