Women’s football boosts England into a league of their own

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By DANICA KIRKA
Associated press

LONDON (AP) — Izzy Short, 13, struggles to choose her favorite England player as she anticipates the team’s appearance in Sunday’s final of the European Soccer Championships.

There’s forward Ellen White. Defender Lucy Bronze. Midfielder Georgia Stanway. Captain Leah Williamson. Basically the whole team.

“I really admire them,” said the Manchester High School player, excitement filling her voice. “They are all very positive… they all enjoyed each other and how they are such a good team and all really work together. And they are so nice and so good too.

The march to Sunday’s final against Germany energized people all over England, with the team’s accurate passing and flashy goals drawing record crowds, booming ratings and adoring coverage. The Lionesses, as the team is known, have been a welcome distraction from political unrest and the cost of living crisis that make the headlines.

The final, which will be played in front of a sold-out crowd of more than 87,000 at historic Wembley Stadium, is seen as a watershed moment for women’s sport in England. Although the game, known here as soccer, is a national passion, female players have often been mocked and banned from top-flight facilities. The women’s team now has a chance to do something the men haven’t done since 1966: Win a major international tournament.

Hope Powell played 66 times for England and coached the team from 1998 to 2013.

“I think we have to thank the people who worked really hard before us, who went through all of this, who got banned, who fought for the right to play,” Powell told the BBC. “I think we have to remember what happened before, that’s what got us to where we are today.”

There were 68,871 people in the stands at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, when England beat Austria 1-0 in their opening game of this year’s European Championship. This helped bring the total number of spectators at the tournament so far to 487,683, more than double the record high of 240,055, according to tournament organizer UEFA.

But it’s not just the wins that attract fans. This is how the team wins.

With money from sponsorship deals and a new TV deal supporting full-time pro players, there’s more flash and polish than many expected. Although they don’t play like the men’s team, that’s not a bad thing.

There are fewer players collapsing to the ground to draw fouls, fewer rolling on the turf dramatically squeezing allegedly injured knees or ankles, and fewer yelling at referees. Instead, there’s teamwork, shrewd passing and stunning goals like Stanway’s 20-yard (22-yard) howler in the quarter-final win over Spain and the backheel of Alessia Russo in England’s 4-0 semi-final win over Sweden.

And here’s the thing: people like it.

Naomi Short, Izzy’s mother and goalkeeper for Longford Park Ladies Football Club, said fans are entitled to a “totally different vibe” at the stadium and on the pitch – one more welcoming than the tribalism fueled by the lager that put some people out of the men’s game.

“It’s not just the girls who watch it, it’s the families, the men, the women, the children. Everyone is looking at him. It brought everyone together,” said Short, 44. “While, you know, sometimes when you go to a men’s game, sometimes there’s (a) slightly different atmosphere.

There’s also less distance between fans and players, who know they have a responsibility to build a game that their mothers and grandmothers were left out of. Players stay after games and sign autographs. They take selfies. It’s time to discuss. They know that little children look up to them.

Coach Sarina Wiegman insisted that there is more at stake than just winning.

“We want to inspire the nation,” Wiegman said after the team’s semi-final victory. “I think that’s what we do and we want to make a difference – and we hope everyone will be so excited and proud of us and even more girls and boys will start playing football.”

The wave of support for the team is also fueled by the country’s dismal record in international competition and hopes they can bring a European Championship home to England, which prides itself as the place where modern football was invented .

England’s last major international championship, men’s or women’s, was at the 1966 World Cup – an eternity ago for most fans. The men’s team disappointed fans again last year when they lost to Italy in their European Championship final.

This leaves it up to women to end the dryness.

Women’s football has a long and sometimes controversial history in England.

Women’s football flourished during and for a few years after World War I when teams like Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club filled the sporting void created when the best male players went into the trenches to fight. Teams of women, many of them organized in munitions factories, drew large crowds and raised money for charity. A match in 1920 drew 53,000 spectators.

But that popularity sparked a backlash from the men who ran the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England. In 1921 the FA banned women’s teams from using its facilities, saying “the game of football is wholly unsuitable for women and should not be encouraged”.

The ban remained in place for the next 50 years.

The women organized their own Football Association in 1969, and soon after the FA ended its ban on women. The FA took over responsibility for women’s football in 1993, beginning the slow process of improving funding and facilities.

Things accelerated after the 2012 London Olympics when authorities began to recognize there was a global audience for the women’s game, said Gail Newsham, author of “In a League of Their Own!” which tells the story of Dick, Kerr Ladies.

Last year, the FA signed a three-year deal for the Women’s Super League broadcasting rights, increasing funding and exposure for the game. Sky Sports will show at least 35 matches a year on its pay-TV channels, and the BBC will show a further 22 on its free-to-air network.

“It wasn’t that long ago that girls, you know, top players, would pay for their own travel to games and then have to get up to go to work the next day. So it all helps,” said said Newsham of the funding “You can see the difference now in the professionalism of the girls playing football.”

The excitement over Sunday’s final sparked a rush for tickets.

Tickets that originally sold for 15-50 pounds ($18-$61) now sell for 100-1,000 pounds ($122-$1,216) on resale sites.

The Short family decided to watch the game at the local pub, making it an afternoon, like fans across the country.

“I don’t think it’s male or female,” Naomi Short said. “It’s England now. He’s going home. You know, I like to think that’s what gets people excited.

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