Why women’s football is ready to kick on
After millions watched England take part in record-breaking Euros, if ever there was a time to get behind the women’s game, this is it
10 August, 2017 — By Catherine Etoe
England’s Jordan Nobbs in action against the Netherlands. PICTURE: JAMES PRICKETT
SO the Lionesses triumphed at Euro 2017. Not England’s Lionesses, of course, but the Oranje Leeuwinnen – the Dutch ones.
Coached by former star midfielder Sarina Wiegman, the Netherlands beat Denmark 4-2 on Sunday to be crowned worthy winners of a tournament played on their home soil.
Their every match sold out and they were applauded by over 10,000 orange-clad fans in Utrecht on Monday, with UEFA trumpeting attendance, social media and TV records.
Hearts were broken too, chiefly England’s, tipped as favourites once the mighty Germans and skilful French had been eliminated.
England. Tournament favourites? It was hard to imagine back in 2001 when I travelled to Germany to cover my first Women’s Euro for this newspaper. Back then, manager Hope Powell had just a handful of staff to support an amateur squad of players who failed to get out of their group.
In 2017 England manager Mark Sampson, reaping the rewards of Powell’s 15-year battle to improve the funding and status of the élite women’s game, boasted a squad of professionals and staff of 21.
Sampson’s England got out of their group, beating France for the first time since 1974, but with all their trickery and flair, the Netherlands took apart his side in the semi-final.
With four million watching on Channel 4, the 3-0 defeat was not the result the nation expected.
Given that the FA put £14m into women’s football in 2016-17, more than any other European association, it was probably not what his bosses expected either. Still, given that the FA banned women’s football on affiliated grounds between 1921 and 1971, only bringing the game under its umbrella in 1993, at least England reached the last four of a major tournament for a second successive time.
Key to an ever-improving national side must be the mostly professional FA Women’s Super League 1 most of those players compete in. It may sound like small beer, but professionalism does not just boost players’ technique and fitness, it makes the sport more attractive to fans and the media, and even offers to the most talented a new career option.
Improvements in girls football, such as more clubs, playing at school and being allowed to compete in mixed teams to 18 (there is no age limit in Denmark, while the Dutch play to 19 – go figure!) will hopefully expand that talent pool even more.
Time will tell whether these record-breaking Euros will help bolster attendances, media interest, and the all-important participation.
What we do know is Arsenal and their four Dutch Euro stars plus Golden Boot winner Jodie Taylor kick off a new WSL season next month. If ever there was a time to get behind the women’s game, this is it.