If you want a job, ask a woman.
So did former sports minister (and girls’ soccer coach) Tracey Crouch tweeted, with a wink when the whistle blew at Wembley Stadium on Sunday. All those years of waiting, wanting and arguing about why football wasn’t coming home and it turns out the nation had been looking in the wrong place all along. It wasn’t the England men’s team that would end the years of injury, it was the women who defeated Germany in a thrilling and thrilling final watched by a record-breaking crowd at Wembley Stadium and millions more at home. The suspense-packed finale was the most-watched five-minute television show of the year, leaving hardly a dry eye. Never again can broadcasters deny women’s sport airtime on the flimsy excuse that nobody wants to watch it.
Exuberant, happy and fiercely determined, the lionesses have broken through every barrier in their path while doing so much more than just bringing home a trophy. The message that football is for everyone, boy or girl, will resonate wherever jumpers are used as goalposts. So does the idea that women can be powerful, strong, and fiercely competitive without being branded as bitches; that the desire to be an alpha female at the top of your game is something that needs to be celebrated and not pushed out of girls at the earliest opportunity.
What’s more, they’ve done it without the ugliness that has sometimes tarnished men’s football. No mass violence, no insults from the stands or booing of the Germany anthem. Parents who took their ecstatic little daughters to the game didn’t have to fight their way past someone trying to fit flaming fireworks into any part of their anatomy. And even more miraculously, somehow the lionesses managed not to exclude the cubs. My son and his friends watched this competition as eagerly as any other: growing up with girls playing on their village teams, for this generation football is finally just football and winning is winning. Besides, what’s not to love about a team cheerfully interrupting their manager’s post-game press conference and singing and dancing on the table? The Lionesses have a glorious innocence, which is perhaps the only good thing if you don’t suffer from the same crippling weight of national expectations as Gareth Southgate’s fate.
Yet watching them makes one weep for all the female players who have been lost at every stage from the playground up in the long years of being denied a level playing field with men. It’s not just the waste of talent, but the denial of sheer joy; the lives that could have been lived and were not lived. And that’s a story that resonates well beyond the sport.
Why did so many women, who usually didn’t care about football, cry at the triumph of the lionesses? Because we understood or thought we understood what it must have meant to her from the gut. Because many of us know how it feels to be underappreciated and overlooked, to be patronized and repressed, or to feel unwanted; because some of us also know the bittersweet joy of succeeding in areas where older women have been prevented. Because we’ve heard the flimsy excuses why our bosses would like to pay us what our male colleagues get, but can’t for incomprehensible structural reasons. Because we’ve all seen mediocre men fail to the top while competent but less vocal women don’t have the same opportunities. The sight of England’s women accomplishing, with a fraction of the money and virtually no drama, what men have tried and failed for so long evokes a rare and very specific kind of satisfaction.
So for Liz Truss – who, after years of being ridiculed and liked and disregarded, now threatens to leapfrog all her rivals at No. 10 – joining the crowd at Wembley was a smart bit of image-making. Victory for Truss would be – how to put it politely? – a rather divisive prospect for the nation than a win for Leah Williamson and her side.
Truss wasn’t the strongest candidate in the field. But in the past few weeks she has been the quickest to analyze her weaknesses and learn from her weaknesses, the most fleet-footed player in internal party politics and, above all, the one who obviously wants it the most. After making Sunak look smug in comparison, she’s now clearly enjoying the last laugh at those who underestimated her. Don’t be surprised if the lionesses’ triumph finds its way into their campaign speeches.
However, beware of attempts, however uplifting or well-intentioned, to portray this victory as a sign that young girls can be anything if they work hard enough. For the more complex message of Lionesses success is that individual hard work alone is not always enough; that progress requires breaking down the structural barriers that hold women back.
What happened on Sunday reflects not only individual brilliance on the pitch, but years of hard work behind the scenes by sports administrators, coaches, players and champions of women’s football from grassroots to peak, undertaking the unspectacular work of building a talent pipeline , an audience and a secure financial basis for women’s football.
The Lionesses themselves know well that they stand on the shoulders of those who went before them, including former England players who are forced to adapt their training alongside their day job because they couldn’t afford to turn professional.
When Chloe Kelly celebrated her winning goal on Sunday by removing her shirt and dashing happily around the field in her sports bra, it was an exhilarating moment of joy. a rare instance where a woman’s body evokes athletic ability and strength, not lithe, pouty sexiness. But it was also a deliberate homage to American player Brandi Chastain, who was criticized for it at the 1999 World Cup. (FIFA immediately banned shirtless goal celebrations for both male and female players.) Chastain asking victorious lionesses for advice said it was about continuing to do what they were doing and ‘showing the world of football that you can play too’. At least there shouldn’t be any doubts about that after Sunday.
But for all the progress that has been made in recent years, the future of women’s football in the UK is not yet secure and may falter without sustained support from whoever fills the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport this autumn . Whoever that is, we hope they remember how good it felt to win just once.