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England’s Lionesses: Changing Women’s Football

It has been just days since the Lionesses stepped back onto home soil after competing in The FIFA Women’s World Cup Final in Australia last Sunday. Despite conceding to Spain with a final score of 1-0, the Lionesses have returned as history-makers, changing the women’s game forever.

The team’s journey through the competition was a rollercoaster, from winning China 6-1 in the group stages to narrowly beating Nigeria during penalties in the round of 16 and scoring a 3-1 victory against Australia in the semi-finals.

Their win over the Matilda’s broke records, becoming the most-watched TV event in Australia for 22 years, with a peak viewership of 11.15 million. The final against Spain experienced similar figures in the U.K. too, with a combined BBC and ITV audience of 14.4 million, the biggest ever for a Women’s World Cup game.

The last time an England team made it through to a World Cup final was in 1966 when Bobby Moore’s squad defeated West Germany 4-2 to lift the trophy on home turf. During this time, women were still banned from playing professionally by the Football Association (FA), a ban that would only be dismantled 50 years later.

History of Women in Football

Women’s football traces back many centuries, but the first official match was recorded in 1881 when England played against Scotland. Interest in the women’s game started to gain serious momentum after this, and by the 1910s, women’s football was booming in popularity, with some matches attracting more than 45,000 spectators.

During the First World War, from 1914 to 1918, most men were deployed abroad, so women took on the roles they left behind, including making weaponry in factories. Many began playing football in their downtime to keep fit, often playing charitable matches and drawing crowds in their thousands.

Sadly, this would be short-lived, as some doctors began questioning whether the physicality of football was damaging to women’s bodies, and there was also concern that women’s football could become more popular than men’s. Both factors ultimately led to a ban on all professional pitches and clubs in 1921.

The FA announced, “The game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” This decision, steeped in controversy, meant women were confined to local parks if they wanted to play; whole generations were prohibited from making a career out of the game they loved.

It was during the 1960s that the tide slowly began to change, as interest in football surged following the men’s triumph in the World Cup, and women began campaigning more for their rights. The FA was coming under increasing fire to issue a reversal of the ban, and in 1969, the Women’s Football Association was finally formed.

2022 European Champions and Finding Their Voice

For too long, female footballers have been undervalued and their clubs underfunded. It is only in much more recent years that the game has finally flourished once again, with the 2022 Euros marking a significant milestone for women’s football, particularly in the U.K.

England’s glorious win over Germany at a sold-out Wembley Stadium etched the team’s names into history books forever. They were the team to bring hope and belief back to England fans that it is possible for football to come home again.

Now, the Lionesses have become household names, and players are regularly found on magazine front covers and in television adverts, using their voices to empower.

Just a couple of days after their Euros win, the 23-player squad all penned their names to a letter, demanding that the Prime Minister invest more money into schools so all girls can play football during P.E. lessons.

The letter came after the government went back on its decision to provide equal opportunity for boys and girls to play football in school. It read: “We have made incredible strides in the women’s game, but this generation of school girls deserve more… They deserve to believe they can one day play for England.”

“We… ask you to make it a priority to invest in girls’ football in schools, so that every girl has the choice.”

The Lionesses issued another collective statement this week regarding the scandal surrounding the Spanish Football Federation and its President, Luis Rubiales.

As the Spanish women’s team collected their medals following the final, Rubiales forcibly planted a kiss on Jennifer Hermoso’s lips, something she has since said made her feel “vulnerable” and “a victim of an impulse-driven, sexist, out-of-place act.”

To show their solidarity with Hermoso, the Lionesses said: “Unacceptable actions allowed to happen by a sexist and patriarchal organisation. Abuse is abuse and we have all seen the truth.”

Sporting brand Nike has also caused controversy after it refused to sell England goalkeeper Mary Earps’ shirt despite her winning the Golden Glove. Nike has since gone back on its decision following a campaign by Earps herself and mounting anger among England fans.

It is almost inconceivable to imagine a world where fans cannot buy a male player’s shirt. In an industry managed by men to accommodate men, the Lionesses are fighting back.

They are using their platform for good, to highlight misogyny, to inspire younger generations, and to campaign for equality in football. These women are not afraid to use their voices and will no longer accept being second best to the men. These women are the future, and women’s football has changed forever.

Photo credit: Naomi Baker/ The FA via GettyImages

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