What a result! After a tough game, England beat Germany 2-1 in the Women’s Euro 2022 final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday 31 July. The team were elated. The fans were jubilant. The nation celebrated.
And rightly so. The victory was well-deserved. England had an excellent run-up to the final. Winning every match. Demonstrating great footballing skills and rewarding fans with some eye-catching goals along the way. And to cap it all, England forward Beth Mead won the Euro 2022 Best Player award and Golden Boot.
It was an emotional time. The first victory by an England team in a major international championship, men’s or women’s, since the 1966 World Cup. And it was the women’s team that brought the trophy home. This provides us with a useful reminder that the road to this point has been a rocky one. And that the struggle for equal treatment of women in football is not yet won.
How did we get here?
As Ian Wright noted in the BBC match commentary, ‘The players here today are here despite the system not because of the system.’ Why might he have said this? Let’s take a quick look at the history of the game.
Historians believe that women have probably played football at an informal level for as long as the game has existed. With the standardisation of the rules of Association Football in the 19th century, women then set up their own teams and leagues emulating the male teams and leagues. But as a British Library article shows, resistance to women’s football grew.
Opposition was linked to opposition to the growing struggle for women’s right to vote as well as broader social and economic emancipation. Football was deemed unsuitable for women for reasons of propriety and the damage it might do to their health. Women’s football games faced contemptuous press coverage. Underpinning these overtly sexist attitudes was the belief that “football was the ‘Great British Game for Men’, intrinsically linked to masculinity and threatened by female encroachment.”
But the women’s game thrived in the early 20th century, receiving an additional boost as men’s leagues were closed down during the First World War. But this was too good to last. The continued success of women’s football after the war, including growing spectator numbers, was viewed as a direct threat to men’s football.
In December 1921 the Football Association (FA), the sport’s governing body, reacted by banning women from playing and using league pitches and facilities, claiming that, “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.”
The ban wasn’t officially lifted until 1971. We can speculate whether this was linked to women deciding to organise their own football association in 1969! The FA eventually took over responsibility for the women’s game in 1993, and initiated the (often slow and tortuous) process of raising its profile and improving facilities.
A watershed moment for the women’s game
So, the burning question is what next? The imperative now is surely to build on this wonderful legacy. This means football’s governing bodies, along with the clubs, exploring ways to continue raising the profile of the game, driving up attendance at matches, and ensuring long-term investment.
It means identifying new sponsors who can ensure players are properly paid for their work, and to fund the coaching resources required to continue developing the game even further. It means ensuring significantly better exposure on TV.
The challenge will be to do this in ways that avoid the problems generated by the self-serving agenda of the Premier League and the bloated financial interests that lie behind it. And which retains the teamwork, personal integrity and professional values we’ve seen on display over the last few weeks.
It’s also helpful that the Government announced back in March that £39 million would be provided to upgrade grassroots football facilities, out of a total of £230 million set to be invested to help build or upgrade up to 8,000 quality pitches across the UK over the next four years.
Whether this is sufficient (and the pledge honoured) remains to be seen. But it’s an important step in the right direction.
Fighting cultural exclusion
As part of these moves, there is also a clear need to tackle the lack of diversity at the top of the women’s game. Writing in The Guardian, former Lionesses player Anita Asante argued that significant changes need to be made to the scouting system, and availability of training facilities in urban areas, to access a more diverse pool of young players from black, Asian or mixed heritage backgrounds. Which would then create the role models of the future.
In parallel, it’s apparent that many female fans are put off the game as the environment at football grounds can be intimidating. Usually attributable to the sexism of male fans, it’s an unwelcome throwback to the opposition to the women’s game witnessed in the early history of the game.
Sadly, a recent study indicates that openly misogynistic attitudes towards women’s sport may be common amongst male football fans. Part of the solution may be more coverage of the women’s game to tackle these attitudes, promote gender equality and habituate men to the idea that the women’s game is as valid as the men’s game. After all, they’re missing out on top-flight football!
A new chapter for women’s football
But let’s not allow these undoubted challenges to detract from the Lionesses’ stunning triumph. As England captain Leah Williamson remarked, “What we’ve seen already is that this hasn’t just been a change for women’s football, but society in general and how we’re looked upon… this is a marker for the future.”
What comes next will be the real test of England’s victory.
What do you think? Did you watch the match? Share your thoughts with Chris and other members in the comments below.