The immediate reaction – that this was somehow the moment that women’s football was forever changed – has been predictably, almost reassuringly English.
A few months ago, over 90,000 people watched Barcelona Women play Real Madrid. But the English would be well advised to avoid the notion that a highly successful international tournament won in extra time, by England and not Germany, is somehow a new dawn for the sport itself. And, though the sentiment is noble and the song is great, at Wembley last night football most definitely did not come “home”.
That song, written in 1996, was a wistful yearning that England might win a major tournament on home soil after what felt like a very long wait, and thus restore some glory to the country that has a contested but reasonable case to have invented the game. It is truly no disservice to England’s Lionesses to point out that the “home” of women’s football, on the other hand, is almost anywhere but here. It could hardly have been less fitting that the honour of presenting the Euro 2022 Trophy last night should have fallen upon the chairman of the Football Association, Prince William.
It’s not merely that, a hundred years ago, when things might have been different, the English football blazerati failed in their duty to nurture and support the women’s game. It’s that they actively fought to suppress it. Women’s football surged in popularity during the First World War. The FA’s response, in 1921, was to declare the game quite unsuitable for females and “ought not to be encouraged”.
It has since changed its ways, setting up proper structures for elite women, and the results are clear to see, but it has done so to belatedly get in on an act that very much began elsewhere, and notably in the USA. England as the spiritual “home” of women’s football? Not a chance. To suggest so, even for the sake of misty-eyed sentimentality, is something of a disservice to the decade after decade of talent that was forcibly squandered.
All of this, however, is absolutely not to say that Sunday night’s heroics, and its massive television audience, do not present huge opportunities. And, arguably, an England victory presents a uniquely great opportunity for women’s football itself, given England’s unique match-going culture, its deep professional pyramid and its tantalising adjacence to the vast wealth of the English Premier League.
There is, unsurprisingly, talk of how this glorious victory must leave a “legacy”. But legacy is a nebulous word that was only ever coined not even to let the blazers off the hook, but to never land them on it in the first place. The London Olympics were meant to leave a “legacy” of improved sporting participation, but deliberately stopped short of any clear, measurable objectives. There were no defined targets to hit that, should they not be hit, someone might lose their job.
So the first thing should be that the “legacy” must have clear meaning.
The most obvious thing that happened at Wembley on Sunday night is that it killed stone dead any notion that football is for boys and not for girls. As Ian Wright said on the BBC after England’s semi-final victory, “If girls are not allowed to play football in PE, like boys, what is the point?”
The figures are currently damning. They are hard to quantify, but the best estimate is that 72 per cent of secondary schools offer football for boys and only 44 for women. That must change and there must be a clear deadline for when it should be done by. The nation is currently fortunate to have a female secretary of state for sport, Nadine Dorries, so there is no reason to believe that change cannot come about as soon as possible.
One of the most obvious reasons that football is such a dominant force in the cultural life of this and many countries is that football wraps its bittersweet tentacles around so many aspects of life’s journey, but it is a beast that has historically found boys to be much easier prey.
Tiny little boys kick a ball around in the garden. Then they kick a ball around in the playground. Then, and this is an almighty rite of passage on the journey, many of them have what can only be called the Sir Bobby Robson moment: “It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
Very many little girls go on this exact journey too, but at this point the pathway begins to differ. They have not always had the ready-made global idols to idolise, to dream of becoming. It is possible to believe that has changed, in this country, overnight. What the Lionesses have achieved, we must hope, is to have completed the football ecosystem for little girls and for the women they will become.
(As it happens, yesterday night a friend in a Whatsapp group informed that, among the boys playing football in the garden next door, one of them declared, “I’m Chloe Kelly.” That is quite a moment.)
Currently, in this country, the women’s game has roots within the men’s game. There are no teams in the Women’s Super League that are not in some way part of a men’s football club. The usual names are all there – Man City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United, and so on. These women’s clubs, for the most part, would struggle to turn an operational profit without the synergies of being part of huge organisations, drowning in cash.
These clubs should be able to see England’s victory as the huge opportunity it is. The market is clearly there. One suspects the 17.5 million TV viewers, plus another 5.9 million online, will not have escaped the attention of the media companies that pay vast amounts for the rights to broadcast football. For a few years now, TV executives have worried about the prospect of slowly diminishing audiences, and quite possibly slowing attention spans for a two-hour live show.
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They may find at least part of the solution in the form of an enormous new market altogether. In the wake of this tectonic shift, there will be significant early-mover advantage.
And the thing about sporting success is that, once tasted, countries do not like to see it taken away. It is now quite a long time since UK Sport revolutionised the model for funding elite Olympic sport, transforming Team GB’s medal haul in the process. It would have to be a brave, quite possibly suicidal government, who would do anything to harm it.
England, now, really will expect. And for the first time in what feels like forever, those expectations are not unreasonable. “They think it’s all over… it’s only just begun,” said Gabby Logan last night. She was right to do so, but it will not happen by itself.
Women’s football has not come home, but it has certainly landed in a back garden that has everything it could possibly wish for, just so long as, in this precious moment, no one is allowed to be called in for their tea.