Before England had even scored their first goal, I’d found myself tearing up at the sight of Wembley stadium jam-packed with fans. Groups of families and friends, people old and young, children with their faces painted and their hearts full of hope that England would take the win lined the stands. Over 87,000 fans piled into the stadium to watch the final between England and Germany, setting the record for the most spectators at a European Championship (men’s or women’s).
It only takes a brief look at the history of women’s football compared to men’s football to understand why this statistic is so symbolic.
A historical turnout
Shockingly, the FA Council only lifted the ban on women playing on the grounds of affiliated clubs in 1971, so women were always starting behind the men. There are large discrepancies in tournament prize money for men and women, although, as of January 2020, England’s men’s and women’s teams are paid the same amount.
Looking at viewership numbers over the years, you can clearly see why this final was a step forward. At the 2013 Euro’s final in Stockholm, 41,301 fans attended to watch Germany play Norway.
Following England’s win, Alex Scott opened up about the reluctance of several grounds to host women’s games. She stated: “Back in 2018, we were begging people to host, in their stadiums, a women’s game, for this Euro’s. So many people said no.”
“I hope you’re all looking at yourselves now,” Scott said powerfully as England celebrated this momentous occasion, with over 87,000 people cheering for them, “because you weren’t brave enough.”
What this means for women and girls
When I was 11, I joined my local football club. I had football strips, I played the sport, and I enjoyed going to watch matches with my uncle and little brother at the local ground. After a while, I lost interest. I don’t know why, because I did enjoy playing. Now that I’m old enough to look back, I imagine there were lots of moments that made me think the sport wasn’t for me. Every time I played Top Trumps with my family, we played with male football players, every time football was on the TV, it was men. In all honesty, if you had asked me to name a single female football player, I couldn’t have told you one.
Now, there are going to be young girls wearing the shirts of the players who won tonight. Chloe Kelly, Ella Toone, Leah Williamson, Alessia Russo are all going to be household names. It’s about time.
I wouldn’t class myself as someone particularly into football these days, I don’t follow a team or go to matches, but I was absolutely engrossed in the game. When the final minutes ran out and England began to celebrate their victory, I found myself in tears. All I could think about was what this will mean for women’s football. This win will etch the name of the players in football history. It has shown that women can and do sell out stadiums, and that they could do what the men couldn’t.
I’m not alone in the emotion I felt during the match.
Josie, from Bristol, wrote on Twitter: “Actually feeling very emotional watching #UEFAWomensEuro2022. Growing up as a little girl who was obsessed with football but had no role models like me was so hard, but knowing that young girls will be inspired by this is incredible!”
They explained that growing up as a girl who enjoys football they were laughed at by boys and “tested” on their knowledge to prove themselves.
“I can’t wait for the day that when you say you’re watching a football match, people don’t automatically assume it’s a men’s game,” she said.
The players were undoubtedly aware of their role in history being made and the future of women’s football changing in this country. After the semi-finals, chief executive of Women in Sport, Stephanie Hilbourne, told The Independent:
“You could see the Lionesses were carrying a weight on their shoulders at the Euro semi-finals on Tuesday night, which was expressed on the faces and through the emotions of the players at the final whistle. This was about more than winning a game; this was about overturning a history of exclusion of women.”
“Your success goes far beyond the trophy”
Even the Queen joined in with congratulating England, and said: “My warmest congratulations, and those of my family, go to you all on winning the European Women’s Football Championships.”
She stated that their success “goes far beyond the trophy [they] have so deservedly earned,” as they have “all set an example that will be an inspiration for girls and women today, and for future generations.”
“It is my hope that you will be as proud of the impact you have had on your sport as you are of the result today,” the Queen stated.
The Queen, of course, is right. The win wasn’t just for football fans, it really was for women everywhere. It’s a shame, of course, that women even have to prove themselves to be as successful, if not more, than the men just for this country to take notice. Isn’t that always the way? Men are allowed to be average, and women always have to be exceptional.
However, exceptional they certainly were. The final was a huge step forward for women’s sports. For me, and women everywhere, you could feel it. Sitting down to watch the game, I said to my family that this felt historic. Never before have I seen so many people across the country so excited to watch a game of women’s football. Never before has the UK backed the sport so much.
There are thousands of young girls in those stands who will be going home after the match with female footballing heroes that everyone in their class will know, they will have people to look up to, and they will know that should they become a professional footballer, people will be there cheering them on.