If you ask English football followers, especially in India, who's contesting this year’s FA Cup final, the answer you will get is that it's Manchester United vs Crystal Palace on May 22. While that may be true, there’s another FA Cup final on Saturday at the Wembley Stadium, and it’s between Arsenal and Chelsea.
To be more specific, the Arsenal Ladies take on the Chelsea Ladies in Saturday’s all-London Women's FA Cup final. And there are many reasons you should be following this game (although the match is not being telecast live in India), apart from the fact that this is a London Derby and Cup final.
Kait Borsay, presenter and producer of the Offside Rule Podcast (We get it!), believes this match will be more interesting than the men’s final. “These are two teams from London with plenty of years of rivalry behind them, so I’m sure the game will attract more male fans of both teams,” she said.
Giving a bit of background into women's football in England, Borsay added, “Before Manchester City Women came along, Arsenal dominated.” The club won the FA Women’s Super League – the women’s equivalent of the Premier League – twice since its inception in 2011, after clinching the erstwhile FA Women's Premier League seven times.
“Chelsea turned up much later and after a few near misses, they reached their peak last year with the WSL-FA Cup double. Arsenal were poor last year (finished third), but have been building with some success. Arsenal lie third in the WSL and Chelsea are second. This will be a tight contest,” she added.
Interest in women’s football in the United Kingdom spiked after England rather unexpectedly finished third in last year’s Women’s World Cup. Borsay said the buzz around Saturday’s game has not been quite as intense as last year when the final took place right after the World Cup.
However, according to England’s Football Association, or FA, more than 30,000 people have already bought tickets for Saturday’s game, and last year’s record of 30,710 is expected to be broken. And it isn’t for no reason.
Wembley is set to host a number of star players, including 12 England internationals. Among them are England’s most capped player, Fara Williams. The 32-year-old has played for the national team 153 times and appeared in three World Cups. It’s been six years since Williams was last seen in an FA Cup final – starring in a memorable 3-2 extra-time win while playing for Everton against her current club Arsenal.
“Newly signed for Arsenal this season, it's a chance to see her pick up just her second FA Cup trophy, which is pretty surprising for a player of her calibre. She's one of the most talented players in the WSL,” said Borsay.
Up against Williams in the midfield will be another player with an illustrious CV. Chelsea’s Katie Chapman, 33, who earlier played for Arsenal, will be aiming for an incredible 10th FA Cup winner’s medal. However, the player who is likely to grab the most spotlight is the diminutive Chelsea striker Fran Kirby, known as England’s “mini Messi”.
Last year, she became the first player from the second division of the WSL to make it to England’s World Cup squad. She justified her selection by scoring in the 2-1 win over Mexico in the group stages. The 22-year-old has been in great form, scoring an extra-time winner against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final and a brace against Arsenal in the WSL in April.
Chelsea also has “technically one of the best female players in the world” in Ji So-yun, said Borsay. The South Korea forward had scored the only goal in last year’s final for Chelsea against Notts County and saved the team in this year’s semi-final against City with a superb free-kick. Ji was named the Professional Footballers’ Association’s Women’s Player of the Year in 2015.
Also one to watch out for is Arsenal’s Nigerian forward Asisat Oshoala, who scored in her league debut for the team after being signed from Liverpool only in March. She was the top scorer in the 2014 Women’s Under-20 World Cup and named the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year in 2015.
The FA Women’s Cup final is being shown live on BBC in the United Kingdom. Another broadcaster, BT Sport, has bought the rights for the WSL from 2014 to 2018. However, English women’s football isn’t telecast in countries such as India, where there is a lot of interest in the men’s game.
In 2012, Manchester United was named the world’s most popular club, with 659 million followers worldwide, according to a global football follower survey conducted by market research agency Kantar. Out of these, 359 million supporters were from Asia.
Will we finally see women’s football in India?
Prakash Govindasreenivasan, a Chelsea fan from Bangalore, said English women’s football might work in India if it is marketed well. The 26-year-old said he has been keeping track of the Chelsea Ladies’ progress this season, but added that it was more because of the men’s team’s shambolic form, which finds them at ninth in the table.
“I think the women’s team deserves all the following and fandom too. I think people should care [about the Women’s FA Cup final] because it is still Arsenal vs Chelsea. There is a sense of belonging and bragging rights are there for the taking,” he said.
However, Jaideep Chakrabarty, a sports journalist from Kolkata, said that English women’s football won’t sell in India. The 31-year-old, who used to work for Indian broadcaster Star Sports, which has the rights to telecast the Premier League in India, said, “The football-watching crowd in the country is a minority. Only in select cities do you have an audience. There's no exposure [to the women’s game] for sure. How many Arsenal fans in India would know of Kelly Smith (one of Arsenal Ladies’ most iconic players)?”
Arjun Kulkarni, a 27-year-old Liverpool fan from Mumbai, agrees that the women’s game won’t sell in India. “We barely know how well our Indian women’s cricket team is doing, let alone the women’s football clubs from a foreign country,” he said.