Along with 27,444 others, I was in Milton Keynes Wednesday night for the Women’s European Championship semifinal between Germany and France. It was a high-quality, hard-fought competition, with the Germans eventually tightening it up over the more skilled French, winning the final, where they meet the host nation, England, in a much-anticipated match.
Know known? Germany has won eight of the 12 European Women’s Championships. In the men’s game, Germany has some hoodoos over England, winning ten of the 13 tournament games since England’s World Cup victory in 1966. But I suspect that these women of England will be much more influenced by the past. we will see.
Watching women’s international football seems like – and is – a world different from the men’s version. In men’s soccer, crowds continue to grow, but in women’s football, the price, civility, and increased security mean that almost half the crowd can often be children (I took my ten-year-old granddaughter, who plays soccer, on Wednesday).
In Milton Keynes, women and girls comfortably outnumbered men and boys—and wine had less-than-secondary importance. Inclusiveness, participation and diversity were the slogans here, rather than favoritism and casual abuse from the opposition and its fans.
Notorious, the FA effectively banned women’s football in England in 1921 and it took more than 70 years for the governing body to adopt the women’s game. But the public profile of Britain’s women’s sport has risen significantly. Live TV coverage in the UK of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada marked the first time the UK’s national broadcaster, the BBC, covered an international women’s sporting event of this scale.
This year’s Women’s Euro – and the success of the England national team – have captured the public imagination. Nearly 8 million watched England’s semi-final win against Sweden on BBC TV. Newspapers are devoting many pages to women’s sports coverage and leading England players becoming famous. The media focus on the final will only intensify interest from now on.
When the Euro for women was last held in the UK in 2005, few people cared about it. Matches were mainly played at smaller venues in the north of England and some were televised. Things have changed, and the women’s team sport is thriving on increased media exposure, particularly on free-to-air channels.
Is this a “sea change” in the attitudes of the UK government, television companies and the British public towards women’s sport? Or just a commercial response to the lack of live men’s sports on non-subscribed channels? Or is it, perhaps, a convenient confluence of all?
Along with colleagues, Stacy Pope and Jamie Cleland, I researched women’s and men’s reactions online to coverage of the women’s game shortly after the 2015 World Cup final. Some of these works have recently been published.
We found that some men – a substantial minority – were highly critical of widespread TV coverage, arguing that it went far beyond the public interest in women’s sports. For them, a small “politically correct lobby” was ensuring that the “useless” women’s team sport was increasingly widely covered and now beyond criticism on the BBC.
But other men argued that implicit bias remains the major impediment to greater acceptance for women in sport. A male Birmingham City fan (36–45) confirmed “many football fans are wrong,” while a Gillingham fan (male, 46–55) was similarly pessimistic, claiming: “Still ‘Stone Age’ ‘ There is a thinking of some men in relation to the women in football, which is so deep that you will never change them.”
Some of our female respondents were outraged at the commonly expressed anti-women sentiments on social media: “Not just sexism, downright misconception. Some of the comments I saw on Twitter during the Women’s World Cup were shameful. (Women) , 46-55, Norwich City.) Will this also be part of the reactions of some of the men in the current final? We will have to review the evidence.
Respondents who attended women’s soccer matches often reflected very positively on the sport and its social impact: “Clubs encourage families and children to participate in mascots and fun fairs before games” A female Wrexham fan ( 22-25) said. , She continued: “The atmosphere was great and there was no need for isolation. It was nice to sit down and watch a game of football without the bad language.”
It was also argued that the women’s game was different, not inferior to the men’s counterpart: “I’ve seen football and the stereotype all my life. [that] Women’s football is slow and boring shit. Different styles of football are found all over the world; You still want your team to win and it’s still exciting.” (Women’s, 22-25, Bolton Wanderers).
Top women’s football is better revived in England today and is deliberately promoted by the Football Association as a “cleaner”, more healthy, version of the game. As one fan put it back in 2015: “One of the main things I’ve noticed in the women’s game is the lack of diving and the high level of respect and sportsmanship. This is also evident in junior football, where girls compete with boys.” far more respect for the referee and other players than in junior games” (Men, 36–45, Liverpool).
As top female players start earning higher salaries, perhaps the negatives identified above will become more visible in women’s football as well? There were certainly signs in German versus France, for example, professionally by women, more conscious efforts to “play” the referee.
And how will the heat of 2022 affect the crowds at domestic Women’s Super League matches next season? Problems identified in 2015 were that WSL club venues were small with poor facilities, difficult to reach and unfamiliar to regular football attendees. All this remains an issue even today.
Women’s football (and the women’s sport in general) is likely to demand more press coverage and air time in the future. It will probably also provide new role models for sports girls – such as my granddaughter – who may begin to see more realistic job prospects in women’s team sports. Perhaps football is finally “coming home” in England.