FOR the first time in a while, people in England have something to smile about. Amid the post-Brexit shambles of Britain, a group of gleaming, white-shirted women have reminded us that life is not all despondent after all, that football is not represented by the mayhem of Wembley 2021 and that people can, after all, enjoy themselves without a firework inserted into their nether regions.
Aside from the football, which was a very clear demonstration that the women’s game has come a long way since its wanabee days and even since the hyped-up England period under Phil Neville, the European Championship final was passionate, riveting and, above all, an occasion to restore belief in human nature. Anyone who saw the savagery of the final a year ago, the misguided nationalism and the flagrant disrespect of authority would have delighted at the way an 88,000 crowd can behave.
Let’s start at the beginning. Getting into Wembley Stadium was devoid of the jostling, the macho belching, the foul-mouthed chants normally associated with a football match. Inside, the noise was incredible, but it didn’t have the edge of a men’s game. There was no xenophobia and when the national anthems were played, Germany’s famous tune was not greeted with a crescendo of abuse and World War Two references.
The demographic was visibly different. The ratio of female to male was not what we associate with Wembley, far from it. Young girls, young women, their parents and, here and there, your archetypal football fan. If all football crowds had more women and youngsters, gradually, the toxicity would subside. But the challenge for society is to gradually dilute some of the irrational tribalism of the game – not, crucially, to eradicate it, but to temper it to a level that allows humour, greater diversity and acceptability. In an all-male crowd, this is difficult to achieve, but just as mixed schools work to counter testosterone overload, a better mix for football stadiums may just make them more pleasant places.
As for the game, it was clear a lot of people were unused to the matchday scene. For some reason, every free kick was jeered with the sort of noise normally reserved for pantomime villains. Germany made it difficult for England and were certainly more robust, perhaps making up for the loss of their captain, Alexandra Popp, who was mysteriously injured in the pre-match warm-up. There were echoes of Ronaldo ’98, but Germany did well to compensate for the absence of their talisman.
It was a compelling contest with England unable to break down the German team. Into the second half, Germany dominated for long stretches and when England took the lead with a superb chip by Manchester City’s Ella Toone, it was against the run of play. Toone and Alessio Russo were substitutes for Fran Kirby and Ellen White, the latter who had been consistently fouled. Germany equalised after 79 minutes through Lina Magull and the signs looked a shade ominous for England.
Into extra time, it was anyone’s game and England, not for the first time in EURO 2022, snatched the lead, thanks to an untidy goal from Chloe Kelly in the 110th minute. Kelly immortalised herself by removing her shirt and earning herself a booking, but images of her joyous run were destined to be emblazoned across Europe’s media. England hung on, cunningly at times, to trigger-off unprecedented noisy celebrations and emotional scenes on and off the pitch.
This was, without doubt, a watershed moment for women’s football in England, indeed it will also benefit the European game significantly. The crowds in EURO 2022 were very healthy, the interest in women’s football has increased, not because of the sometimes over-bearing hype, but because the quality of the product has improved substantially. But like the men’s game, the imbalances are there which may hinder progress. In the Women’s Super League, the balance of power is almost in the same hands as men’s football, which is a negative sign for broader development. Similarly, the international stage is dominated by a few nations and the overall strength-in-depth is questionable. Women’s football has to avoid the pitfalls that have influenced the Premier and other major leagues. They have gone, too quickly, to a polarised landscape, a situation which should worry the FA and WSL.
Why is this so important? The public have clearly enjoyed EURO 2022, but the WSL needs to attract the people who have so far steered clear of it. The crowds suggest that while the international team has attained a level of popularity, it is a struggle to get folk to watch games that have the aura of non-league football. The appeal of EURO 2022 and the England team has been the “event” of the game, something which is missing, to a certain extent, from run-of-the-mill league games. In some ways, this is what helped change men’s football when SKY and other broadcasters started to cover the game and pump big money into the coffers – the whole concept of the Premier was to exploit the idea of the “event aspect” of every single game. On a different level, the WSL and other leagues needs to succeed at this, but so far the answer has been to host WSL games in major stadiums to lure big crowds with free or cheap tickets, although this is a somewhat artificial environment.
For the time being, however, women’s football has the ideal platform to grow in popularity. EURO 2022 was a rip-roaring success for England and its aspirations, but the task just got harder – how do they follow that on the domestic and international fronts?