The Guardian view on the Lionesses: blazing a trail for women’s football | Editorial

A thrilling tournament and a fine group of England players will leave a vibrant legacy for a generation of girls

When England played Sweden in the first ever women’s Euros final in 1984, fewer than 1,000 spectators were present at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road ground and the event was more or less ignored by the British media. Banned by the Football Association until 1970, women’s football occupied a dismal, neglected space at the very margins of the nation’s sporting existence.

Has any other sport come so far so quickly? On Sunday, 90,000 supporters will pack Wembley to watch the Lionesses play Germany. As with all the preceding games, the Euro 2022 final will be shown live on the BBC and the contest will be viewed around the world. Judging by the 9.3 million who tuned in to England’s semi-final against Sweden, it may well be the most-watched TV broadcast of the year.

Relishing affordable ticket prices, crowds have flocked to the matches in record numbers. Stadiums have been filled with a new and more diverse type of football audience, significantly younger and far more female. The elan and technical prowess of players such as Alessia Russo – whose goalscoring backheel encapsulated the fearlessness of this England team – has captivated a generation of girls, giving them national heroines to adore and dream of emulating. This has been a summer in which women’s football has written itself indelibly into the national story, achieving a distinct identity and enormous popularity on its own terms.

The challenge now, whatever happens on Sunday, will be to translate a breakthrough moment into progress in the club game and at the grassroots. Last year’s landmark TV deal with the BBC and Sky Sports significantly raised the profile of the Women’s Super League, but crowds remain modest and have not returned to pre-Covid levels. Better promotion would help, and WSL teams should be enabled to play regularly rather than only occasionally at their respective men’s grounds. A growing sport needs the kind of affirmation and status that comes through being showcased at venues such as Old Trafford or the Emirates stadium.

More fundamentally, women’s football needs to get on to the curriculum. All girls between five and 18 should get the chance to play at school. Fewer than half of secondary schools currently provide this option, which feels like a hangover from another age. The more girls play, the wider and more diverse the talent pool of the female game will become. From a public health perspective, using the profile and charisma of the Lionesses to promote sport and physical activity for girls should be a no-brainer. The government appears reluctant to grant the nation a bank holiday in the event of an England victory on Sunday. A better tribute would be to give schools the resources to employ and train up female football specialists in PE departments.

A tournament as thrilling as this one has been deserves to leave a legacy. This weekend, however, is all about the fierce urgency of now. Germany present a familiar obstacle to English footballing ambition, and their impressive centre-forward, Alexandra Popp, is in formidable form. In 1984, England’s women lost their final to Sweden on penalties. The vast majority at Wembley will be yearning for a different outcome this time – one that would deliver England’s first international football trophy since 1966. But irrespective of whether football “comes home” or not, women’s football has made itself at home in our lives this summer. In that sense, the Lionesses have already won.



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