England salutes its Lionesses. The new European champions even received a message from the Queen telling them they were an “inspiration”. Thousands of fans flocked to Trafalgar Square in central London to see them revel in the glory of it all.
The host nation’s first football silverware since the 1966 World Cup has turned millions of skeptics into believers in women’s football.
Chloe Kelly’s danceable 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 this photo of American Brandi Chastain after her winner during the 1999 World Cup final.
Let’s be honest: many male fans in Europe used to be of the opinion that women can’t and shouldn’t play football. It was considered “inappropriate” and not so long ago it was banned by some federations. Schools didn’t cater to girls who wanted to play the game. Clubs really weren’t interested in throwing money at it.
But the revolution is now well under way and things could go fast from here.
England already have their professional Women’s Super League, but with a tiny fraction of the budgets given to the men’s teams of top clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City. Winning the European Championship has made this league a much more attractive commodity for sponsors, advertisers and TV executives who sign the cheques. He could easily go 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 trailing heel against Sweden in the semi-finals was rightly acclaimed as a goal even Lionel Messi would envy.
That Russo goal underscored the rapid improvement in women’s football standards, as did Keira Walsh’s brilliant pass and Ella Toone’s delicious lob to open the scoring in the final. And don’t forget Lina Magull’s superbly taken equalizer for Germany, opening her left foot to skillfully place the ball into the roof of the England net. Wonderful technique.
No one is pretending to hail this tournament as a watershed moment for the sport.
With the exception of England’s 8-0 game against a disappointing Norway, almost every game was competitive and even underrated teams like Belgium, Austria, Portugal and Switzerland looked helpful while the poor old Iceland came home early despite being undefeated in her group.
The level of football has been described as “crazy” by Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who also paid tribute to the technique of the players and the tactical sense of coaches like Sarina Wiegman, who became the first to win the Euro with two different nations, England and the Netherlands in 2017.
Wiegman’s cool ability to dismiss any questions she doesn’t like is reminiscent of the taciturn England manager at the 1966 World Cup, Alf Ramsey. She was asked in her pre-match interview if she would have a last minute message for the players and outright said ‘no’. She also wouldn’t discuss penalty shootouts or have anything to do with “Football’s Coming Home” (a phrase considered a little arrogant and titled by rival teams).
We weren’t surprised to learn that she only reads non-fiction and that relationships with her players are short, simple, and to the point. Less, in this case, is clearly more.
Sarina Wiegman talks about the lasting impact of England’s victory at the European Women’s Championship.
Wiegman wisely stops any comparison between men’s and women’s games. They are very different, but both are must-see sights in their own right. The men’s game is more edgy, volatile, meaner and, yes, lucrative. But anyone who watches the fiercely contested match between England and Germany can see that women’s football can be very fiery – and it’s no worse for that.
By far, the United States – the defending World Cup champions – will have assessed the teams they are likely to face when they defend their title in Australia and New Zealand next summer. They’ll know the chasing pack is closing the gap and they’ll still need to improve to stay on top.
This tournament will need to do the same to match the fervor we have seen in England this year with record crowds culminating in an astonishing 87,192 spectators to watch the Wembley final. Even the upscale Sunday Times published a “souvenir edition” on the day of the final.
As BBC presenter Gabby Logan said, echoing Ken Wolstenholme’s famous old comment from 1966: “Think it’s all over? It’s just begun.”
What follows in the history of women’s football will be fascinating. But it’s hard to believe it won’t get even bigger and better. The Lionesses of England are roaring their challenge to anyone who thought their game would never catch on. They were truly the hosts with the most.