If a tree falls in the woods but no one is there to see or hear it, does it make a sound?
For so long women’s football has been that tree, struggling to be seen or heard. There was so little coverage and attendances were so low that you could be forgiven for wondering if matches had even taken place. Now, all eyes are on the tree. There are journalists camped in the woods, laptops at the ready, a crowd has gathered around it and specialists wait nearby. The world has woken up to the existence of the women’s game in recent years and is now hungry for more.
Finally, the game is being delivered to fans on a plate and the quality is the best it has ever been.
When the England captain, Leah Williamson, steps out in front of a sold-out crowd at Old Trafford on 6 July it will be impossible to avoid the sound or sight of the tree falling. The Arsenal defender’s face, and those of her teammates, have stared out from the front pages, from billboards and adverts, appearing on everything from crisp packets to drink bottles. Day after day children have ripped open the slightly sticky Panini packets and watched as their favourite players tumble out.
It is mainstream. So mainstream that demand is outstripping the tournament’s capacity. When the FA announced its bid and list of host cities for the Euros in 2018, the collection of stadiums chosen was underwhelming. But the FA believed it was being cautiously ambitious. The number of tickets available would be double the number available for the 2017 edition in the Netherlands. Except it did not allow enough wriggle room for the huge growth the game would experience in the meantime.
Since that tournament in 2017 we have had a World Cup, in France in 2019, that captured a record audience of 1.12 billion. The final pulled in an average live audience of 82.18 million, according to Fifa, while the BBC confirmed that 47% of the UK population watched its coverage of the tournament.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about this edition of the European Championship is its unpredictability. So often there is a tournament favourite. This time around there are, arguably, six or seven teams with realistic hopes of lifting the sweeping silver trophy come 31 July.
The bookies favourites, Spain, have caught the attention of many and have the Ballon d’Or holder, Alexia Putellas, and many of her Barcelona teammates in their squad but on the international stage they are a young team. Spain reached the quarter-final stage in 2013 and 2017, and the last 16 at the 2019 World Cup, but they have qualified for only five major tournament finals prior to this summer’s competition and lack the dynamism up front of Barcelona, which is a squad boosted by talent from beyond their borders.
Germany are eight-time winners of the Euros and two-time world champions, and boast a squad capable of reclaiming their crown. However, the Germans have not done better than fourth place at a World Cup since their triumph in 2007 and were knocked out of the 2017 edition at the quarter-final stage.
France have been perennial underachievers. Knocked out of the 2019 home World Cup by the USA in the quarter-finals, the France manager, Corinne Diacre, has been criticised for her rocky relationship with a number of the team’s biggest players. Both Amandine Henry, who scored a stunning opener for Lyon in the Champions League final against Barcelona last month, and the team’s record goal-scorer, Eugénie Le Sommer, have been omitted from the squad for these finals.
Sweden, who have the Chelsea captain, Magda Eriksson, in the heart of their defence and the Arsenal forward Stina Blackstenius up top, have finished runners-up in consecutive Olympic finals and secured third place ahead of England at the 2019 World Cup. The Netherlands lifted a first major trophy in 2017 in front of gamechanging crowds for the home side before finishing as runners-up behind the US at the World Cup in 2019. They are all in with a shout.
And what of England’s chances? It is almost impossible to say. Sarina Wiegman’s team are second favourites with the bookies but the route to silverware is not straightforward. All teams have been affected by the pandemic and postponement of these finals by a year, but England have faced more upheaval than many others. With Phil Neville departing for the men’s MLS side Inter Miami after a string of disappointing friendly results, the former Norway international Hege Riise was named interim manager as the FA grappled with the wait for first-choice replacement Wiegman, who was determined to take her country to the Olympics in Tokyo as a final bow.
The Dutch manager finally took charge last summer, giving her a short run-in to a first major tournament with the Lionesses. England should escape from Group A but with Norway, their likely main challengers for top spot, boosted by the Champions League record goalscorer Ada Hegerberg’s return to international football, where they finish in the group could be trickier than first thought.
In the quarter-finals, should they progress, England would probably face Germany or Spain (though Denmark, spearheaded by Pernille Harder, will be no pushover in Group B). There is huge pressure on the Lionesses to perform and put on a show. All England’s group stage games have sold out well before the tournament kicks off at Old Trafford. A good run would likely capture the attention of a nation desperate to replicate the euphoric mood created by the men’s team last summer as well as draw fans towards the domestic game.
The Wiegman factor could be the difference. The hugely experienced manager has been unafraid to make big changes to the side she inherited, installing Williamson as captain and deeming former leader, Steph Houghton, not fit enough to be included in England’s final squad of 23 despite heroic efforts from the centre-back to make the cut after her time out with an achilles injury. She has also been experimental with formations and player positions, shifting Williamson into defensive midfield, testing her in a more attacking role, converting the centre-back Millie Bright to a centre-forward for the closing minutes of a friendly against Spain in February and adapting to great effect during matches.
Regardless of who makes the sold-out Wembley final, the tournament promises to further the march of women’s football generally, with the quality on show getting better year on year as investment and support continues to seep into the game and thus on to the pitch.
While the tournament is everywhere, having been embraced by advertisers, it is still very much on the fringes of public consciousness. Just how far this competition – its coverage, the full BBC broadcast treatment and England’s run – is able to embed the tournament into general consciousness, remains to be seen. However, the deeper it goes, the richer the fan experience and the women’s game will be.