England’s Lionesses are roared on by history: now it’s time for a new legacy
Generations of women blazed a trail for today’s players. Don’t forget their role in England's success
Let's be honest, since watching Alessia Russo's outrageous goal against Sweden last week, I'd not stopped thinking about it... until yesterday.
Now my mind is just on a constant loop of Ella Toone's exquisite chip over the German goalkeeper and Chloe Kelly's dramatic extra-time winner – and that iconic celebration.
England's victory over Germany in Sunday's European Championship final sparked celebrations across the country. But those celebrations are tempered with cautionary tales from years or decades ago, when women in England were banned from playing football by the authorities who baulked in the face of its great appeal.
Take the example of Russo. She is not the only ridiculously skilful player who's donned an England shirt, brimming with confidence and revelling in her own brilliance, but she is one who had the luck to be born in 1999. Unlike thousands who had come before her, Russo had the good fortune to be a child just as the Football Association began to pump money into elite talent pathways for women, and to have the chance to sign a professional contract with Manchester United, the club she supported as a child.
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Even now, the chances for girls to play football are more limited than they are for their male counterparts. There are fewer professional clubs, with 12 in England’s top tier, and fewer girls’ teams at grassroots level. It’s easy for girls to be put off by the prospect of training and playing alongside a squad of boys – which still quite often happens. England striker Ellen White – now 33 – first got to play alongside other girls when her dad set up a team.
The FA has announced that its aim by 2024 is to have 75% of schools in England providing equal access for girls to play football within PE lessons – and 75% of all grassroots football clubs offering at least one girls' team. It is all very laudable – but demonstrates how low the provision for girls to play football for fun is at the moment. Currently only 44% of girls get the chance to play football at secondary school.
We’ve got to make sure that they are able to play and they’ve got the opportunity to do this, because it’s going to inspire a lot of people.
It’s no wonder that in the aftermath of the jubilant scenes following England’s 4-0 semi-final win over Sweden, former Arsenal striker Ian Wright declared on the BBC: “Whatever happens in the final now, if girls are not allowed to play football just like the boys can in their PE after this tournament, then what are we doing?
“We’ve got to make sure that they are able to play and they’ve got the opportunity to do this, because it’s going to inspire a lot of people.”
There are generations of women who have never received the recognition their talent deserved. It's worth remembering, because it still isn’t talked about enough, that the FA tried to ban women’s football in England in the 1920s, and did its absolute best to quash it for the next half a century.
Concerned by its post-Great War popularity, and twitchy about the money generated by the games featuring women’s teams, the powers-that-be issued an edict in 1921 declaring that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.
Women were not allowed to play on pitches affiliated to the FA; men who might have coached or advised female players were warned they ran the risk of a lifetime ban if they dared to do so.
With such an obstacle placed in their path, what could women possibly do? They did what they have always done – they set up their own leagues and competitions, without the administrative or financial assistance of the formal governing bodies.
They played on public parks, or rugby pitches, or scrubland; they trained near car parks so they could use their headlights in lieu of floodlights as the evenings drew in. A squad under the name of British Independents even went to an unofficial Women’s World Cup in Mexico in 1971, dazzling over 100,000 fans in the legendary Azteca stadium. After that, the FA, UEFA and FIFA couldn’t continue to pretend that the women’s game didn’t exist, and finally allowed it back within their auspices.
Regardless of the result, this tournament is not and cannot be the pinnacle; it is merely a stepping stone
But progress has not been straightforward. Doors did not open immediately for women to begin playing; football has remained a male-dominated sphere. The Lionesses themselves have just enjoyed only their third year of fully professional domestic competition. The Barclays Women's Super League became a full-time set-up in September 2018; prior to that, since its formation in 2011, some teams and some players had remained semi-professional, receiving money to cover expenses but not a living wage, and usually working or studying in addition to their footballing career.
Regardless of England's triumph, this tournament is not and cannot be the pinnacle; it is merely a stepping stone. Investment and media coverage must continue if the Lionesses are to win more trophies, but also to encourage girls and women to keep playing the world’s favourite sport for fun and fitness, and to simply enjoy watching the beautiful game as a matter of right, as their male peers have always done.
And a formal tribute to the pioneers of the women’s game is inevitable – those still with us, and the ones we have already lost. They are the ones who literally sought out space to play when the authorities banned them. They are the ones who put up with the heckles, who gave up weeks of work, who paid for the privilege of representing their country. It is they who kept the game alive, who built the stage for Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses to step into the spotlight and shine.
Thanking the women who went before and blazing a trail for the women yet to come – that should be the real legacy of this summer’s Women’s Euros.
Carrie Dunn is the author of 'Unsuitable for Females: The Rise of the Lionesses and women’s football in England'.
This article was updated on 1 August to reflect England's victory in the final and that football has come home.
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