The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is in full swing. Soccer fans traveling around France were thrilled with the play on the field (despite the all too common VAR controversy), but are often frustrated with the decisions made by FIFA and the host nation. I watched five group stage matches in France, and four group stage matches at last year’s men’s World Cup in Russia. I left each country wishing I could continue bouncing between host cities and celebrating with fans from all over the world. While there were many similarities between the two tournaments, the inefficiencies and failures in France made it clear that the fans were better served at the men’s tournament.
Last June, I realized a 20-year dream by traveling to my first men’s World Cup. I attended a quarterfinal double-header at the Women’s World Cup in 1999, and had been eagerly waiting for the right combination of vacation time and disposable income in my adult life to get back to the world’s biggest party. I’d planned to go to the USMNT group stage matches at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but . . . well, you know. The morning after the USMNT failed to qualify, I told myself to not, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, still go to Russia—it would be a waste of money if I was not going to see my country’s team play.
That same October 2017 morning, I also decided to double down on my support of the USWNT and made going to France for the Women’s World Cup my top travel priority for 2019. I would rearrange things (aka, my life) as necessary to ensure that I could get there — not just to watch the USWNT, but to support the tournament in general. Of course, given what the men’s team had just done, I would wait until the team qualified and the draw was complete before making any concrete plans. I would use the US matches as my starting point, and travel to other group stage matches on days when the US was not playing.
By the time the second lottery phase for Russia opened in January 2018, the itch to go had returned and I applied for a few matches just to see what would happen. The pain of the qualification failure had mostly subsided, and I felt the FOMO I would feel during the tournament might actually kill me, given that I could make it work. I picked up a few tickets through the lottery, and two more later through the general sale, then started mapping out my trip. I would see matches in four host cities: St. Petersburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, and Kaliningrad. I spent $735 on tickets to these four group stage matches, purchasing tickets from the lowest price categories available to non-Russia citizens, ranging from $105–$210 per game. FIFA reported they sold over 2.4 million tickets for the 64 World Cup matches in Russia. Tickets for the final in Moscow never went to general sale—they were available only to sponsors, ticket package holders, participating team federations, and lottery entrants.
The men’s tournament is larger than the women’s—32 teams compared to the women’s 24. Accordingly, the World Cup in Russia required 33% more host cities, fan accommodations, volunteers, and other offerings associated with the men’s World Cup. Russia had 11 host cities and 12 venues (Moscow used 2 stadiums). However, free trains provided by FIFA for ticket holders simplified the process of planning travel between the Russian host cities. Fans reserved seats well ahead of time using the online portal, entering their match ticket confirmation number. Voilà—free transport.
After the USWNT officially qualified for the World Cup last October, I eagerly awaited the draw to see where they’d play. I would base my trip around the USWNT, but also try to see as many other games as I reasonably could. The draw took place in early December, and I purchased tickets for the USWNT match from the US Soccer Federation allotment as soon as they went on sale. I also bought a ticket for the opener—France vs South Korea in Paris— through the pre-sale in December. In March, as my travel plans started to come together, I bought tickets for two more matches. I spent a total of $157 on tickets to 5 group stage matches, with a minimum ticket price of $10 and a maximum of $55. I would see two matches in Paris, and one each in Reims, Valenciennes, and Le Havre. Four days into the 2019 Women’s World Cup, FIFA announced over one million tickets had been sold for its 52 matches. In March of 2019, the official FIFA Women’s World Cup account posted on Twitter that the limited number of tickets remaining for the Final after the sale of packages and allocation of complimentary tickets had sold out in just 31 minutes.
For the women’s tournament, France utilized 9 stadiums in 9 different cities, with every host city featuring one team playing their first and third group stage matches in the same stadium. Two of the four teams in both groups C and D played in the same stadium twice during the group stage: Italy in Valenciennes and Jamaica in Grenoble in Group C, Argentina in Paris and England in Nice in Group D. FIFA does not provide team training bases for the Women’s World Cup as it does for the men’s, so many teams moved to a new location for each game while others could return to familiar surroundings for their last group stage game. Fans eager to explore a new country may have had to look outside of their team’s matches to do so. Unfortunately, fans were on their own for travel arrangements—no free trains between host cities for this tournament. For the easiest travel between games, I ended up renting a car. Relying solely on trains would have involved several expensive and time-consuming trips back through Paris, as direct trains between all host cities did not exist.
For Russia, all ticket-holders were required to complete an application for their Fan ID in the months leading up to the tournament. The Fan ID would serve as a visa for those traveling to Russia for the World Cup, would be checked against the name on your ticket at matches, and was to be worn around your neck as a credential once inside the stadium. The application process involved uploading passport photos and providing your passport information. The Fan ID and hard copies of match tickets were mailed out in May.
Meanwhile, for the women’s World Cup, tickets purchased from US Soccer would be mailed out after the federation received them, but the remainder would be made available to download and print through the official ticketing portal. It sounded simple enough, but the France vs South Korea match was marred by a ticketing fiasco in which seats had been reassigned after initial reports of group purchases being separated. New tickets had been uploaded to members via the ticketing portal, but notifications of this were easy to overlook, so most travelers had downloaded and printed tickets before arriving in France. The original tickets were not recognized by the scanners, forcing fans to visit customer service and have their new tickets printed. This resulted in delays of up to two hours and a lot of pissed-off people missing kickoff.
I had arrived in Paris a week before the start of the World Cup, by train from Lyon, where the semi-finals and final would be held. I saw little to no advertising in either of these host cities, though I did not visit the stadium in Lyon, which is outside of downtown. I stayed near the Parc des Princes in Paris, and it appeared that there weren’t World Cup banners and infrastructure being set up until the day before the opening match. I saw no advertisements for the tournament on the Paris metro, though several other local sporting events were heavily advertised. Both Metro stops near Parc des Princes, which would host 7 matches, including the tournament opener, displayed ads for European qualifiers that the French men’s national team would play in September, at the Stade de France—an entirely different stadium. The only other World Cup fans I noticed before the start of the tournament were about twenty Australians in Matildas jerseys watching Ashleigh Barty in her French Open tennis semi-final on the day of the opening match.
This stood in stark contrast to my first stop in Russia, St. Petersburg. I arrived by train from Helsinki, Finland two days before the start of the tournament. Several other fans had the same idea, as it was cheaper than flying into Moscow or St. Petersburg given the jacked-up flight prices. As we took our seats on the train, we all nervously looked around, trying to confirm that the only documents any of us needed to get into Russia were our passports, Fan IDs, and match tickets. Luckily, when the Finnish employees left the train at the border and the Russian border police (and their dogs) appeared to check our documents, everything was in order.
By the time I got to downtown St. Petersburg, the streets were packed with fans of what seemed like any and every team participating in the tournament. Mexico, Brazil, Panama, Colombia, Argentina—none of these countries were playing in St. Petersburg any time soon. But the free trains between host cities made it easy and cheap to move around, so most fans started in St. Petersburg or Moscow. The mood was jovial as fans of all teams joined together to drink in cafes and bars. A Budweiser countdown clock and a small statue of the official tournament mascot, Zabivaka, stood in the city center. The atmosphere in Moscow was similar, with fans of all tournament participants gathering around Red Square among the multiple television broadcast sets constructed around St. Basil’s Cathedral.
Clear signs at all major metro or train stops directed fans toward the stadiums; certain metro stops featured large displays celebrating past World Cup winners. Metro transport to and from stadiums was free if you showed your match ticket, and shuttle buses were provided by FIFA in the event there was no metro system. Tickets specified which gate each fan should use for entry, ensuring that the crowd was spread out evenly and entered the gate closest to their section. FIFA provided no such help in France. Most fans traveled through host cities by purchasing train tickets or, like me, renting cars. As for public transit to the stadium itself, no organization organized volunteers to allow fans on to the metro after showing a match ticket, nor did they provide shuttle buses to stadiums outside downtown.
At the men’s World Cup, security procedures involved an initial visual check that you had a ticket and were at the correct gate, followed by a thorough pat-down bag check. My combined experiences at the stadiums involved taking off my phone case to show I didn’t have anything stashed in it, proving that a power bank was functional by plugging it in and showing that it actually charged my phone, and having pens taken away (?). After clearing security, a volunteer helped fans scan their IDs, tickets, and navigate the turnstile.
Inside the stadium grounds, there were picnic tables among sponsor tents and merchandise stalls. Budweiser beer stalls sold two options—Budweiser and alcohol-free Budweiser— poured from a can into a light-up souvenir cup specific to each match. The quantity of beer for sale at each stall appeared to be pre-determined, as several ran out before the matches even began. Some stadiums set up televisions showing ongoing matches, while others did not. This inconsistency frustrated many fans who showed up at a stadium early assuming they would be able to watch the earlier match.
Seats were accessed through entrances assigned on match tickets. Once again, Fan IDs and tickets were scanned, granting access to a section that was usually separated from others by gates or walls. Matches began with a coordinated unfurling of the official tournament logo and host city name in addition to large, circular flags of each nation participating in the match. One consistent presence was fans having video calls with friends and family members back home to show them that yes, they were actually at a World Cup match—could you believe it? I even waved and said hello to a family in Tehran thanks to my neighbor at the Iran vs Morocco match. At every stadium I went to, the quality of the cell signal was suspiciously good.
There were no Fan IDs in France. The ticket purchasing process included a warning that IDs would be checked against the name printed on the ticket during stadium entry, but that was not the case (which frustrated ticket-holders who heeded that warning and thought they could not resell tickets). Security checks as you entered the venues were similar to those in Russia, though I never had any pens confiscated, and bag checks were provided at each entry gate in the event that you needed to leave something outside of the stadium. Similar merchandise tents, beer, and food were for sale once inside the venue. The Women’s World Cup does not have a beer sponsor, so only alcohol-free beer could be purchased (as is the case at men’s club games in France) in a generic souvenir cup. Coca-Cola provided game-specific souvenir cups with purchase of their products.
At the women’s World Cup, matches began with the unfurling of a circular logo with the host city’s name, similar to that of Russia. But the flags of the competing countries were just the standard rectangular shape that would be used at a friendly, no large circular version as had been spread over each half of the field in Russia. There was noticeably less Facetiming of friends and families during matches. The Parc des Princes had WiFi, but other stadiums had varying quality of cell signal. In Le Havre, my signal was limited to 3G; I struggled to even send messages to other people at the match.
In Russia, on days when I didn’t attend matches, I usually went to the FIFA Fan Fests. The locations of these had been made public months in advance, so when I selecting accommodation months before, I purposely chose locations from which I could easily access both the stadium and the Fan Fest. Each one I visited boasted multiple large screens and speaker systems broadcasting every game that day. On weekdays, the crowd at the Fan Fests were generally people traveling for the tournament, while on weekends local families were also abundant.
On the Sunday of the Mexico vs Germany match, played at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, the Moscow Fan Fest reached capacity at around 25,000 people. The volunteers stopped letting people enter, much to the disappointment of the Brazil fans, coming off the metro in droves to watch their team play the late match. Fortunately, a free high-quality stream of the Russian TV feed could be found with a very simple internet search, so fans with international data plans could watch matches live anywhere.
FIFA constructed “Fan Experiences” in each host city for the first time ever for the women’s tournament. The Fan Experience in Paris had two large screens and a speaker system for ongoing matches, though there were varying degrees of functionality. Fans who showed up expecting to watch Italy vs Australia were greeted by one working screen showing FIFA’s highlight reel of the 2015 World Cup, and had to ask the staff to show the ongoing match instead. Fan Experiences in Reims and Le Havre had no screens at all, to the frustration of fans attending matches there but expecting to watch the earlier match at FIFA’s official fan gathering spot.
France matches were broadcast on a regularly available television channel, but most other matches were shown on Canal+ Sports, requiring a paid subscription that a lot of local bars and restaurants don’t have. BBC coverage of certain matches was available in certain hotels. There was no magic internet search that would pull up a free stream in France—I relied on a VPN to watch US coverage of most matches. Fox Sports had set up its broadcast booth directly across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower, but no other broadcasters appeared to have done the same, unlike the small village of television sets that had been set up in Moscow last year.
I left Russia lugging a carry-on suitcase filled entirely with souvenir cups and merchandise purchased at the giant, inflatable, air-conditioned tent at the Moscow Fan Fest that housed an official FIFA merchandise store selling scarves, jerseys, and t-shirts for each of the 32 teams participating in the tournament.
As I left France, my bag contained only a few souvenir cups (I had not been imbibing copious amounts of non-alcoholic beer or Coca-Cola, and the lack of a light-up feature made them less desirable gifts). I had not found any large merchandise stores with gear for every participating team, but did buy a few souvenirs at the stalls outside the stadium, including a women’s World Cup trophy keychain, which would make a nice addition to the men’s version I had found at a local soccer store in 2006.
At both tournaments, I revelled in the excitement of the group stage, when every team still feels they have a chance to get to the next round of the tournament. But it was easy to feel that the overall fan experience had been a higher priority for FIFA, the host nation, and local organizing committees at the men’s World Cup. Small issues had cropped up occasionally in Russia but appeared to be localized, whereas I seemed to constantly encounter avoidable issues during my time in France. Fortunately, the sheer magic of being in the stadium while the teams took the field to the familiar pulse of “Seven Nation Army” made the stress melt away entirely.