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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Suzanne Wrack

‘A nation has fallen in love’: Lionesses charge can transform girls’ football

Ellen White celebrates in the middle of the team huddle following the win over Sweden which set up a Women’s Euro 2022 final against Germany.
Ellen White celebrates in the middle of the team huddle following the win over Sweden which set up England’s Euro 2022 final against Germany. Photograph: Lynne Cameron/The FA/Getty Images

When England emerge from the tunnel at a sold-out Wembley on Sunday to play Germany, the record eight-time winners of the competition, eyes will be on them like never before.

The Lionesses’ run to the World Cup semi-final in Canada in 2015 was unexpected and caught the attention of many back home. The journey to the final four at the Euros in 2017 and Women’s World Cup in 2019 similarly lifted the profile of women’s football and the women’s national team. This time though, something else is happening, the tournament has penetrated public consciousness like never before and the conversation is changing. People aren’t talking about women’s football; they’re talking about football.

“What is the legacy?” asks Ian Wright, who oozes passion for the women’s game. “It’s normalising the conversation. I’m hearing people talking about the football. It’s normal, it’s just football. That’s why I love it, I love women’s football because I love football.

“We don’t need to worry about the dinosaurs,” he adds. “I saw someone say something about the dinosaurs screaming at the meteor, I love it, that’s what those negative people are. See how many millions of people have been watching these women play, there’s people out there for this game.”

Former England international Rachel Yankey has been at the BoxPark fan venue in Wembley for every game, watching the support for the team swell with each game, each staggering performance.

“We’ve always known, every England team that I’ve played for has always known, that if you get to that final, if you can win it, you’ve got the opportunity to change people’s perceptions. That’s what this group has done.”

The last time England’s women’s team reached the final of a major competition, striker Kelly Smith was in the starting line-up to suffer a 6-2 defeat to Germany.

“When I played, nobody knew there was a Euros final, in 2009, because there was no TV coverage up until the semi-final and then they saw us lose the final. Now, we know the journey of the players from the opening game. The nation has fallen in love with the Lionesses, which is something I never thought would happen,” she says.

“The broader general public knows that this tournament is going on. It’s just captivated the whole country. We saw it at the men’s Euros last year, they got to the final and made people fall in love with the men’s team again.

“I’m not Mystic Meg, in terms of what’s going to happen in the final, but it’s just really daunting to think that if they can do this, win the first major trophy since the World Cup in 1966, it sets standards for where the team is and where the game can potentially go. The sky’s the limit now.”

The England players prepare for the final at Wembley.
The England players prepare for the final at Wembley. Photograph: Lynne Cameron/The FA/Getty Images

The FA’s director of women’s football, Sue Campbell, who was chairman of UK Sport for the 2012 Olympics, did not think she would feel the way she did 10 years ago again.

“I never thought I would feel this level of happiness, enjoyment and sense of pride in our country in our team,” Lady Campbell says. “On Wednesday night, I felt it so deeply. I stood there for virtually an hour after the game had finished and the players were still on the pitch and the crowd was still rocking. It was just an extraordinary evening, an extraordinary moment. Am I surprised? I think this country loves sport and loves success in sport and yes, it has surprised me to some extent but as we’ve started to win, the momentum has just been incredible.”

The impact of the country falling in love with the Lionesses is where their journey diverges from that of the men’s team last summer, because there is the potential for it to shift the narrative around the involvement of women and girls in sport at every level, to shift attitudes in society far beyond skyrocketing the development of the women’s game.

The broadcaster Clare Balding says: “Being able to see women being confident and ambitious, these all being positive attributes, and taking risks and being prepared to fail and playing without fear and playing for each other - that’s such a strong and massive message beyond the field of play. And of course, the field of play matters, that’s why they’re all doing it and that’s what this is about, but you can’t underestimate that greater impact.”

In terms of the development of women’s football, the Euros is shaping up to be a tournament that will “turbo charge” its growth, according to Campbell.

“It will move the agenda on so much more quickly than we could have done without it. It will just drive it at a different pace,” says Campbell.

The key is whether the FA and clubs can capitalise on the moment, bottle it, and keep it alive.

“It sounds weird,” says Yankey. “Of course the football comes first, but in my mind it sort of comes second. As much as I want to watch the game, I more just want to embrace the atmosphere and the crowd. I don’t remember too much about the football at the Olympics in 2012, but I remember staring out the window at Wembley looking at people queuing up to go on the train home and just thinking: ‘I can’t believe this’. After that, nothing really happened. So, if nothing happens this time then there’s a massive problem with everything, with how we run women’s football, how we view women’s football and it’s all been wrong. It has to change. There has to be a legacy after this.”

There are already signs of the demand. Manchester United defender Aoife Mannion has been helping a club looking to set up a girl’s team for the new season in the village near where she lives. Ahead of England’s quarter-final defeat of Spain she went into a primary school and spoke to the kids about the game and their ambitions for a team locally.

She wasn’t sure of the impact, she didn’t know how to gauge the reaction of the kids, but the uptake has been huge. “The chairman of the little village football team was just totally shocked by how much he was inundated by parents filling in registration forms to say that their daughters wanted to play,” she says.

“Originally, when I tweeted about it, it looked like we were going to start three teams but now there’s talk of six teams. When I was their age there was no local girls’ team that I knew of when I was starting out. I lived in a town rather than a village. That a direct effect of this tournament is that several teams could be created in a tiny, tiny little village, one of several villages surrounding a small town in Cheshire, is just beyond what anyone could have imagined.”

Helping prompt the huge shift in the momentum of the tournament and support for the team has been the impressive BBC coverage. “When I went into that school and I said ‘watch it tonight on BBC’, everyone knows what that means and there’s no barrier to entry. That accessibility really, really matters. We try to sell football as something that is meant to be really inclusive and so this tournament being shown on the BBC really makes that become real for everyone.”

Campbell adds: “It’s priceless. You couldn’t put a number on it.”

Hope Powell, the pioneering coach who led England for 15 years until 2013, says: “Even in the space of a few weeks, since the tournament started, we’ve seen the positive impact it’s had on women’s football in this country. Making sure we keep that going by driving standards in the WSL [Women’s Super League] and giving opportunities to as many girls and women to play the game is the best legacy from these Euros, and I do feel that momentum is building now. I’m proud of the part I played as a player and coach but it’s Sarina and her squad’s time now and I can’t wait to be at Wembley on Sunday and hopefully see us lift the trophy.”

Building on grassroots access to the game is key. Wright’s impassioned speech at the end of the semi-final defeat of Sweden went viral.

“Ian Wright’s point is correct,” says Balding. “If we don’t get girls playing football in schools, then there is not the legacy that we need. But the trouble is that to do that you need investment in sport in schools more generally.

“There is serial under-investment in sports in schools. You only have to look at the levels of obesity, the levels of mental health issues, there are so many factors and I’m not saying it would all be cured if they had sports, but, my god, it would help. The dissociation of sports with academic work with schoolwork is really damaging. Because actually, if you can focus and take decisions at pace, and work with team members you’re picking up are life skills. This isn’t just about playing football. And that’s where I think the difference has got to be made.”

Campbell says: “We have a very clear strategy for what we’re trying to do. So many of the things that we wanted to see and have articulated in that strategy we are now actually seeing come to life.”

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