Pride of the nation: Can the Lionesses tackle the challenges still facing the game?


Sarina Wiegman knows how to win. As a footballer she collected a bevy of league titles and cup medals, while every team she has coached has won a championship — at least until now.

On Sunday, England’s Dutch coach will attempt to keep her winning streak intact as she leads out a team chasing its first major trophy.

The success of the Lionesses has gripped the Euro 2022 host nation, with millions expected to tune in to see whether the team can overcome eight-time champions Germany at Wembley Stadium in the tournament finale.

“We want to inspire the nation. I think that’s what we’re doing”, Wiegman said after the team beat Sweden in the semi-final. “We hope that we’ve got everyone so enthusiastic, and that at the end the whole country is proud of us, and that even more girls and boys start playing football.”

Whatever the result, Sunday’s final is set to break records. Attendance is due to top 87,000, making it the biggest crowd for any Euro final — men’s or women’s. Already the number of fans going to matches has more than doubled since the previous tournament in 2017, according to Uefa, surpassing 480,000 during the semi-finals.

Interest in the competition has surged across the country. More than 11mn people watched England’s semi-final win, with games carried during prime time TV spots and results splashed across national newspaper front pages.

Kelly Smith, former England striker, said at the Equal Playing Field’s London conference this week that much of the buzz was thanks to a higher standard of football: “I just watch the game now, and from when I finished in 2016 it has just gone up another level. That’s due to the professionalism and a lot of countries now taking it seriously.”

England striker Beth Mead shoots and scores during the semi-final against Sweden © Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

England’s success is no overnight phenomenon — it follows years of investment in the game. The Women’s Super League was launched by the FA in 2011, less than two years after England were hammered 6-2 by Germany in the final of Euro 2009.

It turned fully professional in 2018, and a year later signed Barclays as its title sponsor — the biggest investment by a brand in UK women’s sport. The bank renewed that deal late last year, pledging to invest another £30mn in the women’s game over the next three years.

The WSL teams will also feature in the next edition of the wildly popular video game series Fifa for the first time, a major breakthrough for efforts to reach younger audiences.

The men’s game is offering some support. All but one of the WSL’s 12 current members are linked to Premier League clubs, with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City typically vying for the top spot.

“There’s more backroom staff now who are working at WSL clubs so the players are getting the top dietary, physios, doctors, it’s just the all round elite performance,” Smith said. “The sponsorship has really helped. . . the money’s there for the players to perform.”

But it is Wiegman, 52, who has turned England into potential champions. The Lionesses are unbeaten in 19 games with her in the dugout, scoring 104 goals while conceding just four. In a World Cup qualifier last year, they beat Latvia 20-0, while their 4-0 drubbing of Sweden, Europe’s top ranked team, was a result that would be talked about “all over the world”, she said afterwards.

England will face a stiff test on Sunday against Europe’s dominant side. The German team has won eight of the 12 Euro championships, and was the last European team to win the World Cup in 2007. The Frauen-Bundesliga, the domestic women’s football league, was set up in 1990, giving Germany a 20-year head start at club level.

Amid the euphoria, there is realism among those in the game about what the future holds. Tournaments often lead to a wave of excitement that can quickly dissipate once the return of the men’s seasons grabs back attention. The women’s game is still short of money and lags well behind in terms of attendance, infrastructure and sponsorship.

Lucy Bronze celebrates after scoring in the semi-final against Sweden © Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Euro 2022 is expected to generate €60mn for Uefa, compared to the €1.9bn brought in by last years men’s tournament. Average attendance at last season’s WSL games was just 1,931 people, far behind the 39,472 at a typical Premier League match.

“The challenge is that people still often view women’s football a bit like a theater trip,” said Maggie Murphy, chief executive of Lewes FC, which competes in the Women’s Championship, the level below the WSL.

“They go once a year, twice maybe, they love big events, they’ll go to watch England, but that doesn’t translate into the day-to-day of running a club,” she said. “The real legacy will be whether we can convert these big eventer fans into weekly fans.”

Female professional footballers earn a fraction of their male counterparts, with average annual wages of £25-30k, according to those in the game. Younger players and those outside the elite levels earn less. Top players can make as much as £300,000, although male stars can get that amount in a week.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving this tournament,” said Sarah Gregorius, director of global policy and strategic relations for women’s football at players’ union Fifpro.

“But we have to be critical,” she warned. “I can’t get caught up in progress washing.” . . we want stable work that dignifies the workers and gives them the respect and protections that they need.”

When the bunting comes down, the main challenges facing the game will still be growing audiences, keeping fans interested in domestic competitions, and securing the lucrative salaries on offer to men.

“We’ve seen a lot of national teams now start to equalize their rewards to the men’s and women’s teams,” said former Fifa Council member Moya Dodd. “That can be the legacy of these big tournaments, people saying, ‘Lots of people watch women’s sport. . . so why is there such under-monetisation of that audience that women cannot get paid the same?”

Where progress is being made is at the grass roots level, particularly for young players. The FA says that more than 2.5mn women and girls are now registered as players, making it the top female participation sport in England.

Football school Girls United started offering coaching on Peckham Rye common in south London in 2018. At first it would attract just a handful of girls each week, according to founder Romina Calatayud. Growth was slow but steady, until lockdown hit and everything came to a standstill.

But when it reopened in early 2021, there was so much demand that organizers had to introduce waiting lists. Just 18 months later, Girls United is now coaching more than 500 children a week. “It’s overwhelming how fast it’s growing”, Calatayud said.

“The growth of the game is getting to a point where it starts to seem like a career prospect that is worthwhile”, she added. “We even see it with the dads — they want their girls to be professional footballers now. They’re on the sidelines now thinking: she’s the next Lucy Bronze.”



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