September 30, 2022

BURTON-ON-TRENT, England – It was just 13 years ago, England defender Lucy Bronze pictured as she scrolled through her memories, when she needed to pack her bags in a supermarket to earn the money she she needed for her bus journey to Derby, where she and her Sunderland teammates were due to play in the Women’s FA Cup final. It wasn’t until a few years later that she was still juggling her budding career at Everton and a job at Domino’s Pizza.

Fast forward to 2022. The rapid rise of women’s football in England and much of Western Europe is such that Bronze and almost every other top professional has said goodbye to these kinds of side jobs there. for a long time. Today, Bronze is widely recognized as one of the best players in the world: a three-time Champions League winner, a star summer signing for Barcelona and a key member of an England side with ambitions to win the Women’s European Championship this month.

“We are there, in 2022, and the players are like helicopters making appearances,” Bronze, 30, said after a training session in England in June. “You know what I mean? It went so far, so fast, and I don’t think anyone could have foreseen how big it was going to be.

It marks the start of this summer’s Women’s Euro, a three-and-a-half-week tournament which opens with host England against Austria on Wednesday night, another pivotal moment for the game which is seeing a surge both interest and investment.

At least half a dozen nations will arrive in English stadiums expecting to lift the trophy after the July 31 final. But the pressure to do so could be greatest on the host nation, which continues to pump millions into the sport. but has yet to win a major women’s trophy.

The stakes for England are high: they will enter the tournament with lopsided wins over three other tournament participants – Belgium (3-0), the Netherlands (5-1) and Switzerland (4-0) – and keen to build on a semi-final at the last World Cup, with the next just a year away. The Lionesses, as the England team are known, have not lost a game since Sarina Wiegman took over as manager in September.

That means there’s no hiding from expectations. The faces of England players now adorn shopping center billboards and store shelf packaging. The BBC will broadcast each of the tournament matches on its channels or (for a few simultaneous launches) on its streaming platform. And England’s three group stage matches are already sold out.

Over 500,000 tickets for the tournament have been sold, ensuring attendance for the tournament will more than double that of its last iteration, in 2017 in the Netherlands. The majority of those who turn up to cheer on England will expect the host country to set a new standard.

That could be why Wiegman made an effort to moderate expectations – “I think there are a lot of favorites for this tournament,” she said recently. “We are one of them.” – even as the English Football Association relied on the “pride, responsibility and privilege” of the team’s cause.

Yet his players know that the game’s sudden growth, along with the possibility of playing a major tournament at home, has placed them at a pivotal moment.

“I didn’t really have a female role model growing up in terms of football, so I think that’s huge for that,” said England midfielder Keira Walsh, 25, who plays for Manchester City, about to have the Euro at home. “But not just for young girls – I think for young boys they can see the women playing in the big stadiums with sold out crowds at a home tournament. I think it will only build respect for the game in that way as well.

The tournament comes at an exciting time for women’s football in Europe. Its 16-team roster includes some of the most talented teams in the world, including Sweden, currently ranked second in the world; the Netherlands, World Cup finalists three years ago; Germany, eight times European champion; and Spain, who have a talented team but, now, not Alexia Putellas, the reigning world player of the year, who tore a knee ligament in training tuesday). Norway are bolstered by the return of Ada Hegerberg, and France by the core of that country’s dominant club teams, Olympique Lyonnais and Paris Saint-Germain.

It is England, however, who may face the highest expectations.

Historic investments by the country’s biggest clubs in the Women’s Super League, England’s top domestic competition, have attracted some of the best players in the world, generated new sources of revenue and raised the level of play for a new generation of English stars. All but one of England’s 23-man Euro squad played in the WSL last season, including veterans Bronze and Ellen White and emerging talents such as Walsh and Lauren Hemp.

“We have seen, over the years, how much the women’s game has grown,” said Hemp, 21, who was honored as England’s best young player this year for a record fourth time. “I think having this tournament at home will only help him develop even more.”

Despite all the gains, even the best players know there is still a long way to go. Investments in the WSL remain a fraction of the money paid into the men’s game in Europe, and salaries, TV deals and prize money – although they have improved considerably – are still seen as a mistake. rounding off from men’s paydays.

European football’s governing body UEFA has come under fire for its choice of stadiums in the group stages, with Iceland’s Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir calling the use of Manchester City’s 4,700 capacity Academy Stadium places, of “disrespectful”. And a survey of 2,000 male football fans in Britain published earlier this year found that two-thirds held ‘openly misogynistic attitudes’ towards women’s sport, regardless of their age.

Yet for veterans like Bronze, the tournament shows how far women’s football has come and presents an opportunity to raise its profile even further. The new generation of young players she sees in training every day, she said, show a fearlessness they didn’t have at their age and symbolize a future – for themselves. and for England – which could be even brighter.

“I look at some of the players now, who may not have been in a tournament, and I think, ‘Oh my God, when I was you, I freaked out a little more,'” Bronze said. “But they all seem a little calmer.”