IN CASE you hadn’t noticed, football finally came home last weekend. The England women’s football team won the European Championship, beating Germany 2-1 after extra time at Wembley to end the nation’s wait for an international trophy.
For those of us who have followed the Lionesses, and the women’s game more widely, for a long time, it was an extra special moment. Before the tournament began, I was talking up England’s chances to anyone who would listen. In the pub at full time, I cried the happiest of tears. I had the joy of being at a near-full Old Trafford for the opening game four weeks ago, and the atmosphere was so good that, even before the first kick of the ball, it felt as though we were on the verge of something. (It is a mark of how brilliant this England team have been that I feel almost short-changed to have been there in person “only” to watch them win 1-0.)
For all that it is a well-deserved celebration, it is also a victory hard fought by women far beyond those on the pitch. The barriers facing women’s football are deep-rooted. None of these players is in it for the money; six of the England squad began their senior careers before the advent of the Women’s Super League (WSL) in 2011, and all 23 of them had signed senior contracts before the game in this country went fully professional four years ago. The average WSL salary is £30,000 a year. The highest-paid players can earn ten times that, but still take home less per year than many of their male counterparts do in a week.
The chasm between the men’s and women’s salaries is stark, but the disparity between the top two tiers of women’s football is gaping, too, even if it has improved in recent years. In 2005, when Fara Williams scored for England in the Euros, finances were so precarious that Williams herself was homeless. Even the staging of this tournament relied on the benevolence of clubs willing to take a punt on the women’s game and offer their stadiums as venues. The bigger clubs that turned down the chance to host games must be kicking themselves now.
THAT women’s football was banned by the FA for 50 years undoubtedly set the game back several generations. A century ago, large crowds at women’s matches were the norm. The Lancashire legends the Dick, Kerr Ladies regularly attracted crowds of 25,000 people, and their record attendance of 53,000, set in 1920, was not broken until the 2012 Olympics.
If you are only just now learning about the ban, then welcome to the club and welcome to the outrage. Its cultural legacy is huge. Every female football fan has playground stories of not being allowed to join in with the boys, and not being taken seriously for her love of the game. There is a reason that the eight-year-old girl dancing to “Sweet Caroline” in the semi-final crowd and unaware of quite how historic the scenes were captured so many hearts.
It seems obvious that this should be a watershed — the beginning, not the end of something, as the England captain, Leah Williamson, said in a post-match interview. This team has made success seem achievable to thousands of young girls across the country — although how many could achieve Alessia Russo’s backheel is another matter. But what comes next is still to be shaped.
Last summer, the England men’s team was heralded for its representation of the country, and, while the Lionesses are inspirations and trailblazers in other ways, the same cannot quite be said of the diversity in their squad (Features, 13 August 2021), as a recent BBC documentary with the former Lioness Alex Scott discovered.
GREATER and more sustained investment is required, as is the belief that is required of PE teachers and youth leaders if they are to encourage girls from all backgrounds to play. Just as churches were instrumental in sowing the community grass roots that became some of the biggest football clubs in the country, including the match-winner Chloe Kelly’s Manchester City, the future of the women’s game will be secured only from the bottom up as well as the top down.
As national interest in women’s football soars, there should be more public funding for its local incarnations, and space on every pitch for girls to take up the sport. This victory should also be an incentive for every Premier League club to invest more in developing women’s football, and to learn from the example of Lewes FC, which was the first club to pay equal wages to all its players, and whose women’s team now outperforms its male affiliate. In short, as one Instagram post that went viral at the weekend phrased it, “Fund women to do stuff.”
It will always be an injustice that, as a man in the pub on Sunday put it to me at the full-time whistle, “The last time England won anything, you lot were still banned.” But there is a more just future beginning, and good times really have never seemed so good.
Hannah Rich is Senior Researcher at Theos.