This summer saw a bonanza of sporting activity here in the UK, with tennis, athletics and the women’s Euros football championships all taking place in late June and August.
Ok, the British Grand Prix and the Open Golf stole the occasional headline and the Commonwealth games (for those so inclined) was the chance to see more niche sports given some decent TV airtime. But, there was one sporting event that truly united the country and stole the nation’s heart. The England ladies getting the job done on the pitch and ‘bringing football home’ in style! Our first major footballing achievement in over half a century.
Summer in England only ever really feels like it has started when Wimbledon gets underway. People of all ages, who almost never play tennis, dig out their rackets and a tube of unused balls from under the stairs. Or in my case, dust off my dad’s old wooden one from the garage, hunt down a few loose, threadbare balls and head off to fight for my space on the packed public courts in the park. It’s the same story up and down the country.
Am I the only one that after half an hour of huffing and puffing remembers that not only am I unable to serve, but am barely able to return a ball and so give up, go home, and watch it on TV? Which, as it happens can be found day and night on the BBC for this two week, very British spectacle.
‘Auntie’ as the BBC is affectionately known, are so delighted to have the rights to broadcast any live, major sporting event these days that they joyfully flood the airwaves with it. We exhaustedly watch these supremely fit athletes, dressed in white, grunting and snorting as they bash a small yellow ball back and forth at each other at 100+ miles an hour, for hours on end, in blistering heat, until on the second Saturday and Sunday the winners hold a trophy aloft in front of the royal box.
This national institution, and summer staple, never fails to capture the nation’s attention. We inevitably project all our hopes and dreams upon some poor, unknown Brit, who didn’t ask to carry the nation’s dreams, until they invariably fail to make the second round.
That said, should they make it to week 2 or actually get to a semi-final or final, the nation is gripped. “Are they the new Murray, the next Raducanu?” we cry! Let’s all root for… what’s their name again?
This year it happened to be Cameron Norrie who made a fabulous run to the semi-final, yep, I’d never heard of him either!
Anyway, the usual suspect won the men’s singles and a young, relatively unknown Russian born Kazakh won the women’s trophy, which caused a few raised eyebrows given that Russian players were banned from entering.
But when all was said and done, Wimbledon had been a great success and summer was officially underway.
So, then there was the footie! Women’s football to be more precise, a sport that in the UK around 100 years ago was more popular than the men’s game until the patriarchy didn’t like it and banned it. Women’s football was cast aside and overshadowed by the men’s game for the best part of a century.
As a kid growing up in the 70s it was considered unusual if a girl was even interested in football, let alone played it. Even 20 years ago when the highly acclaimed ‘Bend it like Beckham’ hit the cinemas most major clubs were reluctant to have a ladies team. Thankfully, albeit slowly, more and more women came to the cause, played for free, bought their own kit, took the bus to their games and worked tirelessly to raise the profile of their sport. Men’s clubs eventually caught on, most likely realizing the immense marketing opportunity and additional global shirt sales and so they formed their own ladies teams. They invested heavily in them and these days the national sport really is for everyone, even if there is still an obscene difference between the wages of male and female players.
Other countries have made swifter progress, especially in Germany and the USA, but here in the ‘home of football’ the ladies game had still not really penetrated the national consciousness in a big way until this summer. In setting up the Euros there were still issues around major clubs in England being unwilling to host the event, but once it was underway it began to snowball, and the interest grew and grew as we advanced through the group stages.
Aided by the Ladies European championships being held in the UK, the profile of this sporting event was naturally elevated, with posters everywhere and TV stations and the newspapers taking a serious interest in covering it all. This of course is the biggest factor in the mainstream success of any sport. At the start of the tournament the English national team, probably suffering from the same kind of reputation as the men’s team over the years for being OK, but not world beaters, were expected to do well but by no means expected to win it.
The Germans were still hot favourites and given that they had won pretty much every Euros previously it was no surprise. The Spanish, like their male counterparts, gave everyone a lesson in how to play ‘the beautiful game’ and the Belgians were highly rated too, but England, under the calming influence of their Dutch coach, dug in, ground out a couple of big wins against them both and found themselves in the final. Like our men’s team the summer before they now stood at the threshold of immortality after so long without a major title.
I must confess, that I, and at a guess, quite a few of the 17.4 million UK viewers that watched the final either didn’t watch any of the other games or maybe only watched a handful. However, without question, once we had reached the final there was almost fever pitch excitement about the prospect of us winning the tournament. The old foe stood in the way, the ones who for years have beaten us on penalties, and there was the inevitable fear that once again we’d fall short of the mark.
However, the Lionesses had other ideas, and where the men had failed to take that last leap from finalist to winner, our girls grabbed the opportunity with both hands and battled to the last minutes of extra time to steal a winner. While many would have been sat with their hearts in their mouths at the prospect of another penalties heartbreak, our girls kept their heads, pinched a late goal deep into extra time and played out the last 10 minutes with the coolest of heads and bravest of hearts to bring home what the men had failed to do in 57 years.
It was a joy to see such an ecstatic environment in the stadium, a family feel that rarely accompanies the men’s game. It felt like a genuinely communal sport for everyone, and even though I hadn’t watched a lot of the tournament it was evident how the whole event had been played out with good grace, real sportsmanship, and camaraderie. I am sure that many a cynical observer and commentator could not help but be impressed at how far the ladies game has progressed under the radar and what a great sport it has become in its own right.
Women’s football is now well and truly out from under the shadow of the men’s game, and unashamedly calling for greater parity with their male counterparts. The question now is whether the momentum from this fabulous achievement can be converted into ‘bums on seats’ in the games during the season and whether the TV companies will continue to drive interest by broadcasting games into our homes (and pubs).
With the Ladies World Cup taking place next year in Australia and New Zealand, the feeling that we may be able to seriously challenge for global glory is very real! Who is to say that the Lionesses won’t once again be successful, while the gents fail to “bring it home” for the men in the blistering heat of Qatar this winter? Not I!