(Photo: Danny Lawson - PA Images via Getty Images)
Every last ticket to Sunday’s triumphant final against Germany at Wembley Stadium (the largest sports venue in the UK and second-largest stadium in Europe) sold out – all 87,200 of them. It was the biggest attendance ever for a men’s or women’s Euro final, and closely rivalled the highest attended women’s football match of all time (when 91,553 watched Barcelona play Real Madrid in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in March).
But, even before they made it to the final – and secured their astounding victory, England’s first major trophy win in 56 years – it was clear the team was having a major impact.
Three years ago we watched as the Lionesses exceeded all expectations in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, only falling to eventual champions, the USA.
While football didn’t come home that night in Lyon, it certainly felt as though women’s football was here to stay. And so it has proved.
After a pandemic pause, the current Lionesses, led by captain Leah Williamson and cool-as-you-like head coach Sarina Wiegman, stormed their way through to the final scoring 22 goals between them in front of delighted crowds, and only conceding one – in that nail-biting quarter-final against Spain.
Midfielder Georgia Stanway, who scored the extra-time “stunner” that saw them through the quarter-finals in Brighton, has said: “I think we need to kind of stop talking about how big women’s football is getting and talk about how big it is.”
And she added of her team: “We’re just hitting new levels every single time.”
England’s comprehensive 4-0 victory against Sweden in the semi-final drew 9.3 million viewers across BBC TV and streaming – the largest audience for the tournament until the extraordinary final.
Fans went wild for goals from Beth Mead, Lucy Bronze and Fran Kirby, for the sparkling clean-sheet of goalkeeper, Mary Earps, but most of all for super-sub Alessia Russo’s devilish back-kicked nutmeg in the second half. Even the US Embassy had to give Russo props for it with a cheeky homage on Twitter.
England goalkeeper Mary Earps and captain Leah Williamson celebrate after Alessia Russo's goal in the semi-finals. (Photo: Visionhaus via Getty Images)
And all this in a sport that the English Football Association effectively banned in 1921, because – and we kid you not here – it worried the growing popularity of women’s games was threatening to attract too large a crowd.
“Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, Council felt impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged,” the FA ruled at the time.
We’ve come a long way since then, thank goodness, and now around the world, women are matching their male counterparts for passion, drive and visibility. Australian striker Sam Kerr, of Chelsea FC Women, will soon become the first female player to feature on the cover of the football game FIFA for 2023.
So, if there’s a difference between women’s and men’s football, it isn’t down to technique. These Euros have shown that women are more than capable at smashing the sport. It’s more about the way it makes us feel: positive.
How many times are we all watching this tonight? 🤯pic.twitter.com/Z5UHyBbb8Z
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) July 26, 2022
Amelia Dimoldenberg, a 28-year-old writer, was at the opening game of the Euros on July 6, when England played against Austria at Old Trafford – and noticed the difference.
As a young woman, going to a men’s game can still feel intimidating, she tells HuffPost UK. “There’s so much testosterone there and so much bravado, and when you go to a women’s game it’s void of most of that” – not just because of the number of families in the stands, she adds. “It’s just exciting to see young girls and young people getting involved with the sport.”
You only had to listen to BBC broadcasters Alex Scott and Ian Wright reacting to last week’s heroics to realise that times aren’t changing – they already have.
Scott and Wright, who formerly played for Arsenal women’s and men’s teams respectively, as well as for their national sides, spoke eloquently in the moment about the journey to this point in football – and the future potential.
“It is hard for me not to get emotional right now,” Scott said, holding back tears, “because the amount of investment which has gone into the women’s game is for a moment like this. For this team to get to Wembley, they are creating something special and deserve every accolade which is coming their way.”
She added: “Everyone who has been involved in women’s football has been waiting for this moment. It’s special.”
Wright agreed, but also had a message to those who run the game. “Whatever happens in the final now, if girls are not allowed to play football in their PE, just like the boys can, what are we doing?” he said passionately post-match.
“We have got to make sure they are able to play and get the opportunity to do so. If there’s no legacy to this – like with the Olympics – then what are we doing as this is as proud as I’ve ever felt of any England side.”
Photographer Jade Keshia Gordon, 28, from London, is a lifelong Arsenal fan who started supporting both the club’s teams when she was eight. She also thinks women’s football should be championed so girls know it’s possible and “okay” to play.
“I played football as a kid and I remember hearing that I should ‘do something that girls do’ from boys my age. I hope that if I was to ever have a daughter they will have no fear of joining their football team,” Gordon tells HuffPost UK.
A young England fan cheers on the Lionesses during the England-Sweden game. (Photo: Catherine Ivill - UEFA via Getty Images)
Gordon says she enjoys watching women play for the dedication, drive and persistence on show – and of course the sheer skill of it.
“I don’t know if it’s because they’ve felt like they’ve always had to prove themselves, but I feel a sense of strength when they play and it’s just good football, regardless of them being women,” she says. “Football is football regardless of the gender.”
It’s a sentiment that Charlotte Thomson agrees with wholeheartedly. As head of women’s football at Copa 90, a football media company that makes fan-first content, she believes the energy surrounding the Lionesses is built on more than just a successful tournament on the pitch.
“This team is proof that women’s football has well and truly arrived,” she says.
“Iconic moments provided by the likes of Stanway and Russo breaking into the football zeitgeist is testament to the changing perceptions around women’s football,” says Thomson.“At the time of writing, Russo’s goal alone has been viewed 17 times per second, every second (!) since it was scored.”
The conversation has moved on from inspiring young girls to inspiring a nation, Thomson adds, and agrees that the atmosphere at games is something else.
“You don’t have to delve too deeply into women’s football fan culture to get a taste of the positive, inclusive space they occupy,” she says. “Turning up to any of the matches this summer and the atmosphere you are greeted with is more akin to that of a festival than a typical football match.”
England fans celebrate the Lionesses' win against Sweden in the Euro semi-finals. (Photo: Catherine Ivill - UEFA via Getty Images)
This positivity tips over onto social media, she adds, where Copa 90 has seen huge engagement for its match day takeovers, while off the pitch, collectives such as Baller FC, Studs and This Fan Girl have hosted watch parties and events, welcoming “everyone and anyone” to join in, Thomson says.
“However, do not make the mistake in thinking a positive space is one that’s less passionate, quieter and lacking in atmosphere,” she adds. “You just need to hear the hoarse voices of the fans this summer to understand that is most certainly not the case.”
The inclusivity she speaks of also includes the brilliant LGBTQ+ representation in the women’s game, on and off the pitch.
At the last Women’s World Cup, at least 41 players were openly gay or bisexual with individuals like USA’s Megan Rapinoe using the platform to speak out for the community – whereas, over in the male game, this year Jake Daniels was the first professional player to come out publicly since Justin Fashanu in 1990.
“The active allyship among the women football community is to be celebrated, and is something the men’s game can learn a lot from,” Thomson says.
That doesn’t mean that progress isn’t still needed in other areas. Many fans have noticed how white the current national women’s football team is – and Thomson stresses that “a lot of systemic work” must be done.
“The fact that the current Lionesses have only three black players – Jess Carter, Nikita Parris and Demi Stokes – is proof there is clearly a need for change,” she says. Even more so, when the latest figures from Sport England’s Active Lives report show the significant numbers of girls and young women of colour who are participating in the game at a grassroots level.
“Work needs to be done from the bottom up, ensuring centres of excellence are not just in rural locations and offering resources to give a wider group of girls access to key talent pathways, ” says Thomson.
“Additionally, we need to be providing role models from a grassroots perspective, given there’s not much at the top.”
Nikita Parris during an England training session during the Euros. (Photo: Lynne Cameron - The FA via Getty Images)
Even though Thomson, along with so many of us, has been loving the Euros coverage, she doesn’t think all football fans have to champion women’s football.
“For some people, women’s football just isn’t for them. For others, women playing football is outright offensive. But that’s okay – we don’t need them,” she says.
“The record breaking numbers this tournament has produced almost daily is testament to that. I would, however, like to see people taking heed from Leah Williamson’s quote from a recent BBC documentary: ‘I don’t particularly like watching fencing, but I don’t tweet to say that I don’t like it!’”
Nor is it one-size-fits-all. Sure, it’s heartening to see David Beckham thanking the Lionesses for inspiring his daughter Harper and the Duke of Cambridge appearing on Instagram with Princess Charlotte to wish the team luck before the final. But the team’s reach goes way beyond this demographic.
“Contrary to how the game has been marketed in the past, we know that there is more to women’s football fans than the watered-down ‘daddy and daughters’ parade that is often portrayed,” says Thomson. “Women’s football fans have proven to be wide ranging and highly engaged.”
And one thing’s for sure, they were all tuned into Sunday’s final at Wembley to see the Lionesses do what no else has done since 1966 – bring it home.
Fans celebrate the Lionesses' victory in the Euro 2022 final (Photo: Leon Neal via Getty Images)
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.