On the last day of July 2022, history was made at Wembley stadium when England’s Lionesses won their first major tournament and were crowned victors of this year’s Women’s Euros.
More than 87,000 fans watched in the stands as the winning goal was scored in extra time by Chloe Kelly, making it a 2-1 result against fellow finalists, Germany. A further 17.4 million watched on TV.
Among those fans were likely to be thousands and thousands of young girls and women who may well be the future of women’s football in the UK. This was not only a momentous occasion for the team and country, but also for aspiring Lionesses across the country, and for women in general.
Indeed, when England hosted the Euros in 2005, only 29,092 attended the game in person. Look how far we’ve come.
But the journey to this point has been a long one, and we still have far to go, as with many things when it comes to gender equality. The first ever women’s football game took place in the 1800s, and in the 1920s there was a surge of popularity, with an astonishing 53,000 people watching a women’s game one Boxing Day. It wasn’t until 1971 when the FA Council allowed women to play on the grounds of affiliated clubs, lifting the ban that had been in place.
Today there are still many limitations and inequalities surrounding the sport. One popular example is money. Women players are paid a significant amount less than their male counterparts. According to the BBC, “the average Women’s Super League player earns £47,000 a year” and “men are earning 100 times what the women do” – and that’s not considering the eye-watering millions paid to players like Ronaldo. There is one consolation, though: “England players male or female are paid the same £2,000 match fee per game and have been since 2020”.
(I should also add here that many of the Lionesses had to work two jobs while playing professionally. I can’t imagine that many, if any, male professional footballers would need to do that.)
Hopefully, this year’s storming success will be the start of more change, and more progress. It’s not just about women’s football being held in the same esteem as men’s football. It’s not about suddenly sorting equal pay. It is, first and foremost, about enabling more young women and girls to play the sport in the first place, and filling those seats at stadiums nationwide.
It was reported this summer that only 44% of girls in secondary school have the chance to play football in PE. The Lionesses themselves have penned an open letter to campaign for equal access to football in a bid to get this changed, and there’s been support from the public, too. The more girls we can encourage to play or enjoy the game, the more solid its future, and the more diverse our teams will be. We have to show our future generations that football isn’t just for boys.
More investment in women’s football could mean safer spaces for spectators, too. Compare the welcoming atmosphere of this year’s women’s final to last year’s men’s final in the same place. In 2021, 86 people were arrested and thousands stormed Wembley Stadium. In contrast, only two arrests were made in July 2022.
You only had to attend any game during the tournament to feel how inclusive and positive the stadium was. Everyone was welcome, and while women and children are indeed able to attend men’s games, it’s safe to say…well…it’s not always safe.
As Phil McNulty writes, “This was wonderfully civilised and friendly, but the atmosphere lost nothing for that. This still felt like a big occasion, but devoid of the slightest hint of toxicity. It could catch on.”
Whatsmore, this victory has made huge waves in terms of breaking the stigma that women’s football is taken less seriously than men’s – or that men can’t enjoy watching women on the pitch. There was no sense that it was a final fit for female audiences, and female audiences only. Everyone was watching.
Months later, images of the Lionesses’ victory are still circulating online. For weeks afterwards, you’d be hard pressed not to scroll past the iconic image of Chloe Kelley running in her sports bra, her shirt trailing above her head, or the young girl celebrating to the iconic notes of Sweet Caroline. If the longevity and popularity of these photos, these videos, and these messages from the game are anything to go by, women’s football is hopefully entering a whole new era.
The coverage, the enthusiasm, and the support seen during this year’s Women’s Euros has been phenomenal. The excitement surrounding the fact that our Lionesses have finally brought football home is still electrifying. Now, months later, we just have to hope that the momentum continues, and this support does not wane but instead turns into active progress.
We’re not expecting overnight miracles, and we know women’s football may well always be its own entity – in fact, that might not be a bad thing. As Jen Offord articulates in The Guardian, it’s probably better than becoming a softer, runner-up version of the men’s game. “By positioning women’s teams as some sort of spin-off of big Premier League clubs we’re not really encouraging people to appreciate it as a “great product” in its own right, and there are a fair few aspects of the men’s game we wouldn’t actually want to emulate,” she writes.
We just want our girls on the pitch, our women in kits given respect, and our talent proudly showcased.
Let’s keep up the pace. Now is not the time to step back and let things play on as they always have. Give your girls the option to play football. Don’t be scared to have a kick about yourself. Support your local teams, and book tickets to any number of women’s games taking place this season – because the time may come when demand for these games is as high as the men’s.
Here’s hoping, anyway!
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