England wins a dramatic Euro final, and offers a glimpse into women’s soccer’s limitless future

·7 min read
England's Chloe Kelly, right, celebrates after scoring her side's second goal during the Women's Euro 2022 final soccer match between England and Germany at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, July 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
England's Chloe Kelly celebrates her winner in the women's Euro final. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The perfect storm climaxed at 7:20 p.m. in northwest London, 101 years after England first suppressed it.

Chloe Kelly pounced on scraps at Wembley Stadium, “the home of football,” as 87,192 fans jolted to their feet.

She poked England into a 2-1 lead in the 110th minute of Sunday’s Women’s Euro final, ripped off her shirt and twirled it in the air.

And, as limbs flailed all around her, in front of the largest crowd in European championship history, she sprinted away in ecstasy, and into the future.

England, the self-professed inventors of the sport, had only ever won one major international tournament, the 1966 men's World Cup. That changed on Sunday, a transformative day at the end of a transformative month for women's soccer. The Lionesses, disregarded by their own nation for decades, beat Germany and won that nation its first European title.

They also captivated it.

They drew sellout crowds and tens of millions of worldwide viewers.

They pulled fans — men and women, young and old, rich and poor, queer and straight — to Wembley Way and Trafalgar Square hours before kickoff on Sunday.

They put tears in the eyes of women's soccer pioneers, and, even before they danced to "Sweet Caroline" and dove into glittering confetti, before they crashed their manager's press conference and sang "Football's Coming Home," they offered a glimpse into what the sport can become.

Emma Hayes, the Chelsea coach and ESPN pundit, saw Wembley fill like never before and thought to herself: “I’ve waited my whole life for this."

Others had waited far longer. Some were born into a country that wouldn't even let them play the game. Back in 1921, with top women's teams drawing five-figure crowds, the English Football Association banned women because soccer, the FA said, was "quite unsuitable for females."

The sport, relegated to parks and rugby pitches, has been toiling to recover ever since. The FA reversed the ban in 1971, but, like most soccer federations worldwide, it never truly invested in the women's game until recently. It delegated governance to a separate "Women's FA" until 1993. When England met Germany in the 2009 Euro final, just 13 short years ago, most of its players were semi-professional. Their annual salaries were tiny fractions of the roughly $67,000 that each of England's 2022 players will make for winning Sunday's final. Their games, prior to the 2009 semifinal and final, were not shown on TV.

They were, and still are, emblematic of a sport smothered by sexism and neglect.

“Clearly," Martin Glenn, the FA's then-CEO, admitted in 2017, "over the years, the FA has let down women’s football.”

And yet there it was on Sunday, putting on a show matched only by World Cup finals, and proving yet again that if you build it, women's soccer fans will come.

That axiom rang true on three different continents this month, even in non-traditional markets. Some 45,000 fans watched Morocco qualify for the 2023 Women's World Cup. A shoulder-to-shoulder sea of yellow watched Colombia topple Argentina in the Copa America Femenina semis, and give Brazil a mighty scare in the final.

But the Euros, which shattered attendance records before the knockout rounds had even begun, discovered a new stratosphere.

A sold-out Old Trafford christened it on July 6, and Wembley crystallized the ascent on Sunday. As pubs and public spaces filled with flags and face-painted fans, Twitter timelines filled with testimony from former players, journalists, anybody who'd spent years in women's soccer's trenches, of just how far the sport had come. On TV and on couches, commentators and supporters choked on emotion.

England's players, many of whom started their careers in sparsely populated stadiums while working second jobs, recognized the significance too. But they wanted to make sure that this was more than a perfect storm — of talent and a spotlight on home soil. They wanted this great leap forward to be the first of many.

“The final is not the end of a journey," captain Leah Williamson said one day before it, "but the start of one."

The baseline remains low, or rather lowered by decades of underinvestment. England's first goal on Sunday, a brilliant one, was scored by 22-year-old Ella Toone, who plays for Manchester United, which has won more men's trophies than any other English club — but which, until 2018, did not sponsor a women's team. Its peers had made similar oversights. Liverpool's women are still chronically underfunded. Barcelona's, just a decade ago, had not been professionalized.

Barcelona and others have increasingly realized that relatively tiny sums of money can attract massive audiences. At costs equivalent to those for a solitary player on the men's side, Barcelona built a women's soccer machine that became a phenomenon. It attracted multiple crowds above 90,000 this past season en route to an unbeaten domestic season and a Champions League final. Across Europe, almost across the board, attendance figures and viewership are growing.

But still, England drew the bulk of its Euro 2022 squad from just four clubs. Germany drew most of its from three. Even the Germans, the eight-time European champions, suffer from underfunding. Many Bundesliga clubs still do not employ full-time players.

"We want more equality of talents, better stadia, we want more spectators, we want more TV time, different kick-off times, a more attractive league," Germany coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg said Saturday. "We want to make the next steps and I hope the sport in general will have a bigger importance in schools and education and politics."

And so, a day before the final, she echoed calls for sustainability. The Euros, she said, must not be just a "single event," but rather — "something has to stay, stick."

Euro 2022 was proof that it can — that a century sexism and neglect can, someday, be undone — but not that it will. There are concerns among some in Europe that the 2023 World Cup could interrupt the sport's momentum. Australia and New Zealand, the hosts, will likely present hellish time differences to the West. L'Equipe, France's preeminent sports newspaper, reported this week that European broadcasters were not as interested in television rights as FIFA had hoped.

But there is also a sense that, long-term, Euro 2022 has been paradigm-shifting. Soccer's powerbrokers and stakeholders descended on London this week in numbers unprecedented around a continental women's event. UEFA will use its success to auction off Euro 2025 hosting rights — bids are due over the coming months. FIFA will, at some point over the next year, open up the bidding for the 2027 World Cup, which should smash viewership records, and should be the most profitable edition ever.

There are still barriers, of course — patriarchal attitudes and systemic inequities that might never be overcome. There is still, in some South American countries, the need to protest inequality. But there are seemingly no limits. As Megan Rapinoe told U.S. lawmakers last year: "With the lack of proper investment, we don't know the real potential of women's sports." All we know, she said, is "how successful women's sports have been in the face of discrimination."

What everybody in women's soccer hopes is that Williamson's words ring true.

"When we look back on this tournament as a whole, we’ll have really started something," she said Saturday. "I want [the final] to be the start, to be a maker for the future."

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