Women’s soccer energizes England in a league of their own

Izzy Short, 13, struggles to pick her favorite England player as she anticipates the team’s appearance in Sunday’s final of the European soccer championships.

There’s forward Ellen White. Defender Lucy Bronze. Midfielder Georgia Stanway. Captain Leah Williamson. The whole team basically.

“I just look up to them really,” the high school player from Manchester said, excitement filling her voice. “They are all very positive … they all, like, appreciated one another and how they are such a good team and all of them just working together really. And they’re just so kind and so good as well.”

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The march to Sunday’s final against Germany has energized people throughout England, with the team’s pinpoint passing and flashy goals attracting record crowds, burgeoning TV ratings and adoring coverage. The Lionesses, as the team is known, have been a welcome distraction from the political turmoil and cost-of-living crisis that dominate the headlines.

The final, set to be played before a sellout crowd of more than 87,000 at historic Wembley Stadium, is seen as a watershed moment for women’s sports in England. Although the game, known here as football, is a national passion, female players have often been scoffed at and were once banned from top-level facilities. Now the women’s team has a chance to do something the men haven’t done since 1966: Win a major international tournament.

Hope Powell played 66 times for England and coached the team from 1998 to 2013.

“I think we have to give thanks to the people that worked really hard before us, that went through all of that, being banned, fighting for the right to play,” Powell told the BBC. “I think we have to remember what came before is what got us to the point we are today.”

There were 68,871 people in the stands at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, when England beat Austria 1-0 in its opening game of this year’s European championship. That helped push total tournament attendance so far to 487,683 — more than double the record of 240,055, according to tournament organizer UEFA.

But it’s not just the victories that are attracting fans. It is how the team is winning.

With money from sponsorship deals and a new TV contract supporting full-time professional players, there is more flash and polish than many expected. While they don’t play like the men’s team, that’s not a bad thing.

There are fewer players flopping to the ground to draw fouls, less rolling around on the turf dramatically clutching purportedly injured knees or ankles and little shouting at the referees. Instead there is teamwork, artful passes and stunning goals like Stanway’s 20-meter (22-yard) screamer in the quarterfinal victory over Spain and the backheel from Alessia Russo in England’s 4-0 semifinal win against Sweden.

And here’s the thing: People like it.

Naomi Short, Izzy’s mom and the goalie for Longford Park Ladies Football Club, said fans are being treated to a “totally different vibe” at the stadium and on the field — one that’s more welcoming than the lager-fueled tribalism that has put some people off the men’s game.

“It’s not just girls watching it — it’s families, it’s men, women, children. Everybody’s watching it. It’s brought everybody together,” said Short, 44. “Whereas, you know, sometimes when you go to a men’s game, there is sometimes (a) slightly different atmosphere.”

There is also less distance between fans and the players, who know they have a responsibility to build a game their mothers and grandmothers were excluded from. The players stay after games and sign autographs. They take selfies. There is time for a chat. They know that little kids look up to them.

Coach Sarina Wiegman has made a point of noting that there’s more at stake than victory alone.

“We want to inspire the nation,” Wiegman said after the team’s semifinal victory. “I think that’s what we’re doing and we want to make a difference — and we hope that we will get everyone so enthusiastic and proud of us and that even more girls and boys start playing football.”

The groundswell of support for the team is also being fueled by the country’s dismal record in international competition and hopes that they can bring a European championship home to England, which prides itself as the place where modern football was invented.

England’s last major international championship, men’s or women’s, came at the 1966 World Cup — a lifetime ago for most fans. The men’s team disappointed fans again last year when they lost to Italy in the final of their European championship.

That leaves it to the women to end the drought.

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Women’s football has a long and sometimes controversial history in England.

The women’s game flourished during and for a few years after World War I, when teams like Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club filled the sporting gap created as top men’s players went off to the trenches to fight. Women’s teams, many organized at munitions plants, attracted large crowds and raised money for charity. One match in 1920 attracted 53,000 spectators.

But that popularity triggered a backlash from the men who ran the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England. In 1921, the FA banned women’s teams from using its facilities, saying “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

The ban remained in place for the next 50 years.

Women organized their own football association in 1969, and soon after the FA ended its ban on women. The FA took over responsibility for the women’s game in 1993, beginning the slow process of improving funding and facilities.

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