When England emerge from the tunnel at a sold-out Wembley on Sunday to play Germany, a record eight-time winner of the tournament, they will be watched like never before.
The Lionesses’ advance to the semi-finals of the 2015 World Championships in Canada was unexpected and caught the attention of many back home. Reaching the final four at Euro 2017 and the 2019 Women’s World Cup also raised the profile of women’s football and the women’s national team. However, this time something different is happening, the tournament has penetrated the public consciousness like never before, and the conversation is changing. People don’t talk about women’s football; they talk about football.
“What is a legacy?” asks Ian Wright, passionate about the female game. “It normalizes the conversation. I hear people talking about football. It’s okay, it’s just football. That’s why I love it, I love women’s football, because I love football.
“We don’t have to worry about dinosaurs,” he adds. “I saw someone say something about dinosaurs screaming at a meteor, I love that, that’s what negative people are. Look how many millions of people are watching these women play, there are people who are interested in this game.”
Former England national team Rachel Yankee was at the BoxPark Fan Club at Wembley before every game, watching the team’s support grow with every game, with every stunning performance.
“We always knew, every team in England that I played for, always knew that if you get to the final, if you can win it, you have the opportunity to change people’s perceptions. That’s what this group did.”
The last time England women’s team reached the final of a major tournament, striker Kelly Smith was in the starting line-up and was defeated 6-2 by Germany.
“When I played, no one knew that there would be a Euro final in 2009, because there was no TV broadcast until the semi-final, and then they saw that we lost in the final. Now we know the path of the players from the first game. The nation fell in love with lionesses, which I never expected,” she says.
“The general public knows that this tournament is going on. It just took over the whole country. We saw it at the Men’s Euro last year, they made it to the final and made people fall in love with the men’s team again.
“I’m not a Mystic Mag in terms of what’s going to happen in the final, but it just scares me to think that if they can do it by winning the first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup, it will set the standard for where the team is and where it can potentially go.” go game. The sky is now the limit.
FA Director of Women’s Football Sue Campbell, who chaired UK Sport at the 2012 Olympics, didn’t think she’d feel the way she did 10 years ago again.
“I never thought that I would feel such a level of happiness, pleasure and pride for our country in our team,” says Lady Campbell. “Wednesday night I felt it so deeply. I stood there for almost an hour after the game ended and the players were still on the field and the crowd was still rocking. It was just an extraordinary evening, an extraordinary moment. I am surprised? I think this country loves sports and loves to be successful in sports, and yes, that kind of surprised me, but when we started to win, the momentum was just incredible.”
The impact of a country that has fallen in love with the Lionesses is that their path is different from that of the men’s team last summer because it could change the narrative of women’s and girls’ participation in sports at all levels to change attitudes in society far beyond the rapid development of women’s games.
Says TV presenter Claire Balding: “Being able to see women confident and ambitious, all of these are positive qualities, and they take risks and are ready to fail, and play without fear, and play for each other is such a strong and big message that goes beyond playing field. And of course the playing field matters, that’s why they’re all doing it, and that’s what it’s all about, but you can’t underestimate that bigger impact.”
In terms of the development of women’s football, Campbell said the Euro promises to be the tournament that will accelerate its growth.
“It will advance the agenda much faster than we could do without it. It will just move at a different pace,” says Campbell.
The key is whether the FA and the clubs can capitalize on the momentum, contain it and keep it.
“Sounds weird,” Yankee says. “Of course, football comes first, but in my opinion, it’s kind of second. As much as I want to watch the game, I just want to experience the atmosphere and the crowd more. I don’t remember too much about football at the 2012 Olympics, but I do remember looking out the window at Wembley, looking at the people queuing up to catch the train home and just thinking, “I can’t into this believe.” Nothing really happened after that. So if nothing happens this time, then there will be serious problems with everything, with the way we manage women’s football, the way we treat women’s football, and it was all wrong. This must change. After that, there must be a legacy.”
There are already signs of demand. Manchester United defender Aoife Mannion helps the club assemble a women’s team for the new season in a village near her home. In the lead-up to England’s quarter-final defeat to Spain, she went to elementary school and taught the kids about the game and their ambitions for the local team.
She wasn’t sure about the impact, didn’t know how to gauge the children’s reactions, but the response was overwhelming. “The chairman of the small village football team was shocked at how overwhelmed he was by parents filling out registration forms to say that their daughters wanted to play,” she says.
“Initially, when I tweeted about it, it looked like we were going to have three teams, but now we are talking about six teams. When I was their age, there was no local women’s team that I knew about when I started. I lived in the city, not in the country. That the direct consequence of this tournament is that several teams can be formed in a tiny, tiny village, one of several villages surrounding a small town in Cheshire, is simply beyond anything that could be imagined.”
Helping to drastically change the dynamics of the tournament and the team’s support came impressive BBC coverage. “When I came to this school and said ‘look at the BBC tonight’ everyone knew what that meant and there were no barriers to entry. This accessibility really matters. We’re trying to sell football as something really inclusive and so this tournament shown on the BBC really makes it real for everyone.”
Campbell adds: “It’s priceless. You couldn’t put a number on it.”
Hope Powell, a pioneering coach who led England for 15 years until 2013, says: “Even in the weeks since the tournament started, we have seen its positive impact on women’s football in this country. We make sure that this continues in accordance with the standards of driving in WSL. [Women’s Super League] and enabling as many girls and women as possible to play this game is the best legacy of these euros and I feel it is gaining momentum right now. I’m proud of the role I’ve played as a player and manager but now it’s time for Sarina and her team and I can’t wait for Sunday at Wembley to hopefully see us lift the trophy.”
The key is to ensure mass access to the game. Wright impassioned speech at the end of Sweden’s semi-final defeat went viral.
“Ian Wright’s point is correct,” Balding says. “If we don’t get girls to play football in schools, then we won’t have the legacy we need. But the trouble is that this requires investment in sports in schools in general.
“There is a consistent underfunding of sports in schools. You only have to look at the levels of obesity, the levels of mental health problems, there are so many factors and I’m not saying that it would all be cured if they exercised, but oh my god it would help. The dissociation of sports from academic work with schoolwork is really harmful. Because in fact, if you can focus and make decisions at your own pace, as well as work with team members, you gain life skills. This doesn’t just apply to football. And that’s where I think there should be a difference.”
Campbell says: “We have a very clear strategy for what we are trying to do. There are so many things that we wanted to see and articulated in this strategy, now we are seeing them come to life.”