‘I’m so proud of the girls’: England’s 1972 squad celebrate despite final loss | Women’s World Cup 2023

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“I never thought women’s football would be like this,” Sue Whyatt, a goalkeeper in England’s first official Lionesses squad of 1972, said. “In my day, football was never going to be a proper career because we had to pay our own way … I’ve never got a shirt or anything”.

Watching the World Cup final at London’s Boxpark Wembley with some of the original squad, Whyatt had nothing but adoration for the Lionesses, particularly goalkeeper Mary Earps, who she described as “incredibly humble”. “I can’t help ducking and diving when the ball is near the goal,” she said, chuckling. “Football is a professional career now. Those players are athletes … It’s wonderful.”

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Members of the 1973 Women’s England football team, including Sue Whyatt (centre) and Maggie Pearce (right).
Members of the 1973 Women’s England football team, including Sue Whyatt (centre) and Maggie Pearce (right). Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

England took on Spain in the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday morning at Stadium Australia, and to the devastation of fans, lost 1-0. But there was still a strong sense of joy and pride even after the loss as people continued to pose for photos and hold up England flags, with many determined not to forget the team’s successes throughout the tournament.

“It was very emotional. I cried, we all did, but I’m so proud of the girls,” Whyatt said. “The Lionesses won the Euros and they are one of the top two teams in the world. That in itself is a huge achievement.”

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Women’s football has come a long way since Whyatt and her teammates played more than 50 years ago. Even after the Football Association’s 50-year ban was lifted in 1971, many disapproved of women playing. “It wasn’t to be encouraged,” Maggie Pearce, another former member of the 1972 squad, said.

“I just wanted to go out and play football. I was treated no different from the lads, the tomboy that I was,” she said.

Whyatt said the men’s success in the 1966 World Cup, when they beat West Germany 4-2, “really fired us up”.

After two years with the Lionesses, Whyatt had to park her football ambitions when she became a police officer. But now, with the Lionesses’ success, she said she hoped the interest and funding for the women’s game would grow.

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“I think this has kickstarted everything, especially with the amount of money they have got from the National Lottery fund for the grassroots [clubs].”

Bella, eight, a “huge fan” and aspiring Lioness, watched the game with her mum, Marianne, aunties and grandma. Each night, Bella said she dreams about playing for the Lionesses and one day lifting up the trophy for England.

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A mother consoles a young fan at Boxpark as England lose the Fifa Women’s World Cup final.
A mother consoles a young fan at Boxpark as England lose the Fifa Women’s World Cup final. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“Earlier, [Bella] said it doesn’t matter if we don’t win because I know that we’re gonna win again and that’s when I’m playing football and I’m going to be in the World Cup and score the winning goal,” said Bella’s mum, Marianne. “It’s so special hearing her talking about football like that because of the girls.”

Pearce said more support needed to go towards coaching as well as players. “There’s got to be more female coaches … It’s not just about girls playing football, it’s all aspects of the game.

Whyatt said she would not want to see the game becoming “too commercialised” and “all about the money, like the men’s”.

“WSL [Women’s Super League] is getting a pool of talent together but we have to learn from the mistakes made in the men’s game of not having enough homegrown players playing regularly in the premiership.

“I go to quite a lot of games with my granddaughter and the atmosphere in the WSL games is so totally different. It’s a family affair and that’s how it should be. We don’t want it to go as tribal as the men’s game. That’s my hope for it.”

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