Leah Williamson typifies how these Lionesses understand their platform | Anita Asante
No one with the remotest shred of credibility can now dredge up the tired old suggestion that people simply aren’t interested in watching women’s football. Not after Sunday. After all sorts of attendance records tumbled and 87,000 turned up at Wembley to see England crowned European champions we have finally reached the point so many players, coaches and administrators have worked so hard to achieve for so many years.
I was overjoyed on Sunday but I also found the experience of being at Wembley surreal. I played in the 2009 final in Finland when England lost 6-2 against Germany and the difference between then and now is like night and day. Back then my England teammates and I routinely got told to “get back in the kitchen” when we returned from tournaments and, in truth, the 2009 final was so low key it didn’t feel that much different to any other match.
There were only about four journalists from England out in Helsinki so, during my work for the BBC at Euro 2022 it’s been incredible to see packed press boxes. That sea change explains why I felt emotional watching my former fellow Lioness Jill Scott come on as a substitute in the final on Sunday. At 35 Jill, who also played in the 2009 final, connects that era to the present day and has been a shining light for women’s football. Jill’s superpower is supreme emotional intelligence and she embodies the sense of responsibility for developing the women’s game shared by all England players, past and present.
It’s a powerful collective mindset but we should remember Hope Powell’s trailblazing role in forging it. The Lionesses’ manager back in 2009, Hope, who in many ways was way ahead of her time, spent years fighting to improve the lot of women players in England and did so much to lay the foundations and create the structure which enabled Sarina Wiegman’s team to win Euro 2022.
Hope, remember, was working in a society which did not always readily support and respect women, let alone female footballers. Since then changing attitudes and the Me Too movement have helped to shift the narrative but England’s impressive captain, Leah Williamson, was right to say that she hoped the tournament’s success could help to increase wider gender equality. She knows she’s on a big stage now and is embracing the possibilities that platform creates for women in all sorts of roles. Leah recognises the ability of women’s football to have an impact on society and typifies the way England players of different generations stand shoulder to shoulder in understanding they can use their platform to improve things for future generations.
Back in 2009 the English women’s game was still some way from turning professional. That part-time status explains why I spent a sizeable portion of my playing career with clubs in Sweden and the US. My American experience, especially, proved a personal watershed. It opened my eyes to the reality that, in the English game, we were so grateful for getting the bare minimum and were so used to begging for the most basic things.
Women footballers in America have long been willing to shout and scream for recognition, to take collective action to fight for the right to equal pay. Living in the US I learned how important it was to have a voice and use it in order to keep striving for progress. That can take a lot of energy so it explains why so many people felt so proud when England finally lifted that trophy.
Tony Leighton should be among them. The retired journalist, until recently a regular contributor to the Guardian, has done so much for women’s football in England. He was covering the game when virtually no one else was and, crucially, had the journalistic skill to not merely tell our stories but bring them to life.
Tony recognised the quality and potential of the women’s game when it felt like the rest of the world wasn’t ready for it. He challenged norms and was relentless in pushing editors to offer the space needed to cover it. Female players of my generation have a lot for which to thank him.
Back in 2009 English players had the ability but lacked the exposure to regular, highly competitive games necessary to acquire vital experience of in‑game management and understanding of wider tactical nuance. At that time Germany and the US were so far ahead of everyone else that it is no surprise that the former won eight European championships between 1989 and 2013.
Now that not merely England but teams across the rest of the world have caught up, the resultant parity between nations means it is almost impossible to imagine one team being so dominant for so long again in future European Championship and World Cup tournaments. Indeed the lineup for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand next summer is so strong, and the technical standard so high, that several teams will believe they can win it.
Such intense competition should help to maximise the game’s commercial development, with battles for, among other things, television rights in turn providing the finance needed to help domestic clubs to achieve the degree of inclusivity and diversity English women’s football still desperately requires. Leah Williamson and her wonderful teammates have finally ensured women’s football has a strong voice; our responsibility now is to ensure we keep using it properly.