The Women’s European Championship finals got under way on Sunday. Holland beat Norway 1-0 after a beautiful swerving cross from Barcelona’s newly signed Lieke Martens was powered in by the stooping head of Liverpool’s Shanice van de Sanden. And it always promised to be an exciting match. Norway possess some of the most exciting attacking talent in Europe, which was excellently nullified by the Dutch, while the rapid growth of women’s football in the Netherlands is showing on the pitch. The Stadion Galgenwaard in Utrecht was rocking with 21,732 fans, a record crowd for women’s football in the Netherlands, the Oranje Leeuwinnen feeling the love in their home tournament.
Yet despite this, and while there were three Arsenal players, a Liverpool goalscorer and an international captain who plays her club football with Reading on the pitch, there was little fanfare in the UK about this showpiece opener.
While the Lionesses are increasingly embraced – they adorn billboards, have been saluted in a Little Mix song, star in powerful TV adverts, and more – the other matches in this tournament have gone, and I expect will go, widely unnoticed. When a men’s major international tournament is in the offing, the tournament itself receives as much hype as England. Every game is screened. The big players and competition favourites will be followed avidly, the underdogs adopted. We are sold the tournament as a package.
The focus on England above Euro 2017 as a whole, which is obviously a huge step forward, can be attributed to a number of factors. It is undoubtedly true that the Lionesses offer the best route, for the uninitiated, into women’s football, which is an unknown entity to many. It is much easier to galvanise support round Mark Sampson’s side than try to give an overview of, or build hype around, all 16 nations taking part. It is also evident that the women’s national team, at present, offer a greater chance of success than the senior men’s side and thus the focus on their journey is a longer and more exciting process. That England’s opener on Wednesday night is against Scotland, adds another sellable dimension.
However, Euro 2017 is an opportunity to showcase how far women’s football has come across the continent and the huge diversity in play that exists in Europe. It is a chance to show off the strengths of the women’s game as a whole, with an excitingly competitive tournament where a new audience can see the development. Because if you have been associated with women’s football for any length of time then the arguments, sometimes sincere but more often trolling, are familiar. Hell, they often riddle the comments section of every women’s football article on this website. When Jim White asked on Twitter: “2017 and we finally have a female Dr Who! I’m asking from 10 on @talkSPORT if it’s time for women to be more heavily involved in football?” 58% voted no. The replies that followed ticked all the usual boxes: “Don’t force the issue, if women’s football was good it would grow”; “it’s just PC brown-nosing gone mad”; and “women’s football is rubbish to watch”.
Most commonly, and perhaps most genuinely, the women’s game is regularly dismissed for not being as exciting, fast-paced and skilful as the men’s. Yet this comparison assumes that the technical quality, ability and strength of the men’s players is innate; it is not. We have seen the men’s game improve technically over decades as a result of investment and professionalism. Of course a Women’s Super League player who is not a full-time professional, with the ability to train and maintain fitness day in, day out, will likely be at a lower technical level than a Premier League player.
As the women’s game grows and professionalism increases, so does that technical ability and pace. The steady growth of women’s football and professional players is improving the game we watch. Anyone who tuned in on Sunday evening and saw the Norwegian player Caroline Graham Hansen (who won the 2016-17 double with Wolfsburg) juggle the ball with ease through a sea of orange shirts would not have noticed gender and would have seen some of the fruits of the cultivation of women’s footballers into professional athletes.
Except part of the problem was that tuning in on the weekend was hard because, while Channel 4 won the rights to broadcast the England and Scotland fixtures, it is not broadcasting the other group fixtures on TV. Trying to navigate All4 for coverage was trying – not least because it seems one can do it only on a computer or mobile devices and not through one’s TV. With a Eurosport subscription one could, mind-bogglingly, catch just the last 30 minutes of Denmark’s 1-0 win over Belgium on TV (imagine that for a men’s game or in any sport for that matter); or one could log in to watch the full match online, with seemingly no commentary for most of the 90 minutes, a test for even the most avid follower.
Some may question how important this is and argue that for those who really want to watch these games it is possible and more so than in previous tournaments. But the power of these games receiving exposure and being easily accessible should not be underestimated.
The former Arsenal and England captain Faye White, speaking at the launch of the FA Girls’ Football Week – Euro Celebrations, summed it up when she said: “I remember in 1995, when I was about 16 and virtually going to bed with a football, I watched a two-minute round-up clip of the World Cup in Sweden. From that moment forward I wanted to play for England. I was like: ‘Right, a team exists. I want to play for it. I want to get to that level one day.’ I had a dream. Now girls can watch whole 90-minute matches and get to follow the England team through the group stage and hopefully beyond. It’s vital we capitalise on the impact watching these games will have on hopefully hundreds or thousands of young girls. They get to watch, be inspired, then take part in a session as part of the FA’s Euro celebrations, hopefully igniting a passion to play football for the rest of their life. That’s certainly what it did for me.”
Hopefully these broadcasting problems are only teething glitches, albeit ones that should have been ironed out pre-tournament. If you don’t think women’s football should get more coverage, just don’t watch. But if you do switch on your first women’s match, do so with the historical context of this fledgling sport and the struggles of the players to win the right just to play professionally, in mind.
The Football Association confirmed that the Lionesses will play their first qualifier for the 2019 World Cup at Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park on 19 September. Sampson’s side will face Russia in their first competitive match after their Euro 2017 campaign.
Fan-owned Lewes announced they will be paying and funding their men’s and women’s teams equally. An impressive video to launch their Equality FC campaign asks the question: “How do you tell your daughter that, even if she shows the same skill, the same commitment, trains just as hard and cares just as much, she’s always going to be valued less than her little brother?” They claim the initiative makes them the first professional or semi-professional side to pay their men’s and women’s teams equally. Funny what can happen when profit isn’t the motive behind club football.
Across the pond in the National Women’s Soccer League, a late header from Sam Kerr resulted in Sky Blue stealing a point in a 2-2 draw against the visiting Chicago Red Star. The goal was Kerr’s 10th of the season, equalling her best season total. She has now scored an impressive 20 goals in 28 games. The Champions League winner Alex Morgan scored her first Orlando Pride goal since her return from Lyon in a 4-1 drubbing of Kansas City. While Portland Thorns shaved North Carolina Courage’s lead at the top of the table to two points with a huge home win. Hayley Ruso scored the only goal of the game and her second of the season.
The Wales striker Sarah Wiltshire has joined Tottenham Ladies from the WSL1 side Yeovil Town Ladies. Having won promotion to the WSL2, Spurs Ladies have captured a player with 27 goals in 45 WSL games to help establish themselves in the second tier of women’s football. Another WSL2 appointment was Luke Swindlehurst being unveiled as the new head coach of London Bees. The football studies college lecturer has had spells at Liverpool Ladies, Sheffield Ladies and Fylde Ladies.