It was only in 1971 that women in England were allowed to play football, when the Football Association (FA) lifted a 50-year-old ban on the women’s game. In 2013, when the star English right back Lucy Bronze first joined the English Lionesses for the Euros, she was so thrilled and surprised to get a pair of boots from Nike, that she didn’t even tell them that the boots were too tight for her because she was used to buying her own gear. It was only in 2018 that the Women’s Super League in England turned professional, finally affording living wages for women footballers. On Sunday, the Lionesses won the Women’s Euro 2022 defeating Germany 2-1 in extra time at the Wembley Stadium, ensuring England’s first international footballing triumph since the World Cup win in 1966.
On Sunday there was no trouble outside or inside Wembley as the men’s Euro 2021 final had witnessed. There was applause instead of booing when the players took the knee against racism. Just as in the rest of this luminous tournament, there were families, women, and children in attendance. Young girls cheered and jumped for joy, while watching their heroines strut their stuff in the aggressively fought final. Perhaps some of them become footballing stars themselves. The tickets were affordable and there were no murmurs about obscene salaries and transfer fees that dominate the men’s game.
The England team consistently played fast, fluid football throughout the tournament, decimating past winners like Sweden and Norway. The Lionesses also resiliently ground down the slick-passing tournament favourites Spain in the quarter-finals. In Germany, they were facing eight-time Euro winners who had routed them 6-2 in the 2009 finals in Helsinki. On the road to the final, Germany’s fast and well-drilled defense had conceded just one goal. There was frantic action right from the start. Plenty of tactical fouls to break up play. Stares and glares were exchanged, yellow cards flashed; all 22 players were running on adrenaline.
But there was fantastic football as well: the majestic through ball and a perfect lob from Ella Toone at the end of a textbook counterattack at speed to open the scoring. As England looked for a second goal, the indefatigable Germans equalized, the dangerous Lina Magull turning in a cross. And then came the moment of the final in extra time. Chloe Kelly toe-poked the ball over the line and waited just long enough for the referee to confirm the goal before ripping off her shirt and breaking into a sprint of celebration. There was so much skill to enjoy through the tournament, including Alessia Russo’s sublime back heel goal against Sweden.
The fact that the two managers in charge of England and Germany were also women is evidence enough that not only can women play at the highest level, but are also capable of tactical and strategic thinking that is a prerequisite of modern football. In fact, Sarina Wiegman became the first woman to win the Women’s Euros with two different teams—Netherlands in 2017 and now England.
All this excellent football and great atmosphere wouldn’t have been possible if there were no takers, if fans didn’t show up in droves for each and every game. What Women’s Euro 2022 showed is that there is a huge audience for the women’s game. People turned out in record numbers, starting with the first game at Old Trafford (68,871 fans), the home of Manchester United, all the way to Wembley, the home of football, where 87,192 people packed the stadium on Sunday. The previous record stood at 43,301 for the 2013 final between Germany and Norway. Taken together, the Women's Euro 2022 recorded 574,875 fans in the stands for its 31 games, as compared to 240,055 fans in 2017.
The match also attracted record television audiences: 17.4 million viewers in the United Kingdom (UK) alone, and another 5.9 million watching it online on the BBC. Add to that the viewers on UEFA’s free stream of the entire tournament. It is this rise in popularity of women’s game that has attracted investments, sponsors, and brands. This is leading to genuine progress in the women’s game. This growing popularity of women’s football proves that it is a product in demand, that the only way is up.
As women footballers in India, as well as followers of the game point out, the Women’s Euros have shown that women’s football has a market all its own, even in this cricket crazy country. The Indian women’s team is ranked 56th in FIFA rankings while the men’s team comes in at 104. This despite the fact that the women’s season lasts barely two months in India; and despite the poor scouting, footballing structure and facilities for the women’s game. This is emblematic of the challenges that the women’s game faces in India.
This is as good a time as any to start investing in the Indian women’s team because as our women cricketers, and the heroines of the Women’s Euros have shown, the quality of women’s sports can rise at an even more rapid rate than the men’s versions. There is the will, there are enough takers; all we need is people who run the game to show faith and vision and for corporate India to back them up in growing the game. And what better time than 2022, the year that India hosts the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup?
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.