England’s semi-final against Sweden in Euro 2022 offered a new experience for home fans. Millions of us who had spent our footballing lives watching agonising defeats, tearful exits and a collective failure to live up to indisputable individual talent now found ourselves staring at our TVs in a dissociative state. We were watching our side in the knockout stages of a major tournament, but where was the familiar anxiety, the impending dread?
When England’s men won their semi-final in the Euros two years ago, our bodies understood the drill. We went a goal down. We went to extra time. We went to nerve-shredding penalties. And yes, we won, but not until we were drenched with sweat and misery. So what were these strange goosebumps doing on our forearms? Were we having – was this even possible – fun?
The Lionesses’ 4-0 bonanza is one that will live on not just in the memory but also in our “WTF just happened?” exchanges on WhatsApp. And even if England’s women lose to Germany today, even if there are runners-up medals instead of a glorious homecoming, the past four weeks themselves will count as a victory. Georgia Stanway lasering a penalty into the corner of the net; Mary Earps making a fingertip save over the crossbar; Alessia Russo backheeling the keeper; Beth Mead being Beth Mead.
Euro 2022 has been set alight by the host nation’s performance and record numbers will watch the final as a result. Who knew following England could feel this good? And what took us so long to get here?
We know the answer to the last one, at least. Only the youngest of fans have escaped football’s long tradition of discriminating against women. For decades, its leaders and gatekeepers declared that women were less capable, less suited and ultimately less important to the sport, an attitude that – who could have predicted it? – poisoned public perception and convinced girls that it wasn’t for them.
The audiences for the matches at these Euros, both in the stadiums and on sofas at home, show how much has changed in the past couple of decades, but some of that prejudice remains, which is why the tournament sponsor is running an ad campaign against online misogyny, “Sexist Hate Stops With Men”.
Because it started with men, of course. It was men who tried to suffocate the women’s game in a fit of jealousy 100 years ago and the irony should be lost on no one that it was the increasing popularity of the women’s game that provoked its demise. Victorian society’s prudish codes had previously ruled these pastimes unfeminine (and yes, there were probably plenty of women who swallowed that line too).
But Britain was undergoing rapid social change – the kind to which we can relate today – when a group of female workers at a munitions factory formed the Dick, Kerr Ladies side and they drew vast crowds to their matches following the First World War. The men who ran the game didn’t like that at all and for the next 50 years they banned women from playing at their grounds, which was pretty much all of them.
The names of the women who played in the early days of women’s football – women such as Florrie Redford and Jennie Harris – remain obscure. Those who played during the ban, in parks and on rugby pitches, are even less well known. And then there are the thousands who played in its aftermath, who endured decades of sexist derision and organisational indifference and underfunding, because they loved the game, even when they weren’t supposed to.
Until the mid-2000s, Scandinavia’s countries led the development of women’s football in Europe, which is why their national teams have significant rolls of honour – and why England’s demolition derbies against Norway and Sweden are so significant. After years of lagging behind, the FA has spent a decade turning the Women’s Super League into one of the best women’s football leagues in the world, taking it professional in 2018.
Clubs who lost out in the process – some of them, such as Doncaster Rovers Belles, with long and important histories – complained that money was talking too loud, and they were being edged out, although it’s hard to disagree with the results. Investment, both from the FA and the Premier League clubs that have established their own domestic teams is finally paying off on the international stage.
The appointment of Sarina Wiegman, too, looks far more inspired than that of her predecessor, Phil Neville, the man who would have led TeamGB at the Tokyo Olympics if he hadn’t suddenly received a better offer from Inter Miami. Wiegman was the obvious choice the moment she interviewed – having taken a perennially underperforming Netherlands team to victory in the last Euros – and she has had a transformative effect on an England team that has previously lost three successive semi-finals in major tournaments. They are unbeaten during her tenure, with 104 goals in their 17 wins.
So where do we go from here? Today’s Euros final is already the greatest thing that has happened in the English game even before it kicks off. wWe should applaud women such as Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football, who have done so much to bring it about. We should celebrate the long history of players, supporters, coaches and administrators who have dedicated themselves to this sport over more than a century, against great odds.
And in doing so, we should recognise the spirit of solidarity and the commitment to equality that has long infused the women’s side of the sport. Which means ensuring that increasing professionalism does not decrease diversity, as elite teams move their training locations to suburban academies, making them less accessible to young players in the inner cities.
There is little doubt that the ever-increasing profile of the women’s game will continue to attract investment: the question is who invests and how? Premier League clubs, and the venture capitalists who back them, are already eyeing it greedily. Any contributions they make to increasing gender parity, improving facilities, sharing main stadiums are to be welcomed. But they should not come at the expense of the integrity and values the women’s game has upheld.
Emma John writes on sport for the Observer and the Guardian
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