Sundays for me have always been about football. As a child, Match of the Day was always on too late on a Saturday night. Determined to catch the rerun, I would set alarms for 7am on a Sunday morning, long before anyone else in the house was awake. What followed was a well-practiced and perfectly-executed routine: tiptoe downstairs, turn the TV down to a suitable volume and allow the punditry of Lineker, Shearer and Hansen to grace my ears. Granted there wasn’t a 0-0 lull in the programme, I usually managed to stay awake for a hearty breakfast ahead of my Sunday league match before Monday rolled around.
Weekdays were where this football-filled utopia abruptly stopped. Having attended school in South West London – just a stone’s throw away from Stamford Bridge, Craven Cottage and Loftus Road – I was given the chance to play football in a PE lesson just once.
After England’s thumping semi-final victory against Sweden, Ian Wright expressed his pride in the Lionesses’ performance before asking, “If girls are not allowed to play football just like the boys can in their PE after this tournament then what are we doing?”
My experience though is hardly uncommon – recent figures published by England Football reveal that only 44% of secondary schools in England offer girls equal access to football in PE lessons. Just a third of them offered the same access to extracurricular football coaching.
Until 1971, women’s football had been banned entirely by the FA, who deemed it “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that my eleven-year-old self considered the football I played with my team on the weekend an entirely separate entity to the game that millions bet on, obsessed over, and watched on their TVs that morning.
A little-known fact is that this ban was implemented in 1921, just a year after the Dick, Kerr Ladies team beat St Helens 4-0 in front of a sold-out Goodison Park crowd of 53,000. If these matches were attracting huge crowds over a century ago, we can hardly fathom the potential scale of the women’s game, had it been allowed to grow unimpeded.
Instead, and aligning with the testimony of Lucy Bronze, the last few decades have been characterised by young girls having to persuade coaches to allow them to play with the boys, in absence of an available girls’ team, before many being squeezed out of the game entirely. Bronze was kicked off her all-boys team at the age of 12 due to FIFA regulations which forbade her from continuing, despite the coach describing her as their best player. When her parents suggested switching to athletics, instead, she travelled more than an hour away to find her local female side.
Despite these obstacles, grit and determination seem to define the story of this generation of female footballers, brimming with talent, who have found the perfect tournament to showcase their ability at the Euros 2022. Although taking to the stage a year on from the men’s campaign, these women have undoubtedly proven over the past month that they are no afterthought and, in the case of the English and German teams, they are just 90 minutes away from truly bringing football home.
So what to expect on Sunday? There’s no doubt that an England vs Germany fixture is always a highly anticipated match. In fact, the last time the Lionesses reached the final of the Euros in 2009, they faced the Germans in a 6-2 defeat. In their last 27 meetings, England have won just twice. But with the most recent of these victories coming in the February of this year, the 87,000 strong home crowd (sold within an hour of going on sale) should have good reason for optimism.
Consistency has been Sarina Wiegman’s winning formula, having named the same starting XI in every game this competition. Triumphant with the Netherlands in 2017, she soon after took the reins for the Lionesses and her sides have yet to lose a game in the Euros.
For goals, look no further than joint top goal-scorers Beth Mead and German captain Alexandra Popp – each having hit the back of the net six times this competition. With the latter having scored twice in their semi-final victory over France, she is undoubtedly an attacking threat to be feared. But with the 4-0 score line against Sweden, the Lionesses have proven that goals can come from anywhere – most notably the outrageous backheel scored by super sub Alessia Russo.
However, where the Germans have looked convincing going forward, the defence have proved practically impenetrable. Throughout the tournament, they are yet to concede a single goal from an opposition player, only one has snuck in courtesy of an unfortunate rebound off goalkeeper Merle Frohm.
Although the England run thus far has been a bit more of a rollercoaster, they have overcome some of the top-ranked teams in women’s football to reach this stage. Bouncing back from 1-0 down against Spain in the quarterfinal was no mean feat. 25-year-old captain Leah Williamson credits the relentless work rate of the likes of Kiera Walsh and Georgia Stanway in midfield, both providing an effective shield for the back line and contributing on the score sheet.
What is so striking however for female football fans, players and pundits is that this dogged attitude on the pitch was born from years of fighting off it, desperately trying to get a foot in the door for women’s football and garner the attention it deserves.
On top of years of struggle and in the face of persistent online trolling, these women have helped change the footballing landscape to something far beyond the imagination of my younger self. Nowadays, the BBC’s coverage is spearheaded by Alex Scott, Fara Williams and Kelly Smith, with the former becoming the first permanent female host of Football Focus.
With increased female representation in all aspects of football, tournaments like the Euros are vital in upholding this positive trajectory. According to the FA in 2020, the number of women and girls playing football in the UK had reached 3.4 million and yet less than 7% of its £165 million football investment was allocated to the women’s game.
Evidently, there is still more to be done. But the achievements and camaraderie of the Lionesses this summer have managed to unite the country in the name of women’s football in a way that has never before been seen. And in case you were worried this was just a summer fling with the women’s game, Williamson can assure you, “we’re not going anywhere.”
So, Sundays for me have always been about football yet this Sunday will be different, and though my younger self enjoyed her routine, I am sure she would be thrilled. Finally, I’m not only old enough to stay up to watch the football but also lucky enough to witness this England team show us how it’s done.
Image: Oliver Jervis