Along with 27,444 other people, I was in Milton Keynes on Wednesday evening for the semi-finals of the Women’s European Championship between Germany and France. It was a high-quality, hard-fought match, with the Germans eventually battling it out over the more skilled French and winning through to the final where they meet the host nation, England, in a highly anticipated match.
Sounds familiar? Germany has won eight of the twelve European Championships for women. Among the men, Germany has sort of a hoodoo over England, winning ten out of 13 tournament games since England’s World Cup victory in 1966. But I doubt these English women will be influenced too much by the past. We shall see.
Watching international women’s football feels like – and is – a different world from the men’s version. The crowd in men’s soccer is aging, but in women’s soccer, price, courtesy and increased safety means that about half the crowd can often be children (I brought my own soccer-playing 10-year-old granddaughter with me on Wednesday).
Women and girls comfortably outnumbered men and boys in Milton Keynes — and booze was of less than secondary importance. Inclusivity, participation and diversity were the watchwords here, rather than bias and casual abuse of the opposition and its fans.
It is notorious that the FA effectively banned women’s football in England in 1921 and it took over 70 years for the governing body to embrace women’s football. But the public profile of British women’s sport has increased significantly. Britain’s live TV broadcast of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada marked the first time that a British national broadcaster, the BBC, had broadcast an international women’s sporting event on this scale.
This year’s Women’s European Championship – and the success of the England national team – seems to capture the public’s imagination. About 8 million people watched England’s semi-final victory against Sweden on BBC TV. Newspapers dedicate multiple pages to reporting on women’s sport and England’s key players are becoming increasingly well known. The media attention for the final will only get more attention from now on.
When the Euros for Women were last held in the UK in 2005, few people seemed to care. Matches were mainly played in smaller venues in the north of England and few were televised. Things have changed and women’s team sport is thriving thanks to increased media coverage, especially on free-to-air channels.
Is this a “sea change” in the attitude of the British government, television companies and the British public towards women’s sport? Or just a commercial response to the lack of live men’s sports on unsubscribed channels? Or maybe it’s a convenient confluence of everything?
Shortly after the 2015 World Cup final, I conducted an online survey with colleagues, Stacey Pope and Jamie Cleland, into the reactions of women and men to the coverage of the women’s game. Some of this work has only recently been published.
We found that some men – a substantial minority – were highly critical of the extensive TV coverage, arguing that it far outstripped public interest in women’s sports. For them, a small ‘politically correct lobby’ ensured that the ‘crappy’ women’s team sport was increasingly covered and now out of critique on the BBC.
But other men argued that ingrained prejudice remained the main barrier to greater acceptance of women in the sport. “Many football fans remain misogynistic,” confirmed a Birmingham City male fan (36-45), while a Gillingham fan (male, 46-55) was equally pessimistic, claiming: “There’s still the lingering ‘Stone Age’ — some men think about women in football, which is so ingrained that you will never change them.”
Some of our female respondents were upset about the anti-woman sentiments often expressed on social media: “Not just sexism, outright misogyny. Some of the comments I saw on Twitter during the Women’s World Cup were disgraceful.” (Woman, 46-55, Norwich City). Will this also be part of some men’s reactions to the current final? We’ll have to review the evidence.
Respondents who had attended women’s football matches were often very positive about the game and its social impact: “The clubs seem to encourage families and children to attend by holding mascots and fun fairs before the game,” said a female Wrexham- fan (22–25) . She continued: “The atmosphere was great and there was no need for segregation. It was also nice to watch a game of football without using foul language.”
It was also argued that the women’s game was different, not inferior, to the men’s equivalent: “I’ve watched football all my life and the stereotype [that] women’s football is slow and boring is bullshit. Different styles of football are found all over the world; you still want your team to win and it’s still exciting.” (Woman, 22-25, Bolton Wanderers).
Top women’s football is much better equipped in England today and it is also deliberately promoted by the Football Association as a “cleaner”, more healthy version of the sport. As one fan put it in 2015, “One of the main things I’ve noticed in the women’s game is the lack of diving and the higher level of respect and sportsmanship. This is evident even in the youth football where I watch, where the girls have much more respect for the referee and other players than in youth football for boys” (Men, 36-45, Liverpool).
As top female players start earning higher salaries, perhaps the negatives mentioned above will also become more visible in women’s football? There were certainly signs in German versus France, for example, of more deliberate attempts by women, professionally, to ‘play’ the referee.
And how will the summer of 2022 affect the crowds at domestic Women’s Super League matches next season? Problems identified in 2015 were that the WSL clubs’ locations were small with poor facilities, difficult to access and unknown to regular football visitors. All of these remain a problem today.
Women’s football (and women’s sports more generally) is likely to demand a lot more press coverage and airtime in the future. It may also provide new role models for athletic girls – like my granddaughter – who may see more realistic job prospects in women’s team sports. Maybe football in England is “coming home” after all.