Sometimes you need space to thrive.
That is exactly what the Women’s European Championship has this summer. With the men’s World Cup in Qatar moved to December, the Women’s European Championship, moved from 2021, has the summer to itself.
Record crowds are likely to descend on the event, and not just for the home nation’s fixtures. By the 28th March, UEFA had sold over 300,000 tickets for the event, already far surpassing the previous record of 240,000 for the 2017 edition in Holland. It follows a season during which Barcelona smashed their own world record for attendance at a women’s football match, delighting a large proportion of the more than 91,000 fans with a 5-1 evisceration of Wolfsburg in May’s Champions League semi-final first leg.
More than a hundred years after Goodison Park sold out a boxing day women’s match, women’s football is once again the hottest ticket in town.
Globally, the event comes at a time when, in both football and women’s sport in general, there are so many signs of rapid progress. Participation and interest in the game are rising, and this tournament provides an opportunity for another huge step. In England, for example, the FA met a target set in 2017 to double participation in the women’s game within three years, and while there is still room to go to catch up with the USA, where women account for nearly 40% of all footballers, the sport is clearly heading in the right direction at all levels.
For England fans, there is the very real and tantalising possibility of watching the Lionesses go one better than the Three Lions and doing so on home soil. In Sarina Wiegman, they boast the last coach to win the trophy. Wiegman’s Netherlands side were also hosts when they dismantled England in the semi-finals on the way to the 2017 title and, with Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedama still in the fold, they will fancy their own chances of a repeat, even under new management.
It will be England who take the first bite at the feast of football, when they confront Austria on 6th July in front of what is expected to be a sellout crowd at Old Trafford. Both sides were semi-finalists in 2017, so this will not be a straightforward test.
But, to go all the way England will have to overcome stiff competition. Six of the world’s top eight, according to the world rankings, will be competing. Sweden, France, The Netherlands, Germany, and Spain are all ranked ahead of England. Despite being ranked 7th, it is Spain, who are the bookmakers’ favourite, following a recent rankings surge and the presence of a core of that all-conquering Barcelona side led by Alexia Putellas, La Roja’s most capped player. The loss of Jenni Hermoso to a knee injury is a blow, and goalscoring has remained a problem, but for inspiration, they need look no further than the men’s side who won the 2010 World Cup without scoring more than one goal in a knockout match.
France have been much fancied at recent tournaments, and 2022 is no different. Les Bleues will be backed again but will have to deal with a foe familiar – fault lines within the squad. They will be missing Amandine Henry – a “scandal” according to France Football commentator Théo Troude – and Eugénie Le Sommer because of tension with coach Caroline Diacre. Kheira Hamraoui is also absent. The PSG star was shockingly assaulted with an iron bar in 2021, with her teammate Aminata Diallo arrested and then released without charge. France’s cause though is boosted by the presence of the regal Marie-Antoinette Katoto up-front. At the age of 23, Katoto specializes in eating goals rather than cake and is already Paris St Germain’s top scorer of all time. She was one of two France players who celebrated a goal against the Netherlands with a gesture in support of Diallo.
Others will fancy their chances, particularly those boasting their own bona fide superstars. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg is the all-time leading scorer in the Women’s Champions League. She returns to the international fold after sitting out five years in protest at a lack of respect for the women’s game by the Norwegian FA. Time away does not seem to have dulled her deadliness, and she celebrated her return with a warm-up hat-trick against Kosovo. Hegerberg and her teammates will be quietly confident in their chances of wresting control of Group A from England.
Italy are another potential dark horse, having qualified in dramatic fashion. Requiring a six goal win in their final qualifier to reach the finals as one of the best runners up, Italy doubled up, winning 12-0 against Israel.
The tournament will showcase the best of women’s football to live audiences across the country. The North of England will be a particular hub, with matches at Manchester City’s academy stadium, Rotherham, Wigan & Leigh, and Sheffield,as well as Old Trafford. Brentford, Brighton, Milton Keynes, and Southampton are also on the roster. With ticket sales elevated, and momentum certain to grow once the tournament gets underway, the matches are sure to attract interest from large numbers of existing fans at the same time as creating new supporters.
It is an appetite that could be impossible to miss if Ellen White, Lauren Hemp, Lucy Bronze and co can put together a good run. Back in 2019, 11.7 million turned on their televisions to watch England take on the USA in the semi-final. It was the third straight time, over the course of a few short days, that an England match had set a new record, with crowds of people in pubs and at home glued to their screens. Even Line of Duty couldn’t match the viewing figures tuning in to watch England’s resilient, combative women. For if Superintendent Hastings likes to introduce himself as “like the battle” then England’s women might well describe themselves as liking any battle. A lioness charge towards the final on home soil could see new levels of women’s football fever. And that in turn could mean a new generation of female footballers at all levels of the pyramid.