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Lionesses roared to success
Sing your hearts out for the England Women
By John Williams, Associate Professor of Sociology
So, only 58 years in waiting, senior England footballers have finally won a major international tournament again. It is, surely, only in the small print that it matters to most people that it is England women who have done the job. On Sunday, at Wembley, a record crowd for any European Championship final, men or women, saw England wear down Germany after extra time. And who could not be moved by the sheer, inarticulate, joy of all those concerned, even if the trophy looked like one of those hideous 1980s’ affairs that most of us might be tempted to hide away in cupboard, before gratefully returning it to the sponsors. Of course, all the usual hangers-on tried to bathe in the reflected glow of this national success – who knew that Liz Truss was such a fan of the women’s game? But the overall feeling was of great pride in a journey’s successful end. Which leaves the question of where next?
Along with 27,444 fortunate others, I was at the Women’s European Championship semi-final between Germany and France last Wednesday night in Milton Keynes. It was a high-quality, hard-fought contest, the Germans eventually toughing it out over the more skilful French. Sadly, the German captain and star scorer of two goals that night, Alexandra Popp, would injure herself in the warm up before Sunday’s final. That alone might have decided the final outcome in a tight affair, such is the capricious nature of elite sport.
Roy Williams’s brilliant 2000 play about drunken racist fans of the England men’s team, ‘Sing Yar Hearts Out for the Lads’, is currently enjoying a highly praised revival run in the Minerva Theatre in Chichester. But watching women’s international football feels like – and is – a very different world from the men’s game, or the version of it painted on stage. Crowds at elite men’s football are mainly male and ageing, but at women’s football, price, civility and increased safety often means that around half the crowd are kids (I took my own 10-year-old grand-daughter on Wednesday.) Women and girls outnumbered men and boys comfortably in Milton Keynes – probably at Wembley too – and booze was of less-than-secondary significance. Inclusivity, participation and fun were the watchwords here, more than casual abuse and excessive partisanship.
Famously, the FA effectively banned women’s football in England in 1921 and it took more than 70 years for the governing body to embrace the women’s game. But the public profile of women’s sport in the UK has increased considerably, even over the last 10 years, following extensive free and live UK media coverage of female athletes at the London 2012 Olympic Games and of the 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup finals, and also the impact of the 2017 so-called England women’s ‘summer of sport.’ The UK Government in 2012 insisted that the BBC covered more women’s sport. The FA – and some Premier League clubs – has also invested heavily in developing the women’s game. We are now seeing now some of the fruits of these investments.
The promotion of women’s team sport
The live TV coverage in Britain of all matches at the Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015 was the first time a UK national broadcaster, the BBC, had covered an international women’s sporting event on this scale. This year’s Women’s Euros – and the success of the England national team –has clearly captured the public imagination. Around 17.4m watched England’s win on Sunday, the biggest TV audience of the year, if not the 31m who watched the losing men’s final in 2021. Sports pages are now devoting chunks of coverage to women’s sport – it used to be around 7% only – and some of England’s key women players are becoming well known. The focus on women’s football in England will only intensify from now on.
When the Euros for the women’s game were last held here in 2005, few people seemed to care. Matches were staged mainly in minor venues hidden away in the north of England and they were little televised. But now, comprehensive live coverage is freely provided by the BBC, producing record armchair audiences for women’s team sport. Just as some professional men’s sports – cricket and rugby union are good examples – have been criticised recently for having just too little free-to-air TV coverage and not securing national public interest among younger people, so women’s sport has been thriving on its new media exposure. The question remains, however, whether this represents a ‘sea-change’ in the attitudes of the government, television companies and the British public to women’s sport, a commercial response to the dearth of live men’s sport now available to the BBC – or perhaps a convenient combination of both.
Along with my colleagues, Stacey Pope and Jamie Cleland, I conducted on-line research on women and men’s reactions to coverage of the women’s game soon after the 2015 World Cup finals. Some of this work has only recently been published. What did we find out?
Well, some men – a minority – were highly critical in 2015 of the extensive BBC media coverage devoted to the women’s finals, arguing that it far outstripped the public interest in women’s football and women’s sport more generally. Their objections were part of a wider male view, rooted in hegemonic masculinity, that a small ‘politically-correct lobby’ was ensuring that women’s sport was increasingly widely covered and now seemed to be beyond critique on the BBC. Other men contended, however, that residual and ingrained prejudice remained the key barrier to greater acceptance for women in sport, including football players: “Many football fans remain misogynistic,” affirmed a male Birmingham City fan (36–45), whilst a Gillingham fan (male, 46–55) was similarly pessimistic, claiming that: “There is still the lingering ‘Stone Age’ thinking from some men regarding women in football, which is so entrenched that you will never change them.”
Indeed, even as the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup finals were concluding – and with some England success – it was clear that some of our female respondents were very angry about the routine and casual public expression of anti-women sentiments about the finals on social media: “Not just sexism, downright misogyny. Some of the comments I saw on Twitter during the Women’s World Cup were a disgrace” (female, 46–55, Norwich City). Will this also be part of some men’s responses after the success in the current finals? Will some men resent the intrusion of women onto ‘their’ turf? We will need to wait and see.
A new experience
But many more respondents in 2015 – including many men who had actually attended women’s football matches, reflected very positively on attending the game and its social impact: “I found the experience enjoyable and enlightening”, said a male Chester FC fan (26–35). “And [It] made me re-evaluate some of the preconceived ideas I had beforehand about women’s football.” Again, the “grassroots romanticism” (male, 26–35, Portsmouth) of the female game was mentioned by some. “I enjoyed it”, stated a male Newcastle United fan (36–45). “It felt more real and grassroots than the empty men’s Premier League experience. I was also able to enjoy it as almost a different sport to the men’s game.” A younger female Bolton Wanderers (22–25) made clear that the women’s game was different, not inferior, to the men’s equivalent: “I have watched football my whole life, and the stereotype [that] women’s football is slow and boring is rubbish! Different styles of football occur all over the world; you still want your team to win and it’s still exciting!”
However, the so-called ‘family atmosphere’ argued to be typically generated at women’s football in the UK – and certainly present in Milton Keynes in 2022 – was clearly anathema for many men, and also for some women fans of the men’s game. For an older female Glasgow Rangers fan (56+), for example, “Compared to male football I found the experience [of women’s football] to be rather flat, and I put that down to the crowd. The atmosphere was poor, and it was mainly families who was there.” But this ‘family’ emphasis was also highlighted positively by both men and women, though for some regular attenders of the men’s game in 2015 the more ‘relaxed’ and more carnival-like climate of the women’s game clearly took some getting used to.
The experience was initially deemed “a bit strange” by a Birmingham City fan (Male, 36–45), but there were also clearly perceived benefits, as he saw it: “No segregation, lots of families watching, loads of kids running around, and the players are more friendly towards the fans, signing autographs and having photos, etc. The Women’s Super League are putting a lot of effort into creating a ‘match experience’. “
A strong sub-theme around these sorts of positive views on women’s football in 2015 was a wider comparison often drawn between England’s women international players and their elite male equivalents. Elite women players were argued to play more respectfully, and with more enjoyment, compared to highly-rewarded, elite male players, whose conduct on the field was often criticized. “There is a general sense of respect and humility for the England ladies’ internationals”, argued a male Stoke City fan (22–25). “The fact that they get paid a living wage, if they’re lucky, to do what every sportsperson wants to do (compete in their chosen sport for a living) as opposed to their male counterparts who get paid extortionate amounts of money for, oftentimes, achieving much, much less.”
Elite women’s football is much better resourced in England today and it is also consciously promoted by the FA as a ‘cleaner’, more wholesome, version of the sport. For some of our respondents in 2015, this approach was already reflected in wider aspects of the women’s game: As one male fan put it: “One of the main things I have noticed in the woman’s game is the lack of diving and the higher level of respect and sportsmanship. This is even evident in the junior football I watch where the girls are lot more respectful to the ref and other players than in the boys’ junior game” (36–45, Liverpool). Are women and girls simply more co-operative and mutually supportive in their sporting practices than men?
We will need to monitor closely the wider impact of the 2022 Euros to examine what, if anything, has really changed over the past seven years. As the women’s game becomes more competitive and more professionalised, and as top women players start to earn higher salaries, perhaps some of the negatives in the men’s game identified above will start to show more in women’s football too? There were certainly signs in German versus France, for example, of more conscious attempts by women players professionally to try to ‘game’ the referee. There were also obvious signs at Wembley that England’s women players had mastered the dark arts of time-wasting as the final whistle approached. One could also read these responses, of course, as a signal that elite women’s football is now serious business, not simply a romantic alternative to the cynicism of the men’s game.
We will also need to see whether the international success of the summer of 2022 has a major impact on crowds next season at WSL matches. One of the problems identified by our respondents in 2015 was that often WSL club venues were sited in smaller suburban locations with poor facilities, were difficult to reach, and were unfamiliar to regular football attenders. That remains an issue today. Indeed, the increasing suburban success of playing the women’s game in England may also be among the reasons why British black women (perhaps temporarily) seem to have been substantially squeezed out of the top levels of WSL football and the national squad.
At the moment, though, the quality of the Euros, England’s success in it, and the relative lack of male competition for the sporting spotlight, means that women’s football (and women’s sport more generally) is likely to be demanding much more press coverage and more air time in the future. No doubt we will now also see an excavation of the previous hard times for the women’s game, when even international players ‘paid-to-play’ and outstanding talents such as the great Sue Lopez in the 1970s and the mesmerising Marianne Spacey in the 1980s had virtually no public profile. Both would have made it comfortably into the current England team. Sunday’s success will also perhaps provide new role models for sporting girls (such as my own grand-daughter) who may begin to see, almost for the first time, realistic job prospects in women’s team sport. Perhaps international football in England has really ‘come home’ at last?
John Williams, Stacey Pope & Jamie Cleland (2022): ‘Genuinely in love with the game’ Football fan experiences and perceptions of women’s football in England’, Sport in Society,