On certain momentous occasions, the nation tends to store an image in its mental scrapbook for posterity. On election night in 1997, footage of a defeated Michael Portillo instantly came to symbolise an end to 18 years of Conservative rule. The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics is still fondly recalled by millions as a portrait of Britain as it could be at its best – optimistic, diverse and proud without being pompous about it. On Sunday, it was the turn of the Lionesses’ substitute hero, Chloe Kelly, waving her England shirt above her head in a state of near-delirium.
As Kelly wheeled joyfully away at Wembley, after scoring the winning goal against Germany, she did so before a record attendance for any Euros final – men’s or women’s. In the rest of the country, close to 20 million were watching the match on television, in pubs or in fan zones. In footballing terms, Kelly’s extra-time scrambled finish delivered a historic triumph – the first international trophy won by a senior England team since 1966. But the significance of the moment goes well beyond that immediate context.
This spectacularly successful tournament, which gripped the imagination of so many young girls (and boys), can now act as a catalyst for transforming lazy assumptions about women’s sport. Investment in the Women’s Super League – and the professionalisation of the game – has raised technical standards exponentially, creating a spectacle that proved its worth on a global stage. As politicians catch up with the implications of a remarkable summer, it seems certain that more will now be done to make sure that all girls get the opportunity to play football at school. But the lesson of these Euros – that greater resources can unleash extraordinary reserves of untapped potential – should not be confined to women’s football.
The triumphal progress of England’s women has also served to showcase a model of affordable football that democratised access to the national game. Crowds were more diverse in every respect, and mums and dads could bring daughters and sons to a match without maxing out their credit cards. Generation Z attended in large numbers. A more female audience gave stadiums a convivial feel that was a world away from the sulphurous atmosphere surrounding the Euro 2020 men’s final between England and Italy. As the women’s game seeks to capitalise on what is surely a tipping point in its history, this freshness and inclusive ethos can be one of its key and distinctive assets.
Most inspirationally of all though, the summer of the Lionesses achieved a parity of esteem and respect in a world that men fenced off as their own for so long. Both before and after Sunday’s final, England’s impressive captain, Leah Williamson, expressed a hope that the past few weeks can be transformational not only for women’s football, but for wider gender equality. In terms of pay, as well as residual expectations and stereotypes at work, there is still some way to go before that dream is realised. But as the England squad paraded the Euro trophy on Monday in front of a packed Trafalgar Square, and David Baddiel suggested that the Football’s Coming Home song should be “retired”, it did feel as if these footballers are shifting the dial in a way that transcends sport. Along with memories that will last a lifetime, that achievement is their gift to the millions of girls who fell in love with them this summer.