Is Euro 2022 payback for England’s women’s football game?

BOURTON-ON-TRENT, England – It was only 13 years ago that England defender Lucy Bronze took figures as she moved through her memories of having to pack bags at a supermarket to raise the money she needed for a bus ride to Derby. She and her teammates were due to play Sunderland in the Women’s FA Cup final. It was only a few years after that when he was still at Everton in his new career working at Domino’s Pizza.

until 2022. The rapid growth of women’s football in England and much of Western Europe is such that the brass and almost all other top professionals long ago said goodbye to such side jobs. Today, Bronze is widely recognized as one of the best women’s players in the world: a three-time Champions League winner, Barcelona’s star summer signing and a key member of the England squad with ambitions to win this month’s European Women’s Championship.

“Here we are, in 2022, and the players are coming in like helicopters,” the 30-year-old Bronze said after England training in June. “You know what I mean? It went so far, so fast, and I don’t think anyone could have predicted how big it would be. “

That makes the start of this summer’s Women’s Euros, a three-and-a-half-week tournament that opens with hosts England v Austria on Wednesday night, another pivotal moment in a game that is experiencing a surge in interest and investment.

At least half a dozen countries will arrive in England’s stadiums and think they can lift the trophy after the final on July 31. But the pressure to do so may be highest on the host nation, which continues to pump millions of dollars into the sport. But has yet to win a major women’s trophy.

England’s stakes are high: they come into the tournament fresh off three straight wins over their fellow tournament participants – Belgium (3-0), the Netherlands (5-1) and Switzerland (4-0) – and will want to build on that. The semi-finals of the last World Cup, and then only a year to go. The Lions, as the English team is called, have not lost a match since Sarina Wigman took over as their coach in September.

It means you don’t hide your expectations. The faces of England footballers now adorn billboards in shopping centers and packaging on shop shelves. The BBC will broadcast all games of the tournament on its channels or (for multiple simultaneous kick-offs) on its streaming platform. England’s three group stage matches are already sold out.

More than 500,000 tickets for the tournament have been sold, guaranteeing that the tournament will double its attendance compared to its last iteration in 2017 in Holland. Most of those who turn out to cheer for England expect the host nation to set a new standard.

That’s why Wigman tried to temper expectations. “I think there are a lot of favorites for this tournament,” he said recently. “We are one of them.”

Still, his players know that the sudden rise in the game, as well as the chance to play a major tournament at home, has put them at a crucial juncture.

“I didn’t really have a female role model growing up in terms of football, so I think it’s massive for that,” said England midfielder Kyra Walsh, 25, who is playing for Manchester City in their Euro home games. “But not just for young girls — I think for young guys, they can see women playing in big stadiums to sold-out crowds in a home tournament. I think it will only increase respect for the game in this way. “

The tournament comes at an exciting time for European women’s football. Its 16-team lineup includes some of the world’s most talented teams, including Sweden, currently ranked second in the world; Holland, a World Cup finalist three years ago; Germany, eight-time European champion; and Spain, which boasts Alexia Putelas, the reigning World Player of the Year. Norway is bolstered by the return of Ada Hegerberg, while France is bolstered by the core of the country’s dominant club teams, Olympique Lyonnais and Paris Saint-Germain.

However, it is England who may have the highest expectations.

Historic investment by the country’s biggest clubs in the Women’s Super League, England’s top domestic competition, has attracted some of the world’s best players, generated new revenue streams and raised the standard of play for a new generation of England stars. All but one member of England’s 23-man Euro squad played in the WSL last season, including veterans Bronze and Ellen White and rising talents such as Walsh and Lauren Hemp.

“We’ve seen over the years how much the women’s game has grown,” said Hamp, 21, who was named England’s Young Women’s Player of the Year for a record fourth time this year. “I think having this home tournament will only help him develop even more.”

Despite all the wins, players, even the best, know there’s still a long way to go. Investment in the WSL remains a fraction of the money invested in the men’s game in Europe, while salaries, TV deals and prize money – while vastly improved – still qualify as a rounding error compared to men’s pay.

UEFA, European football’s governing body, has come under fire for its choice of stadiums in the group stages, with Iceland’s Sarah Björk Gunnarsdottir calling the use of Manchester City’s academy stadium, which has a capacity of 4,700 for the tournament, “disrespectful”. And a survey of 2,000 male football fans in Britain, published earlier this year, found that two-thirds had an “open pro-women’s attitude” towards women’s sports, regardless of age.

Still, for veterans like bronze, the tournament shows just how far the women’s game has come and provides an opportunity to raise its profile even further. He says the new crop of young players he sees in training every day show a fearlessness he didn’t have at their age and are a symbol of a future – for them and for England – that could be even brighter.

“Now I look at some of the players who maybe haven’t been to the tournament and I think, ‘Oh my gosh, when I was you, I was a little more panicked,'” said Bronze. “But they all seem a little more calm.”

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