England’s Lionesses’ Euros win – fantastic, exhilarating, game-changing – is
a moment of truth for women’s football in this country. Yet it is a moment for truth too.
Such a victory is a huge step forward for women’s football at home and will project the game into new levels into the future – bigger crowds, more money for players, more exposure and will inspire many young girls to go places in the game. The Lionesses – every one of them – are winners and great role models.
England’s route through the tournament was a magnificent (violence free!) spectacle both in the stadiums and on TV proving to many steeped in the game that the skill level, fitness, organisation and professionalism in the women’s game has developed considerably. Real players, playing real football that people want to see. The Euros win is a true moment of truth for the women’s game at home.
Some outstanding performances. England Captain Leah Wilkinson was superb all through. Dare it be said… the Bobby Moore of the Lionesses. Cool and calm, commanding with wonderful timing, an immaculate leader. And full-back Rachel Daly, a total rock in the defence and hugely competitive.
Leah Wilkinson (L) and
England’s win deserves incredible praise and the individual players iconic status for a major sporting achievement. Yet it has to be said, the euphoria has also hidden some truths few were addressing either during the tournament or have been in the victorious after-glow.
The issues are varied and complex and exploring them should not diminish the Lionesses achievement or women football in general. The opposite – the drive now that the Euros have been won is to aggressively expand the women’s game and ensure every girl at whatever age who wants to play football can do so and fully develop their potential. No young female player who wants to play should be held back either in schools or the club networks. They will be the Lionesses of the future we all want.
Achieving that goal, however, won’t be helped if some moments for truth are not faced with open minds.
However much the women’s game has improved – and the skill, speed and playing organisation on show was significantly beyond what has been seen before – the total effect in terms of standard of play was not on a par like with like with the higher-levels in the men’s game. There, the aggression, the ability to cut down the opponents’ room at a faster pace, the strength to hit the ball and tackle and more means the women’s game is different in many ways from the men’s game.
Many, especially after watching the Euros win, may say that they prefer that over the men’s, that the difference is to their liking and this is perfectly valid. But, players, coaches, pundits and fans of the women’s game do not serve themselves or women’s football as a whole by seeking to argue that they are now on a par with the men’s game in terms of play. If it was, then even the best women’s team such as England now would languish in a lower league world.
The standard of play by all countries in the Euros, whilst light years from what it was certainly less than ten years ago, still has significant weaknesses when compared to men’s football on a like-with-like basis in terms of national and top team representation. There are frequent aspects of play in an England women’s team game that would not happen at an England men’s level or in the Premier League as compared to the WSL. The formation set-up, on field organisation and ball control by women has improved immensely but the games are still littered with poor passing and decision-making, weak shooting, weak physical challenges and players being given too much space to operate by their opponents. A TV commentator was simply wrong to infer that an England’s striker’s international goal tally was on par with that of Wayne Rooney’s.
All this creates a Moment For Truth for all the commentators and pundits covering the Euros. Very little of these weaknesses were called out during the tournament. Instead, there was non-stop hyberbole about how great the football was and how outstanding all the players were no matter the quality on the pitch. Yes, the men’s game gets plenty of this too but even Match of Day usually has Gary Linekar, Alan Shearer et al saying how rubbish some players and teams are on the day and BBC’s 606 radio phone-in can be withering for any under-performing manager, team or player.
In the Euros, commentators and pundits were too eager to glorify everything a player did. When the England keeper, Mary Earps, who had a terrific tournament, caught a ball from a corner or cross this was deemed of such high technical skill that we saw replay after replay. Catching a ball like that is what goalkeepers are supposed to do, it’s a basic skill, and in comparable men’s games from England down to non-league goalkeepers do this all the time and no-one bats and eyelid.
Lucy Bronze, England full back and a player deemed, quite rightly, to be one of the world’s best, had a very ordinary tournament and was frequently bested by opponents. Yet, rather than this being called out, Lucy was praised way beyond what she deserved.
Against Spain in the quarter final, England were second best for almost 80 minutes and going out. To be fair there was some mild criticism by the TV pundits but this turned to all-out acclaim when England turned the game 2-1. In those 80minutes, Spain proved they were the most technically gifted team in the Euros and sadly missing La Reina, Alexia Putellas, their injured, potent player. England, to their credit, started to play a little like Spain to get a late equaliser and showed great fitness and resolve in extra time to win courtesy of Georgia Stanway’s fabulous shot - the best England had in the entire competition. But after the win, England’s short-comings in normal time were largely forgotten.
What is it about football that marks the sport out as a special case in the public’s reaction? Why is a Euro or Champions League win in either the women’s or the men’s game deemed so much more important and of a higher plane than a comparable win in other sports?
It’s the world pull of football of course - its deep mark on the globe’s sporting psyche.
Understandable as far as that goes but it should not blind us to differentiating from true sporting brilliance to run of the mill mundane play. In football, it is not just the women’s game that suffer from this but the men’s too. How many times do you see boring matches with mind-numbing passes going back and forth across the back for minutes on end all praised to the hilt by TV commentators?
Across the Euros stadiums were full and the Wembley final was sold out attracting a TV audience of millions. This showed the power women’s football can generate within the spectacle of a major, televised international tournament and, in the Lionesses’ case, when the nation can rally behind a national team doing well. The same applied to England in the men’s Euros and World Cup. A country basking in the glory of victories.
But, based on the realilty of play on the pitch, will those huge viewing numbers in the grounds and on-screen carry through to huge new numbers going to see WSL games and other women’s football into the future? The hope is that it will or at least give the crowds a major uplift. But it is not guaranteed. Watching a WSL club play relatively lesser-quality stuff on a Friday night may not have the pull of a rocking Wembley glory or the hyped razzamatazz on the TV.
That said, the women’s game has many other important elements going for it. The excitement and inspiration that it is women out there doing the business. The fame and pull of the England stars playing for their clubs and the role models the Lionesses now rightly are. The happy atmosphere in the grounds, free from the potential for violence and pervading aggression in the men’s game (although also enjoyed by millions of women).
In the end, it will be the quality of the total football experience that will fill grounds in the women’s game and secure more equality - not some Deep State hand of sexism denying women’s aspirations, although no barrier from any quarter, legal or social, should now be allowed to hinder advancement. The Euros win is a major game-changer, the women’s game will be advanced greatly, but sexism will eventually not be the issue. If the demand, the quality and the passion for women’s football becomes unstoppable then so will be its growth and development.