Is Euro 2022 the Payoff for England’s Women’s Soccer Play?

BURTON-ON-TRENT, England — It was only 13 years ago, England defender Lucy Bronze recalls as she flips through her memories of having to pack bags at a supermarket to earn money to pay for her bus ride to Derby, where you and your Sunderland team-mates were due to play in the women’s FA Cup final. Just a few years later, she was juggling her burgeoning career at Everton with a job at Domino’s Pizza.

Fast forward to 2022. Such has been the rapid rise of women’s football in England and much of Western Europe that Bronze and almost all other top professionals gave up such side jobs long ago. Today, Bronze is widely recognized as one of the best players in the world: three-time Champions League winner, Barcelona’s summer star signing and a key member of an England team with ambitions of winning the European Women’s Championship this month.

“Here we are in 2022 and the players are going to be like helicopters to do performances,” said the 30-year-old Bronze after a training session in England in June. “You know what I mean? It’s come so far so quickly and I don’t think anyone could have predicted how big it was going to be.”

That makes the start of this summer’s Women’s Euros, a three-and-a-half week tournament that opens with hosts England versus Austria on Wednesday night, another defining moment for the game, which is seeing a surge in interest and investment.

At least half a dozen nations will arrive at England’s stadiums, believing they can lift the trophy after the July 31 final. But the pressure to do so may be greatest on the host country, which continues to pour millions of dollars into the sport but has yet to win a major women’s trophy.

The stakes are high for England, who will start fresh with lopsided wins over three other tournament contenders – Belgium (3-0), the Netherlands (5-1) and Switzerland (4-0) – and build on that into a semi-final at the last World Cup, and the next is only a year away. The Lionesses, as England’s team is also known, have not lost a game since Sarina Wiegman took over as coach in September.

That means there is no hiding from expectations. English players’ faces now adorn billboards in shopping malls and packaging on store shelves. The BBC will broadcast all matches from the tournament on its channels or (with some simultaneous kickoffs) on its streaming platform. And England’s three group games are already sold out.

More than 500,000 tickets for the tournament have been sold, guaranteeing that the tournament’s attendance will more than double compared to its last edition in 2017 in the Netherlands. The majority of those cheering for England will expect the host country to set a new standard.

That could be why Wiegman has taken pains to moderate expectations. “I think there are a lot of favorites for this tournament,” she said recently. “We are one of them.”

Still, their players know that the sudden growth of the game, as well as the chance to play a major tournament on home soil, has put them at a pivotal moment.

“I didn’t really have a female role model in terms of football so I think that’s huge,” said England midfielder Keira Walsh, 25, who plays for Manchester City, of the Euros on home soil. “But not just for young girls – I think for young boys they can see the women play in a home tournament in the big stadiums to sold out crowds. I think that way, respect for the game will only grow.”

The tournament comes at an exciting time for women’s football in Europe. Its 16-team roster includes some of the most talented sides in the world, including Sweden, who are currently ranked second in the world; the Netherlands, World Cup finalists three years ago; Germany, an eight-time European champion; and Spain with Alexia Putellas, the reigning World Player of the Year (or not; Putellas suffered a knee injury on Tuesday). Norway will be strengthened by the return of Ada Hegerberg and France through the core of the country’s dominant club sides, Olympique Lyonnais and Paris St-Germain.

However, it is England who may be facing the highest expectations.

Historic investments by the country’s biggest clubs in the Women’s Super League, England’s premier domestic competition, have attracted some of the world’s best players, created new revenue streams and raised the standard of play for a new generation of England stars. All but one of England’s 23-man euro squad played in WSL last season, including veterans Bronze and Ellen White, as well as up-and-coming talent Walsh and Lauren Hemp.

“We’ve seen how much women’s football has grown over the years,” said 21-year-old Hemp, who was named England’s Best Young Player for the fourth time this year. “I think this home tournament will only help him grow even more.”

Despite all the gains, players, even the best, know there’s still a long way to go. Investment in WSL remains a fraction of the money that has gone into men’s football in Europe, and salaries, TV deals and prize money – although significantly improved – are still seen as rounding errors compared to men’s paydays.

UEFA, the governing body of European football, has been criticized for its group stage stadium selection, with Iceland’s Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir branding the use of Manchester City Academy Stadium, which has a tournament capacity of 4,700, as “disrespectful”. And a survey of 2,000 male football fans in the UK released earlier this year found that two-thirds, regardless of age, have “openly misogynist attitudes” towards women’s sport.

Still, for veterans like Bronze, the tournament shows just how far women’s football has come and offers an opportunity to raise its profile even further. The new generation of young players she sees training every day, she said, show a fearlessness she doesn’t have at her age and symbolize a future – for herself and for England – that could be even better.

“I’m looking at some of the players now that maybe never been to a tournament and I’m like, ‘Oh god, when I was you I panicked a little bit more,'” Bronze said. “But they all seem a little calmer.”

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