A new era for women’s football

On October 7, the United States women’s soccer team, reigning world champions and the most successful team in women’s football, will travel to Wembley to play the newly crowned European champions, England. The scramble for tickets for the clash is a sign of the new era the women’s game has entered after the Euro 2022 tournament, with its record audiences and a final that attracted the biggest attendance for any European Championship match in history, male or female.

Both champions owe a debt to American campaigners for sexual equality. The US Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex in any school or educational program that receives federal funding, has helped finance an increase in the number of women and girls playing soccer. Three of England’s victorious Lionesses squad, including the striker Alessia Russo, who scored the goal of the tournament, are alumni of the North Carolina Tar Heels, UNC’s football team. Leftback Rachel Daly, likewise a graduate of an American university, plays for Houston Dash.

The cultural legacy of the US team has also had an influence: the goal celebration of England’s forward Chloe Kelly recalled that of Brandi Chastain, scorer of the winning penalty in the US 1999 World Cup victory.

It would be an exaggeration to paint America as a utopia for women’s football. Despite the far greater successes of the US national women’s team compared to the men’s, US players had to fight a six-year battle to secure the landmark collective bargaining agreements ensuring equal pay and prize-sharing reached by US Soccer in May. But on the pitch and off it, the US team is the model to which European counterparts must now aspire. Both England’s Football Association and the Dutch KNVB have agreed to equal pay for national teams but the US agreement on pooling prize money remains the standard to beat.

Modern football was born in the UK, but the country has too often been a cold home for women’s soccer. UK policymakers should heed the Lionesses’ call for greater investment in opportunities for girls and young women to play football at school.

England’s march to the European Championship has not only ended English football’s 56-year wait for a senior trophy. It has shattered the arguments against investing in women’s football. Each round of the tournament saw another attendance record eclipsed, including the 87,192 at the England vs Germany final. With more than 17mn UK viewers, the final is the country’s most-watched TV program of 2022.

The increased season ticket sales being enjoyed by women’s football clubs — Arsenal Women, the most successful English club, have sold out their season allocation ticket for the first time, more than doubling last year’s sales — show, too, that there is an audience to be won.

This is a validation not only of generations of women campaigners and footballers, but also for farsighted sponsors. Barclays, Visa and the UK challenger bank Starling all showed forward thinking in backing women’s football, particularly in England. The sportswear firm Nike’s backing, too, has helped to boost and develop the grassroots game.

The argument for Nike’s involvement has never been that the women’s game is a charity case, or a way to improve the image of a global sporting giant. It has always been, correctly, that women’s football is a sleeping giant: a sport every bit as capable of achieving global renown and excellence as women’s tennis, athletics or golf. Would-be sponsors, sporting authorities and policymakers would be wise to follow Nike’s example and back women’s football in the wake of this week’s triumph for England, and for the game.

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