England is saluting its Lionesses. The new European champions even got a message from the Queen telling them they were an “inspiration.” Thousands of fans turned up at Trafalgar Square in the center of London to see them reveling in the glory of it all.
The host nation’s first football silverware since the 1966 World Cup has turned millions of doubters into believers of the women’s game.
Chloe Kelly’s dancing celebration of her winning goal, revealing a Nike sports bra, is already an iconic symbol of the rise of women’s football, all reminiscent of that photo of the US’s Brandi Chastain after her winner at the 1999 World Cup final.
Let us be honest here: Many male fans in Europe had previously been of the view that women could not and should not play football. It was regarded as “inappropriate” and not so long ago it was banned by some federations. Schools did not cater for girls who wanted to play the game. Clubs were really not that interested in throwing money at it.
But the revolution is now well underway, and things might move fast from here.
England already has its professional Women’s Super League, albeit with a tiny fraction of the budgets afforded to the men’s teams at top clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. The European Championship win has made that league a far more attractive product for sponsors, advertisers and TV executives who sign the cheques. It could easily move to another level.
Players like Manchester United goalkeeper Mary Earps, captain Leah Williamson, and Player of the Tournament and Golden Boot winner Beth Mead have become sensations. Not to mention Alessia Russo, whose audacious back heel against Sweden in the semifinal has rightly been acclaimed as a goal even Lionel Messi would envy.
That Russo goal underlined the rapid improvement in the standards of women’s football, as did Keira Walsh’s brilliant pass and Ella Toone’s delightful lob to open the scoring in the final. And don’t forget Lina Magull’s superbly taken equalizer for Germany, opening her left foot out to deftly place the ball into the roof of the England net. Wonderful technique.
Nobody is paying lip service in hailing this tournament as a defining moment for the sport.
Barring England’s 8-0 romp against a disappointing Norway, nearly all the games were competitive and even unfancied teams like Belgium, Austria, Portugal and Switzerland looked useful while poor old Iceland went home early despite going undefeated in their group.
The standard of football was described as “insane” by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who also paid tribute to the technique of the players and the tactical nous of coaches like Sarina Wiegman, who has become the first to win the Euros with two different nations, England and the Netherlands in 2017.
Wiegman’s cool ability to dismiss any questions she dislikes are reminiscent of England’s taciturn 1966 World Cup manager Alf Ramsey. She was asked in her prematch interview whether she would have any last-minute message for the players and bluntly said “no.” Neither would she discuss penalty shootouts nor have anything to do with “Football’s Coming Home” (a phrase seen as a little arrogant and entitled by rival teams).
We have been unsurprised to learn that she only reads nonfiction and dealings with her players are brief, simple and on point. Less, in this case, is clearly more.
Sarina Wiegman speaks about the lasting impact of England’s win at the Women’s European Championship.
Wiegman wisely shuts down any comparisons between the men’s and women’s games. They are very different, but both are shows worth seeing in their own right. The men’s game is more edgy, volatile, nastier, and yes, lucrative. But anyone watching the ferociously contested England vs. Germany match could see that women’s football can be very feisty — and none the worse for that.
From afar, the US — the reigning World Cup champions — will have been assessing the teams they are likely to face when they defend their title in Australia and New Zealand next summer. They will know that the chasing pack are closing the gap, and they will need to improve again to remain at the summit.
That tournament will have to go some to match the fervor we have seen in England this year with record crowds culminating in an astonishing 87,192 to watch the Wembley final. Even the up-market Sunday Times issued a “souvenir edition” on the day of the final.
As BBC TV presenter Gabby Logan said, echoing Ken Wolstenholme’s famous old commentary like from 1966, “You think it’s all over? It’s only just begun.”
Where the story of women’s football goes from here will be fascinating. But it is hard to believe that it will not become even bigger and better. The England Lionesses are roaring their defiance to all those who believed their game would never catch on. They truly were the hosts with the most.