Ten years that changed the face of women’s football
It was a landmark moment for women’s football. Under the arch of Wembley stadium, to the soundtrack of Beyoncé’s feminist anthem Run the World (Girls), more than 70,000 fans streamed in to watch Team GB take on Brazil in the London Olympics to result in what was then Britain’s biggest ever women’s football match.
Team GB won 1-0 but that was almost (sort of) beside the point. The atmosphere was electric. In the crowd, where I was covering the match for the Evening Standard, the moment was a revelation. I couldn’t believe there were so many women and girls. Not because they didn’t belong – of course they did – but after a lifetime of hearing that women were rubbish at football and being made to feel that our views on the subject were unwelcome it felt completely wild.
But most striking of all was the mood. As well as “rocking” and “a night never to forget for women’s football in this country”, as player turned commentator Alex Scott, who was on the pitch that night, described it at the time, it was also convivial and friendly (and a sharp contrast to my only previous live football experience selling pies as a student at Carrow Road, Norwich City’s ground).
Despite breaking records – and proving that women’s football could fill the home of football – many England players then still had day jobs. The Women’s Super League (WSL) had yet to become fully professional.
How the landscape has shifted in a decade. Now, as England prepares to host the women’s Euros, which start on 6 July, with 450,000 tickets sold across the 25 days, it is already the biggest ever women’s sporting event in Europe. Games will take place in 10 venues including Wembley, Old Trafford, Brighton and Hove community stadium and St Mary’s in Southampton.
Despite, so far at least, not having quite the same hype as the men’s Euros last year, public appetite appears to be huge. England’s three group matches (including the opening game at Old Trafford: capacity 71,300) and the final at Wembley (capacity 87,200) are already sold out. In fact, if everybody who has bought a ticket attends the final, it will mark the highest ever attendance for a men or women’s game at the Euros. A total of 96,000 international visitors are expected, as well as a global broadcast audience of 250 million.
So what has happened in the past 10 years?
“The catalyst was the Olympics and that match,” said Faye White, 44, England women’s longest serving captain between 2002 and 2012. She also thinks it had a big impact on women’s sport more generally.
Then there was the triple heartache – first in the 2015 World Cup, coming third, then in the 2017 Euros when they lost to the Netherlands in the semi-finals and then, two years later in 2019, when they lost in the World Cup semis, this time to the US.
Financial investment and the professionalisation of the game in 2018 have been essential to the shift, but White says increased media attention has also been crucial. “During my career that was always the barrier.” Now, she added, it’s a regular fixture in sports news. England games are televised as well as many of the WSL games.
With an impressive squad the Lionesses are among the favourites to win and a manager with a winning record in their Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman (who reportedly implements strict rules: no quilted jackets or socks with sliders in team meetings) led the Netherlands to Euros victory in 2017 when they too were the host nation and got them to the 2019 World Cup final.
For the first time at a major tournament they are using an app to monitor their menstrual cycles and Wiegman talks about the creation of a “safe” environment. “She makes you feel comfortable 100% but she’s also someone I wouldn’t want to cross,” new England captain Leah Williamson, 25, said recently.
Although there is still disparity between clubs, full-time pay and top staff and facilities make an enormous difference, White said. “In my time, and even before the WSL went professional, top players were having to get part-time jobs to support themselves.” She added: “It is just a no-brainer really: when you can contribute 100% of your time in making sure that you get the best out of yourself in a sporting capacity it’s a very big difference.”
Former England and Manchester United goalie Siobhan Chamberlain, who is working on a master’s dissertation about the lack of women in leadership positions in football, said the game is in an exciting place.
“The game’s at a turning point. This is the stepping stone to take it to that next level. But you’ve got to be performing and winning on the pitch to get to that next level and I’m sure the girls will feel that pressure but also revel in it.” By “next level” she means raising the bar across the league, not just among the top three of four teams.
Also essential is filling stadiums. Although the big Euros games are sold out, that is often not the case for league games. “Yes, it’s fantastic having exposure on TV platforms, having live games, and that’s only going to help the game grow. But it also needs to turn into ‘can we get more bums on seats? Can we get more people in stadiums?’ That will be a massive turning point for the game.”
Football execs need to turn full stadiums in the Euros into sold-out WSL games this summer, she said. How exactly is unclear, but location, timing, matches, promotions, visibility and, crucially, success are key. “If you win a tournament like this the interest will be unbelievable – not just from fans wanting to come but media interest, brands that then want to come on board with the game,” she said, citing Williamson on Pepsi Max billboards as an example. “That’s what success does.”
Since the last Euros, when England lost 3-0 to the Netherlands in the semis, the women’s game in England has grown massively, which Chamberlain said is demonstrated by the big-name foreign players coming to England, such as Australian national captain Sam Kerr, who plays for Chelsea, in the WSL. “Instead of going to play in Germany, France, USA, they’re coming to England.” Big teams such as Manchester United, which brought back its women’s side in 2018, and Liverpool, back in the WSL next season after being promoted, help too.
The landscape is also changing for women working across football, but they are still missing in the boardroom, says Lungi Macebo, chief operating officer of Birmingham City FC. “What we haven’t see enough of is the growth in terms of senior management and board level areas. It’s been there but very very minimal,” she said.
She said the women’s leagues are “coming on”, especially across Europe, but that there’s a lot to learn from US women’s football, especially in terms of the ownership model and supporter engagement.
Jane Purdon, director of Women in Football, said she has had numerous “pinch me moments” over the past 10 years but that the Euros, especially if England do well, will mark “another step-change”.
Although a lifelong fan of the men’s game – her dad used to take her to Sunderland matches as a child – Purdon believes parents “feel more comfortable to take their children to a women’s football game”.
The tournament is proving a hit with women and children – including Princess Charlotte, 7, who instructed her father to alert the England team to her goalkeeping skills. So far, 45% of ticket buyers are female and just under a quarter are under-16s. Purdon said one venue has reported that 30% of its ticket sales are to children.
At the men’s Euros final last summer, she said some of her female friends had “horrendous experiences because of their gender”. Some, she said, had men lean into them and say: “What are you doing here? It’s a waste of a ticket.” This is not something that she thinks is likely to happen at a women’s match. “I think England fans in the women’s game look very different.”
However, England’s women’s football is by no means a model operation, specifically with racial diversity issues among spectators and players.
“We’ll see what the crowds look like in this Euros and I think football needs to be really alive to this,” said Purdon. “And if it looks like it’s too narrow a demographic, we need to ask ourselves why is that? And do something about it.”
Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football, said that through the Euros’ legacy programme they hope to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds into the sport through half a million new playing, coaching, volunteering and refereeing opportunities across the host cities. “It’s the beginning of us trying to open up the game to a much wider audience than we’ve done in the past,” Lady Campbell said.
“I hope people will see it as a really positive landmark for girls and women – not just in sport but in society as a whole.”