Sarina Wiegman’s team have done just what Gareth Southgate’s men did last summer – they’ve captured the imagination of the entire country with their determination, happiness and outrageous skill. Not only that, they went one better – although they went to extra time, Chloe Kelly scored to make England the champions of Europe.
This has been the most-watched Women’s Euros in history. It broke the previous record for Women’s Euros in-person attendance way back in the group stages, when a cumulative total of 248,075 fans had already been through the turnstiles after just a few games. To top it off, the 87,192 fans at Wembley on Sunday meant that England v Germany had the highest attendance of any European Championship final – men’s or women’s.
Throughout the tournament, the team has been electrifying. That thunderbolt from Georgia Stanway cracking into the net against Spain as the clock ticked down towards the end of extra-time; Alessia Russo’s backheeled nutmeg goal, a stunning piece of cheek against Sweden (and the third of four goals that England scored against the top-ranked side in Europe); the calmness and confidence of Leah Williamson, captaining her country in a senior tournament for the first time. The Lionesses have truly been roaring.
The Volkswagen advertising hoardings around the pitch note that this tournament is #NotWomensFootball, it’s just football – and that’s certainly the way it’s been treated. For the first time, plenty of this summer’s coverage has been about technique and tactics, not just the players and their personal lives. Both male and female pundits have been analysing the games, and the mainstream media have been chatting about the results – which is also what’s happened in workplaces around the country. It’s everyday watercooler talk, the same as you’d expect from any major men’s tournament.
The sponsors have been flocking and it looks as if they’ll stick around too, encouraged by the interest and engagement. We already knew that Barclays would have their name on the Women’s Super League for years to come, but there have been lots of other new and surprising commercial partners signing up to associate their names with women’s football.
The Lionesses’ success is the culmination of years of work to create a top-class professional international team. In 1984, England reached the final of the first Women’s European Championships. With amateur players and little to no funding, a squad couldn’t just go into camp for a month to train, eat and socialise every day. Instead, the semi-finals and the final had home and away legs, so once the first match was over, each player could head back to her day job for a couple of weeks before playing the deciding fixture. England’s captain, Carol Thomas, led the team out against Sweden at Kenilworth Road in Luton for the second leg on 27 May 1984. The weather conditions were vile; the few photographs and limited video footage of the day attest to that. Today the match might have been rearranged, but back then such flexibility in the calendar was impossible.
When the FA set up the WSL in 2011, one of their aims was to support a successful England side. After reaching the semi-finals at the Women’s World Cup in 2015 and 2019, and at the last Euros in 2017, the Lionesses were aiming to go top that this year. It paid off: England’s women have finally landed their first major senior trophy.
Although there is clearly brilliant talent already in the game – Williamson’s and Wiegman’s Lionesses are proof of that – this tournament must be the starting point of even greater progress. There has already been plenty of discussion about the need to draw from a more diverse talent pool, with question-marks around whether the setup over the past decade has marginalised some groups who haven’t been able to access the limited training facilities for reasons of time, travel or money. The FA has announced the launch of 60 emerging talent centres across England, which should go some way to addressing that.
The FA’s aims – for 75% of schools to provide access to girls’ football and 75% of grassroots clubs to have at least one girls’ team – are also important steps. The Lionesses have been inspirational role models for the next generation – of both girls and boys, just as Southgate’s side were in 2021 – and the path needs to be clear for the superstars of tomorrow to progress and shine. The momentum from this exciting, exceptional group of players and their achievements this summer will go some way to doing that – and with that legacy, they will ensure that this tournament goes down in history in more ways than one.
Carrie Dunn is a journalist and lecturer. She is the author of Unsuitable for Females: The Rise of the Lionesses and Women’s Football in England