Katie Whyatt has watched enthusiastically as women’s football has grown out of all recognition in the last decade. Here, The Mixed Zone writer previews this summer’s European Championship, a showpiece tournament that can capture the imagination and inspire a whole new generation of players and followers
As a kid playing football back in the late noughties, I modelled myself on the then-Liverpool striker Fernando Torres. The logic underpinning this short-lived life decision actually makes perfect sense. It is at once forgivable and quite poignant.
I was the only girl in a boys’ team. I picked Torres because he was the most obvious, most visible footballer I could find who looked like me: hair just short of the shoulders, centre parting, someone else who played with a hairband.
It sounds like such a trivial thing, almost superficial, to latch on to. A hairband. We didn’t even play in the same position. I wasn’t a Liverpool fan. I didn’t obsess over wanting the same boots, the same clothes, the same kit, in the way that so many ten year olds do. It genuinely came down to the hairband. That was all.
Looking back, it seems slightly mad. But such is the nature of being the odd one out at that age. I didn’t watch my first game of women’s football until I was twelve, happening accidentally upon one tucked away on Sky. Before then I was aware of its existence, had seen things on the FA’s website, in my football magazines. But exposure was minimal. The difference was that I didn’t have to look very far to find Torres.
Almost a decade on, with the 2017 Women’s European Championship little more than three weeks away, women’s football in England is still riding the wave of its watershed third-placed 2015 World Cup campaign, buoyed by increased media coverage, improved resources and growing attendances. The landscape is unrecognisable in almost every single way.
England head into this tournament marked as one of the major favourites. The unity that captivated a nation two years ago is still very much in evidence, but there is competition across the board: France are yet to lose in 2017, and Germany have not relinquished the trophy since winning it for the third time in 1995.
Inevitably, the Lionesses head to Holland with a dual agenda. Concerns about visibility and changing perceptions will almost always abound, in part inseparable from events on the field. The sport’s most recognisable faces feel the responsibility for growth keenly, aware the professional game has changed immeasurably in their lifetimes, but moreover realising the true extent of its potential.
It feels churlish to bemoan any logistical aspect of the 2015 World Cup, but an obvious caveat was that, given the five-hour time difference, the action would stretch on long into the early hours. With the best will in the world, it was a big ask for one of the tournament’s key demographic, namely the kids, to summon the stamina night after night. There is at least a kinder time difference for this summer’s tournament – just the one hour – and, crucially, national television coverage again, provided this time by Channel 4.
In any case, in 2015 the cultural traction was immediate: a combined total of 12.6 million watched the World Cup coverage on the BBC. The FA launched its We Can Play initiative in tandem with the tournament, aiming to make women’s football the second most popular team sport in Britain by 2018, behind only men’s football.
In March this year, the FA announced its ‘Gameplan For Growth’, outlining intentions to develop 200 new girls’ football clubs across the country, while simultaneously developing the existing infrastructure for the Lionesses across all age groups. The impact of the senior side’s success in Canada was felt domestically, with WSL attendances increasing by 29 per cent. In 2016, Toni Duggan became the first of the Lionesses to amass 100,000 Twitter followers.
“For me, any England team should be on the telly,” says former England captain Gillian Coultard. With 119 appearances, Coultard was the highest capped outfield England international until 2012, but nonetheless remains the first woman to have achieved more than 100 caps. She continues: “We’re a proud nation and I would be very disappointed if it wasn’t [on television]. I know we’re all competing against other sports to get into that bracket, and that’s what it’s all about – the appeal of what people are coming to watch. For what the women’s game’s done over the last ten years, there is that appeal now, whereas before, in a pecking order of ten, we’d probably have been tenth. I’d say now we’re in the top five to be screened – that’s how far we’ve come.”
At grassroots level, the Lionesses’ growing profile has served to catalyse progress. Charlotte Stuart oversees the junior teams at Bradford City Women’s FC, and the revolution has been both recent and remarkable. Until 2013, the club lacked a junior side. Now, it is thriving, with age groups at every interval from under-10s to under-16s, with an under-18s side.
“Four years ago, we started a Saturday morning session and four girls turned up,” Stuart recalls. “From there, we’ve just built it on and now we’ve got more than 100 girls coming every week.
“Women’s football’s grown massively over the last five or six years. You see it a lot more in the media. It’s the whole role-model thing. Some of the girls just come down because their friends are down and it’s a hobby to them, but some of them want to be footballers and they really look up to [the Lionesses]. That’s what they want to do. There’s a lot going on in the world and not everything’s good, so having these role models, something for a young generation to look up to and aspire to be – it’s massive, especially for girls.
“It’s not just seen as a boys’ sport anymore. I think the World Cup really did help – not just for the girls, but for parents. You’ve got a lot of girls who want to play, but their parents don’t think that there will be clubs out there. That really helped. They saw that there were women doing it professionally. Their parents are more inclined to bring them and let them do it.
“The hardest thing is funding it – [finding] the facilities and coaches are the biggest challenges as the moment. We’ve got all these girls who want to play and we want to facilitate that for them, but funding it becomes a big issue.”
On the field, what will success look like? “I think they’ve got to go one better than they did in the previous campaign,” Coultard explains. “I think they’re in it to win it – any team you play for, you’ve got to want to win it. I imagine the England girls are all wanting to get going and they will be disappointed if they fail at the knockout stages. I think they’ll be very, very disappointed if they didn’t make the last four, and [from there] it’s just knockout football – you’ve got one chance. The best teams will be in that knockout stage and it’s all about who turns up on the day.
“But they’ve got an exceptional squad. I do think we’ve got to be confident going into this tournament, because we’ve got a lot of good players.
“You’ve got to have idols in the game, whatever sport you’re in. It’s great to see young girls now with football shirts on with the women’s names on the back, rather than a man’s name. That’s how far we’ve come, and that’s credit to the girls themselves and how well they’ve applied themselves with the opportunities they’ve had. They’ve got the opportunity to be a professional footballer – that’s everybody’s dream, regardless of whether you’re a young boy growing up or a young girl. That’s all I wanted to be. You have aspirations, and why not?”
The Lionesses kick off their Euro 2017 campaign on Wednesday, July 19, against Scotland
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