Women’s football puts England in a league of their own

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LONDON — Izzy Short, 13, is struggling to pick her favorite England player as she awaits the team’s appearance in Sunday’s European Football Championship final.

There’s forward Ellen White. Defense Attorney Lucy Bronze. Midfielder Georgia Stanway. Captain Leah Williamson. Basically the whole team.

“I just really look up to them,” said the Manchester high school player, excitement in her voice. “They are all very positive…they all appreciated each other and how they are such a good team and that they all just really work together. And they are just so nice and so good too.”

The march to Sunday’s final against Germany energized people across England. The team’s spot-on passes and eye-catching goals drew record-breaking viewership, soaring TV ratings and rave coverage. The Lionesses, as the team is known, have been a welcome distraction from the political turmoil and cost-of-living crisis that has been dominating the headlines.

The final, played at historic Wembley Stadium to a capacity crowd of more than 87,000, is considered a turning point for women’s sport in England. Despite the game known here as soccer being a national passion, female players have often been ridiculed and once banned from top-level establishments. Now the women’s team has a chance to do something the men haven’t done since 1966: win a major international tournament.

Hope Powell played 66 times for England and coached the team from 1998 to 2013.

“I think we have to thank the people who worked really hard before us, who went through all this, got banned and fought for the right to play,” Powell told the BBC. “I think we have to remember that what came before got us to where we are today.”

68,871 people were in the stands at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, as England beat Austria 1-0 in the opening game of this year’s European Championship. This helped push the total number of tournament attendees so far to 487,683 – more than double the record 240,055, according to tournament organizer UEFA.

But it’s not just the victories that attract fans. That’s how the team wins.

With money from sponsorship deals and a new TV deal to support full-time pro players, there’s more glitz and glamor than many expected. They may not play like the men’s team, but that’s not a bad thing.

There are fewer players dropping to the ground to commit fouls, rolling around on the turf less dramatically and allegedly clutching injured knees or ankles, and hardly yelling at the umpires. Instead, there’s teamwork, skillful passes and stunning goals like Stanway’s 20-metre shot in the quarter-final win over Spain and Alessia Russo’s heel-heel in England’s 4-0 semi-final win over Sweden.

And here’s the thing: people like it.

Naomi Short, Izzy’s mother and goaltender at Longford Park Ladies Football Club, said fans are treated to a “completely different atmosphere” in the stadium and on the field – one that’s more welcoming than the lager-tinged tribalism that some identify has people from the men’s game.

“It’s not just girls looking at it – it’s families, it’s men, women, children. Everyone looks at it. It brought everyone together,” said Short, 44. “You know, sometimes when you go to a men’s game, sometimes there’s (a) little different vibe.”

There’s also less distance between the fans and the players, who know they have a responsibility to build a game their mothers and grandmothers were left out of. Players stay after games and sign autographs. They take selfies. It’s time for a talk. They know little kids look up to them.

Coach Sarina Wiegman emphasizes that more than just victory is at stake.

“We want to inspire the nation,” Wiegman said after the team’s semi-final win. “I think we are doing that and we want to make a difference – and we hope that we make everyone excited and proud of ourselves and that more girls and boys start playing football.”

Growing support for the team is also fueled by the country’s dismal record in international competitions and hopes they can bring a European Championship to England, who pride themselves on being the place where modern football was invented.

England’s last major international championship, male or female, came at the 1966 World Cup – a lifetime ago for most fans. Last year, the men’s side once again disappointed fans when they lost to Italy in the final of their European Championship.

That leaves it up to the women to end the drought.

Women’s football in England has a long and sometimes controversial history.

Women’s football thrived during and for a number of years after World War I, as teams like Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club filled the sporting void left when the best male players took to the trenches to fight. Women’s teams, many organized in munitions factories, drew large crowds and raised money for charity. A game in 1920 drew 53,000 spectators.

But that popularity sparked a backlash from the men who ran the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England. In 1921 the FA banned women’s teams from using its facilities on the grounds that “The game of football is quite unsuitable for women and should not be encouraged.”

The ban remained in place for the next 50 years.

In 1969 women formed their own football association and soon after the FA ended its ban on women. The FA took charge of women’s football in 1993 and began the slow process of improving funding and facilities.

Things accelerated after the London 2012 Olympics when authorities began to realize there was a global audience for women’s football, said Gail Newsham, author of In a League of Their Own, which tells the story of Dick, Kerr Ladies tells.

Last year, the FA signed a three-year deal for broadcasting rights to the Women’s Super League, increasing funding and publicity for the game. Sky Sports will broadcast at least 35 matches a year on its pay-TV channels and the BBC will broadcast a further 22 on its free-to-view network.

“It wasn’t that long ago that girls, you know, top players, had to pay for their own way to games and go to work the next day. So all of this helps,” Newsham said of the funding. “You can see the difference now in the professionalism of the girls who play football.”

The excitement surrounding Sunday’s final has sparked a scramble for tickets.

Tickets that originally sold for £15–50 (US$18–US$61) are now selling for £100–1,000 (US$122–US$1,216) on resale sites.

The Short family have decided to catch the game at the local pub and make it an afternoon, as do fans across the country.

“I don’t think it matters if it’s men or women,” Naomi Short said. “It’s England now. It’s coming home. You know, I think that’s what people get upset about.”

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