July this year was very special. Apart from being one of the hottest months in history and the month in which Boris Johnson ‘resigned’, it was also when England hosted, and then won the EUFA Women’s European Football Championship.
I love watching sport on the television, in fact, nowadays I spend more time looking at sport than anything else. In keeping, in the five weeks of the women’s Championship, I watched ‘live’ all of England’s games and then re-lived key moments as ‘highlights’. But as wonderful as the football was, this blog is as much about the resulting gains made in women’s equality and the new freedom for women to participate in what was once a man’s preserve.
For years I have watched the England’s men’s teams play and while we have had many very gifted footballers, when the games have mattered, watching has been more frustrating than entertaining. Under-performing has been the byword as members rarely play as a team with cohesion and purpose – so often they just lose their way. How very different it has been with our current women’s team.
With each game I learned how the ‘Lionesses’ worked and soon realised that they have an uncanny awareness of each other’s presence whether in attack or defence. They have, it seems, a shared understanding and vision and one so well tuned that, as a tight unit and as if by osmosis, they can change tactics at will. Having worked out the particular threats presented by the opponents and how they could be neutralised, they change their approach and set about winning. Part of the changes will have been in response to instructions from their manager, but a lot also seemed to be determined on the pitch. It became obvious that in Leah Williamson they have an exceptional leader.
But their success would not have been possible without the skills of the individual players, often working in twos and threes. Everyone knew what to do and with great speed their passing was wonderfully accurate, their tackling sharp and their shooting at goal measured. In all this there were special moments of ingenuity – the back heeled goal by Alessia Russo came from nowhere! Moreover, as a spectator, I could concentrate on the game without the petty annoyances that arise when men play. With the Lionesses, histrionics, aggression or tantrums were rare, as were feigning injury or harassing the referee.
Years ago I started to watch international women’s football and then it was very much a minority spectator sport with domestic games often played in front of almost empty stands and with little or no coverage in the media. The sport was, indeed, shunned by society. How very different things were on the 31st July. On the evening of the Championship final, the figures were incomparable – watching the Lionesses at their victorious, glorious, best, 87,192 people were packed into the Wembley stands and an audience of some 17 million watched on BBC Television.
There was also something very special about the capacity crowd; rather than being made up of men of whom many would be shouting and singing abuse at the opposition or the referee, the crowd that evening included vast numbers of women, girls and families who enjoyed being there, cheering and singing with gusto. Furthermore unlike at men’s internationals, on that day no spectators were arrested for being drunk or disorderly, there was no invasion of the stadium and no trouble among the celebrating crowds in Trafalgar Square!
Very importantly, a scene during the final was lauded by feminists. After scoring the winning goal, the Lioness Chloe Kelly, took off her shirt and and twirled it around above her head. A comment next day read: “This image of a woman shirtless in a sports bra is hugely significant. This is a woman’s body – not for sex or show – just for the sheer joy of what she can do and the power and skill she has. Wonderful”. Another read: “Chloe Kelly celebrating her goal in a sports bra is the finest image of the decade.”
Some readers will find this blog an indulgence, it is, after all, about a favourite spectator sport of mine – football. But it was not about any old game but a series that has changed how I think and also how the woman’s game will now be seen by society. Surely football can no longer remain the macho stronghold it has been for almost a hundred years – to be precise, since December 1921 when the woman’s game was banned by the FA – the Football Association.
And by the way, my favourite Lioness was Keira Walsh, the slight but thoughtful midfielder who, through her instinctive pin-point passing ultimately ran the show.
The Illustration shows a photo of the Lioness substitute Chloe Kelly as she twirled her shirt over her head to celebrate the goal she had just scored for England in the European final against Germany
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Sarah, Marie, Rohan and Vivien.