We are becoming accustomed to hearing moments in women’s sport – on and off various fields, pitches, courts, pools and tracks – be described as gamechanging. It could be seen as an overused phrase or an exaggeration given how frequently it is rolled out. Except women’s sport is benefiting from a broader movement and advocacy for women in society generally – against sexism and abuses, for reproductive rights and equal pay – and the broad increase in consciousness around these issues.
What is no longer acceptable in wider society is also not acceptable in women’s sport and athletes, coaches and the women’s sports community are picking up the pitchforks to demand better in increasing participation and, critically, there is momentum behind the drive for change.
The reality, then, is that referring to a moment or event in women’s sport as a game-changer or gamechanging is not an exaggeration because we are living in a golden age in the development in women’s sport, and 2022 promises to be no different.
Women’s football has the potential to take a huge leap forward next year, especially in England.
The home European Championship in England, postponed from summer 2021 to 2022 because of the pandemic, is central to this. England has hosted a women’s Euros before, in 2005, yet the impact was minimal. So, what makes this tournament different? In part, it relates to the time we are living in, when women’s football is being championed domestically and internationally as never before.
The 2005 tournament did not benefit from the same level of media coverage and financial backing as women’s football does today. For the 13th edition of the competition, everything including the kitchen sink is being thrown at it to make sure it leaves a deep legacy. How successfully or effectively that is being done remains to be seen and many variables will affect how impactful the tournament is.
A strong performance from England is key, but preparations have not been easy. Because the host nation qualifies automatically the Lionesses missed out on a number of competitive fixtures and struggled to arrange high-quality friendlies owing to Covid restrictions. The gap between the close of the 2019 World Cup and the start of the qualifying campaign for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in September 2021 was large.
This tumultuous time also resulted in Phil Neville leaving earlier than planned, forcing the Football Association to turn temporarily to Hege Riise as interim England head coach and manager of Team GB for the Olympics, before the arrival of Neville’s planned successor, Sarina Wiegman.
Under Wiegman England have breezed through World Cup qualifying to date, and the newly launched Arnold Clark Cup in February promises to offer their first real warm-up test. Spain, who boast a number of Barcelona’s Champions League stars, Germany, the Euros’ most successful team, and the Olympic champions Canada will travel to England to play a round-robin format consisting of three double-headers across seven days and will put England’s credentials as European title contenders under extreme pressure.
This mouthwatering mini-tournament is sandwiched by the second half of a most-watched domestic season that has twists and turns left to go. With Arsenal four points clear of Chelsea at the top of the Women’s Super League, unbeaten but having dropped two points in a draw with Brighton, this has been the first time in a number of years where there has not been an air of infallibility around a single team.
The first season with the Sky Sports and BBC Sport broadcast deal offers a level of exposure in the buildup to a women’s international tournament unlike anything seen before.
For the reigning European champions, the Netherlands, the boost from hosting the 2017 Euros was huge. The country was awash with orange as Dutch fans flocked to support the team’s phenomenal run to the final under Wiegman, who left to join England this summer. Still, the national team have tens of thousands show up to watch friendlies. Yet the profile of women’s football in the Netherlands and the development of the country’s domestic leagues before that tournament are dwarfed by the state of the game in England.
The Lionesses will be talked up as a contenders, but the competition in European women’s football has never been fiercer. Seven of the eight teams in the last World Cup quarter-finals were from Europe, with only the eventual champions, the United States, bucking the trend.
Regardless of whether England triumph in July, there is a real opportunity to embed women’s football into society. Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and England could, to varying degrees, legitimately be aiming for the trophy because the competitive level is better than ever, denting England’s hopes of emulating the Netherlands’ success.
No fewer than 700,000 tickets are available across the month-long tournament. In the Netherlands 240,000 attended games. The FA has sold 162,000 tickets in pre-sales and had 268,000 tickets requested through a first ballot window in October.
Come the close of the Euros the new domestic season will be on the horizon and positioned to capitalise on any increased interest. Few, if any, countries have managed to translate the thirst for international women’s football into an appetite for the domestic game. Could 2022 be the year that changes? Maybe.