In exactly 99 days the Women’s 2022 UEFA European Championships will get underway, with the tournament taking place in our own backyard.
Women’s football still has a long way to go before it’s taken as seriously by the masses of football fans in this country, but after big audiences watched the 2019 World Cup on TV, the prospect of the Women’s Euros taking place in our country has been met with great excitement, support, and pride.
Year on year the women’s game continues to grow, and whilst there will always be the loud noise from those who seek to put it down, players, fans, and coaching staff continue to develop and young girls and boys have new idols to look up to.
The tournament gets underway on the 6th of July and sees eight towns and cities in England host games: Manchester, Rotherham, Leigh, Sheffield, Milton Keyes, London, Southampton, and Brighton.
It is unfortunate that there are no fixtures taking place in the North East, especially considering the amount of current and ex-England players who have come from the region and/or played for academies or teams such as Sunderland.
As we know, the Lionesses squad regularly boasts a host of players who have come from Sunderland’s Academy and First Team, with the likes of Jill Scott, Lucy Staniforth, Beth Mead, Demi Stoke, Jordan Nobbs, Lucy Bronze, Carly Telford, and Steph Houghton receiving call-ups to the senior squad in recent years.
Despite how Sunderland Ladies have been treated by the FA, being demoted two divisions to the third tier of women’s football, they continue to produce young and upcoming talent through the Foundation and Regional Talent Centre.
We currently have three players at the club who receive call-ups to the England age-group squad - Neve Herron, Libby McInnes, and Grace Ede - as well as Maria Farrugia who is a full international with Malta.
We have already seen signs of the country beginning to buzz with anticipation and excitement for the Euros. Just yesterday, tickets for the tournament went on sale and within an hour, the final at Wembley Stadium had sold out, with more fixtures expected to sell out soon.
It cannot be underestimated just what kind of catalyst and impetuous England winning the Euros could have on Women’s football in the country. Not only would it hopefully change outdated views by some, but will encourage and spark interest for the next generation of football stars - potentially contributing to a golden generation.
The Nadeshiko’s lesson
Success can have a huge long-term impact on a country’s football culture and relationship with female sport, but it needs to be sustained. We can see learn lessons from the legacy of what happened in 2011, when Japan’s Women's National Team, “The Nadeshiko”, won the FIFA World Cup in what was an amazing underdog story.
Japan had only just come out of a period of mourning and loss following the horrific earthquake and tsunami disasters that claimed the lives of 20,000 people. Still, to this day, there are thousands of people registered as missing who have not returned home.
Lifting the trophy meant so much more than simply winning one women’s football tournament; it gave Japan something to unite around and feel proud of in an immensely difficult period. It provided them with hope and belief.
The 2011 World Cup win was a rag to riches story. The Nadeshiko were composed of pure amateurs; the team was made up of girls who trained and practiced football after working a long shift at their jobs.
It also began to change attitudes in that country. In the 1980s, women’s football in Japan had different rules to the men’s game, with smaller pitches, smaller ‘girls’ balls, 25-minute halves, and players’ hands could be used to protect their chests.
Growing up, many of the Japan National Team players played for boy’s teams at school. They were patronised and treated as inferior.
After their success, there was a boom of interest in women’s football, with players signed onto sponsorship deals, and Universities saw an influx of participation amongst students.
But it didn’t last long as the disparity between Japanese women’s and men’s football became ever more apparent. Players simply could not afford to play football full time. They required a decent income, and therefore many professional players left their footballing careers to seek other occupations.
Despite these setbacks, the optimism that the Nadeshiko’s success brought still lives on today. Just this year, Japan developed their first fully professional women’s football league - the WE. League.
It is early days of course as the first season has just passed its halfway stage, but the signs of progress and interest are there. Last weekend the total recorded attendance for the season so far surpassed 100,000.
There may not be much money around yet, or support from above, but there is a close bond with the local community that the grander, glitzier men’s clubs have long since lost. A similar sentiment can be said about women’s football in England.
Opportunity for Sunderland Ladies
This summer’s Euros has the potential to really support the growth of women’s football and interest in the game here in the same way that 2011 did for Japan, whether or not we lift the trophy at Wembley.
English football - with the professional WSL and the Lionesses already well paid and starring in commercials for global brands - is at a different stage of development from that which produced the Nadeshiko over a decade ago.
Yet the FA and the clubs still need to ensure that the increased attention is nurtured and translates into the development of grassroots football, facilities, training, increased and improved coaching, accessibility to watch football, and better promotion of the game, so that players can build proper careers.
With so much interest already building - the Lionesses will be the centre of the nations’ attention in July - now is the perfect time for Sunderland to grow. With such strong connections to the current England squad, they really promote themselves to new demographics who might not otherwise engage with football in the city.
The Lasses are in a fantastic run of form at the moment and with only a few games of the season remaining, it would be great to see an even greater focus on building our attendances and cultivating interest prior to the tournament.
Then, afterward, the task will be to sustain the interest locally as football hopefully enters a new era where our female players are celebrated and their stories told to a much wider audience.
With such a core of talented young English players on display at Sunderland, there is no better time to get down to watch the Lasses and see the county’s future stars in action.