Alessia Russo won’t be waiting for long a tense reunion with her former club.
Her new Arsenal side make the trip north to face Manchester United in just the second week of the 2023/24 WSL season. Given the nature of the split in June and Russo’s subsequent move to a direct rival, somewhat pointedly stating her desire to win trophies upon being unveiled an Arsenal player, it is the early season narrative that fans of both sides, as well as neutrals, so desperately wanted.
Women’s football fandom is evolving quickly as numbers and interest grows – that will only continue off the back of a major tournament that will be watched by tens of millions in the UK alone.
The kind of tribal vitriol that is rife in the men’s game is still thankfully kept firmly at a distance, but fanbases are developing a fiercely loyal partisanship that mimics what might be considered a more traditional football following more than ever before.
With it comes the addictive atmosphere on a matchday and the storylines that dominate the weeks in between, hooking people in and keep them coming back for more and more. There is a reason that WSL fans have been longing for the new season since the last one finished.
Russo’s move to Arsenal after turning down a similar contract at Manchester United is one of the biggest storylines to come out of the league’s 12-year history – and by far the biggest transfer saga.
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When Arsenal head up to Leigh Sports Village with Russo in tow to face United, both sets of fans are desperate to win not just the game itself, but the saga as a whole. For neutrals, it will also be the must-watch game that weekend, even though Manchester City are facing Chelsea.
Russo can be sure to expect a hostile reception from the fans who have a reputation as the loudest in the WSL. Those who used to chant her name will want her to see that the team she left behind lives on and continues to thrive without her – that will certainly be helped if the club manages to get potential deals for Brazilian forwards Kerolin and Geyse over the line. Marc Skinner stressed towards the end of last season that ‘one player does not make a Manchester United team’.
For Russo, it is an early opportunity to justify that she made the right choice for her future if she can give a statement performance in an Arsenal win. She will want to show United that she is better off for moving on and this is her chance to do it directly and to do it quickly. Meanwhile, Arsenal fans would love nothing more than getting one over on a United side that finished above them last season with a star player they poached from them. It is the ultimate in bragging rights.
This fixture will create a buzz that transcends the women’s game. The Russo saga has already done that by capturing the attention of people who don’t usually follow the WSL. And with modern football an entertainment product as much as it is a sport, the fact that is happening so early into the new season, which already promises to be another landmark campaign, is a massive treat.
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