With the final group matches taking place at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, the excitement and anticipation of fans around the world is building as we approach the crucial knockout rounds. Will Phil Neville’s Lionesses be able to get their hands on the trophy for the first time? Or will the hosts, or three-time winners the USA prove too strong for the competition.

We spoke with BA (Hons) International Football Business student Prerna Acharya, who is working at the World Cup as part of her She Kicks Scholarship, about fan engagement at the tournament and the impressive growth of the women’s game in recent years…

Tell us about the tournament. How have you found the first few days?

This World Cup is more about growing the reputation of the players rather than the game, unlike the last. You can see just how much countries are getting behind their teams. This was the first World Cup that Scotland qualified for and their fans have certainly turned out in full force! When I first arrived in Nice, I saw so many of them around the city! The fans have made the first few days amazing, as have the players who have still flown out to support the Lionesses despite not being called up.

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What are your plans for the World Cup? Tell us about the She Kicks Scholarship and how it ties with your internship with She Kicks Magazine and Fan Supporters’ Association?

I was delighted to be granted the She Kicks Scholarship recently, which is run in partnership with She Kicks Magazine. It’s open to female applicants who can demonstrate that a UCFB degree can assist them with their career ambitions with selection based on academic profile or extra-curricular activities like community engagement or volunteering.

The scholarship includes an internship at She Kicks magazine or a partner organisation, and I’ve been able to work on some really interesting things in the build up to the World Cup and then here in France at the actual tournament as well.

I’ve been working at the Lionesses’ Fan Embassy during the group stages with the Free Lionesses who are a part of the Football Supporters’ Association. We’ve been helping fans out in the cities, making sure that they know matchday procedures, travel information and also helping out when there’s any issues. Alongside that, I’ve been attending FA media events with the Chief Editor of She Kicks Magazine, Jen O’Niell, which has been an amazing element of the scholarship. With both I have been able to meet people from all sorts of backgrounds, including Kelly Simmons, who is FA Director of the Women’s Professional Game. Being able to develop my network is key for succeeding in the industry, and this scholarship wants to help people from minority backgrounds have the opportuning to get great mentorship to lead them in the right direction. Working with Jen is perfect for doing exactly that, as she provides industry insight which I otherwise would have been unaware of, especially with how long she has been in the industry for.

What have you made of the matches so far? Have you been to any games?

I was lucky enough to be in Paris for the opening match! Unfortunately, not only was the game sold out, but the fan zone at the Forum des Halles was forced to close due to the strong winds that plagued the city. Instead, I went to the Copa 90 Clubhouse, which had a lot of the presenters in attendance, such as Chelsee Grimes, who also plays for Fulham, and Dave Vujanic.

I’m also following England around for the group stage, so flew to Nice the following day. I attended England’s opening game against Scotland, which we managed to win 2-1, including a penalty scored by Nikita Parris by a VAR ruling. The Scottish fans were especially lively, chanting throughout the match, with the English fans also intervening with their own chants. As much as I hate to admit it, I think the Scots were more imaginative with theirs!

I’ll also be attending the Lionesses final group game against Japan this evening at the Allianz Riviera in Nice!

Tell us about the fan engagement at the tournament – how is it different to the men’s game? What activities are going on?

One thing that is extremely different from the men’s game is how likely it is you will run into the players. There is less security around them and they have more freedom to roam the cities. At the Fan Embassy, many fans had humorous stories of randomly running into the players, with one parent explaining that he just so happened to walk up to a small group of them and ask if they were attending the match! Meanwhile, his daughter was starstruck! Although this lack of security could be seen as a threat, the fact that it enables young players to meet them and inspires them to continue with the sport, despite the setbacks they may face. The players are more than happy to advise fans and joke with them, making them approachable and an inspiration to the next potential Lionesses.

In terms of activities, in both Paris and Nice it was difficult to recognise that there was a World Cup going on. In fact, someone said that it was as though a full stadium just appeared out of nowhere! Signs were not very obvious in either host city, with signs in Paris only being seen at the Forum des Halles, and a few signs on the Promenade in Nice. However, when I flew into Lille to go to Valenciennes, it was a very different story. The World Cup is advertised EVERYWHERE, from Lille airport, to signs throughout Valenciennes train station as well as more signs directing you to the fanzone. The first game is advertised in every bar too!

The women’s game is going from strength to strength and gaining popularity around the world. What are the main drivers for this growth and success?

One of the key things that the women’s game has done is advertise it as a family offering. Most of these players have families of their own, and they want you to feel like you are a part of that. Even though the main aim of this tournament is to build the players’ reputations, they are still so humble and willing to spend time with fans throughout the tournament. This keeps young fans engaged for a longer period of time and helps develop a loyalty which will ensure that they watch their favourite player/team religiously. But it has to be noted, there are no rivalries in the women’s game, rather friendships, making it feel more welcoming than the men’s. These attributes have enabled the women’s game to grow and improve rapidly and will ensure that it keeps doing so.

What is Nice like?

 Nice is absolutely wonderful! It’s so safe at night to wander around, the architecture is stunning (both in ‘New’ Nice and ‘Old’ Nice) the people are so diverse and have so many interesting stories! I love sitting on the beach and watching the sun set over the French Riviera – there’s nothing to complain about. Fortunately, everyone speaks a very proficient level of English, but they still appreciate the attempt to speak French, and are more than happy to help with pronunciation.

Who are your favourites for the World Cup and why?

 Being the optimist I am, I can see the Lionesses doing extremely well in the competition, especially after their phenomenal performance at the She Believes Cup back in March. Also looking at how good Nikita Parris and Georgia Stanway have been for Manchester City this past season, I think we’ve got a pretty good chance of lifting the trophy! Having said that, France looked very strong in the first match and played with such class. Plus, most of the players play for some of the strongest women’s clubs in Europe, so I can clearly see why they are the favourites and wouldn’t be surprised if both the women’s and men’s French sides are world champions when 7th July arrives!