A generation of girls will never forget the Lionesses’ Euro 2022 victory. We saw them jumping with joy and dancing in the stands, the little girls with their hair scraped back in practical ponytails, just like their heroes beaming back at them from the pitch.
We watched girls who play on football teams practising their keepie-uppies in news segments and declaring that one day, just like Ella Toone and Alessia Russo, they too will score goals for England.
The Lionesses’ historic victory over Germany in the Euros final is set to pave the way for a new era in women’s sport.
Season tickets for Women’s Super League teams are being snapped up. And last week demand for tickets to watch the Lionesses play against world champions USA at Wembley this October crashed the FA website, with all general admissions tickets now sold out.
Winning goal scorer Chloe Kelly’s celebration – in which she ran across the pitch in a sports bra with her shirt in the air – will become the lasting image of the tournament. Last week, in an interview with the BBC, Kelly said the Lionesses set out to “inspire a nation”. Their love for the game is palpable, and now they’ve brought it home to millions.
But as England fever swept the nation and the women’s team celebrated their Euros win with crowds of thousands in Trafalgar Square, an investigation by the I newspaper revealed just 44 per cent of secondary schools offer the same football lessons to boys and girls, while the Department for Education failed to commit to provide girls with equal access to football in schools.
The investigation prompted the Lionesses to pen an open letter to Tory leadership candidates Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, in which they wrote about the barriers they faced as young girls who just wanted to kick a ball. The England players who have succeeded in bringing the women’s game to the masses want to see their legacy cemented. They want to fill stadiums and draw sponsors, but crucially, they want the little girls who dream of playing on the world stage to have the means to get there.
Last week on social media British women who were once promising footballers shared their experiences of high school PE lessons. There were stories of poor facilities, lack of support from teachers, and a restrictive, sexist curriculum that only allowed girls to play hockey, netball, or rounders. Many women were just told outright they couldn’t play football anymore once they hit puberty.
For those of us who managed to avoid PE altogether, our memories of lessons are standing on the sidelines gossiping and surreptitiously listening to Usher on our MP3 players.
Despite campaigns such as This Girl Can and the FA’s Let Girls Play, just 63 per cent of schools currently offer girls’ football in PE lessons, and there is a gap between women and men’s participation in sport.
The Lionesses did what they set out to do, and the nation has fallen in love with the women’s game. Now, as the Lionesses themselves put it: “This generation of school girls deserves more. They deserve to play football at lunchtime, they deserve to play football in PE lessons and they deserve to believe they can one day play for England.”