September 30, 2022

A a curious sight appeared in the London skyline late Monday evening. Tower Bridge is 43 meters high at its center and for a few moments its entire span was adorned with an image of England captain Leah Williamson: decked in brilliant England white, a ball at her feet. It was not an isolated phenomenon. Around the same time, giant light shows started popping up all over the capital: Lucy Bronze on Battersea Power Station, Demi Stokes on the Thames Barrier, Keira Walsh on the National Gallery facade.

Coming two days before the biggest women’s sporting event to be held in England, the symbolism was pretty clear. For decades, these women – and thousands before them – have given up, struggled and suffered for the simple privilege of being seen. For the next 25 days, as Sarina Wiegman’s team and their 15 rivals serve up a feast of football on primetime TV, it can be hard to avoid them. Now – and with the greatest respect to the Commonwealth Games, Wimbledon and the rest – comes the real gem of Britain’s sporting summer.

For Williamson and her teammates, the trick will be to remember that what feels like a climax is just the beginning. This tournament took five long years to arrive, the beacon blazing atop a distant hill that they could always see but never quite touch. For months, their diaries were filled with interviews, promotional engagements, team meetings, analysis sessions, all focusing on this point. Now comes the hardest part.

If you’re a casual fan or even relatively new to this team, you’ve probably heard vague talk about England winning. You’re probably wondering how genuine this is and how much is a projection. To clarify this part first, England can definitely win. They have a depth of talent to rival the best, offensive permutations that are beyond the mind, a coach in Wiegman who has been there and done that, six sold-out crowds awaiting them. They should probably start as slight favorites. But none of this is enough on its own. Just ask the French, a generation of unimaginably talented footballers who lost their own World Cup three years ago and now seem to be quietly imploding before a ball was kicked. Rivaled by discord and coached by the mercurial and controversial Corinne Deacon, it says a lot about the depth of the France team that we can see them challenge even without the brilliant stars of victory Amandine Henry and Eugénie Le Sommer of Lyon in the Champions League.

The same is true of a nine-man Spanish side from the Barcelona squad who, over the past few years, have started to question the way we think about the game.

Led by the wise Irene Paredes and with one of the youngest teams in the competition, Spain are full of ability and clinic to eliminate weaker teams, but lack tournament pedigree and are placed in the group the hardest. Alexia Putellas’ late withdrawal is a terrible blow and puts even more pressure on Aitana Bonmatí to provide the creative flourish in the final third.

Pernille Harder (left) is one to watch for runners-up Denmark in 2017. Photograph: Liselotte Sabroe/EPA

Besides these three, the main threats should come from northern Europe. Germany, the Netherlands and Norway are former winners, Sweden Olympic silver medalists, Denmark runners-up from 2017 and with many threats beyond the inspirational Pernille Harder. Yes, it’s half the field. It’s not fencing; it is simply a measure of the unfathomable openness of this tournament. Italy is very good too. Iceland could cause a shock. Don’t exclude the Swiss. Etc.

Many games must be played in front of full or nearly full crowds. The choice of stadiums has been the source of some controversy.

The 4,700-capacity Academy Stadium and the 8,100-capacity Leigh Sports Village don’t look great, given that the smaller venue for next year’s World Cup in Australia and in New Zealand will host 22,000. The demand is there – tickets for the final sold out within an hour and overall sales will smash all previous records – but don’t blame the organizers.

Every major ground in the country has been invited by the Football Association to bid for the hosting rights. If your club does not organize a match, either it did not want to or the local authorities did not play the ball.

And yet, perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this tournament is how little its success depends on a home win. Even if given UEFA’s recent record on major events, the likelihood of trouble is remote, the specter of empty stadiums already avoided, the quality of football guaranteed, the public already in place.

That in itself is its own devastating victory. For much of its history, women’s football has been forced to defend its own right to exist. Time and energy wasted talking to people who won’t listen, fighting people who want it to fail, advocating for respect that is always begrudgingly given.

Well, this argument has been won. The misogynists have already lost. And here is the result: a pure football tournament, a pure celebration, a pure space to seduce and seduce women, a space carved out by the labor of the pioneers who preceded them but not under the influence of history or tradition.

The congregation has been converted. The churches are in place. The doors are about to open. It’s time for these women to clear their throats and sing some hymns.