This is a happy day, so let’s start with a joke. An old Jewish joke.
Manny goes to the synagogue and prays. ‘Lord,’ he says. ‘The business is going down the tubes. I can’t afford to put petrol in my car. I can’t afford to pay the mortgage. I think my wife might leave me. Please, please let me win the lottery.’
And nothing happens. Next week, he’s back. ‘Lord, it’s worse,’ he says. ‘The business is closed. My savings are gone. I’m desperate. Please, I beg, let me win the lottery.’
Yet still nothing. Third week, Manny returns. ‘Lord, the bailiffs are coming tomorrow. They’ve already taken the car. My wife is packing her suitcase. Please, please, it is my only hope. Let me win the lottery.’
And the clouds part, and God looks down. He shrugs his mighty shoulders. ‘Manny,’ he says, ‘meet me halfway. Buy a ticket.’
So that’s today’s sermon. Buy a ticket. If you want this to be the game-changer for women’s football, if you want this to be more than a match, more than a marquee event, more than a fancy occasion like a Jubilee or a royal wedding, it is going to take more than smiles, slogans and well-intended positivity.
‘They think it’s all over,’ concluded Gabby Logan before the BBC conceded the greatest moment for women’s sport in this country to a glorified schools sports day in Birmingham, ‘but it’s only just beginning.’ And it was a great line, a lovely line, and we all hope it is true.
But is it? On Sunday, BBC 5 Live were broadcasting their preview programmes from the far corner of the bar at the Wembley Hilton. The space wasn’t rammed, but it was busy. Downstairs, in the lobby, players’ friends and families were queuing to collect their tickets. Little girls carried signs wishing the best to their aunties, who would be playing the biggest match of their lives that afternoon.
And the great and good of the women’s game in England dutifully took the escalator two floors up to tell the nation of their hopes, their dreams and their excitement at what was to come.
Shortly before one o’clock, Emma Hayes appeared. There is probably no more recognisable figure in women’s football. Hayes is the manager of England’s best team, Chelsea, and a respected pundit on the men’s game, too, with a national television profile.
And, yards from Wembley Stadium, just hours before the biggest match in the history of women’s football here, she remained relatively unnoticed and untroubled.
Maybe followers of the women’s game are just more polite. Maybe they didn’t want to intrude. Hayes is a no-nonsense figure, but hardly unapproachable. A lady in a blue dress asked for a selfie, and she happily obliged. But that was it. When she left, Hayes walked through the public space unhindered.
So, soon after, did former Manchester City goalkeeper and 81-cap England international Karen Bardsley, until the same lady in blue stepped up again.
And this is a vignette. Maybe both women were mobbed on their short walk to the ground. Maybe in Costa Coffee their appearance would have caused mayhem. Yet so much is now invested in this victory, so much expectation, so much hope that one wonders whether a single game — any single game — can change the landscape so spectacularly.
Similar import was given to Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-kick and England’s victory in the 2003 World Cup. It was going to turn us into a rugby-playing nation, like New Zealand. Then there were the wins — both men’s and women’s — in the Cricket World Cup that would purportedly send us all flocking to the counties again.
And every four years an Olympic medal is presumed to inspire a rush to see rowers, canoeists, hockey players and cyclists. Then the caravan moves on and down at East Grinstead its back to the friends, families and veterans that would always turn up for hockey, with or without the podium finish.
The millions watching from their sofas do not convert to capacity stadiums we find. Leander Rowing Club, home to Sir Steven Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell, still scudded unnoticed along the Thames. And while you may occasionally thrill to the sport of curling, try to find a tournament outside Scotland.
On Sunday at Wembley there did seem to be rather a lot of cheery day-trippers. We’re like the United States now, in our love for a big event.
The 1994 World Cup remains the best attended, even if many of the locals didn’t really have a clue what they were watching. They cheered goal-kicks because launching a ball downfield is a big deal in NFL and they thought the same logic applied. But they had been told the World Cup was huge and bought into that.
As do we. Events that can prove a disappointing draw elsewhere — the Paralympics, the Commonwealth Games, the World Athletics Championships — do very well in the United Kingdom. All sorts of attendance records fell during this summer’s Women’s European Championship.
In terms of maintaining momentum, the start of the Women’s Super League season is well set. On Saturday, September 10, Tottenham play Manchester United at the Tottenham Stadium, not Brisbane Road, Leyton, or The Hive, Barnet, where their games are more commonly situated.
Tottenham did not have a player in England’s squad but United boast Mary Earps, Ella Toone and Alessia Russo, three heroes of this tournament, in a venue with a capacity of 62,850. It should be another great fillip for the women.
Yet it is the following day, at Brighton versus Aston Villa or Everton versus Leicester, where it is to be hoped the impact is most keenly felt. And this brings us back to Manny, and the need to at least get into the game. To, quite simply, buy a ticket.
For there really is no reason now. No reason, without support, to expect the rest of the sport, or the media, or the administrators, to drag women’s football to where it is supposed to be.
It has the profile, it has the product, it has the success. If, from that, you believe the women’s game deserves more of everything, it is time to be a catalyst. It cannot be that everyone loves women’s football every two years from their sofa.
‘Hopefully, the crowds that we’ve had this summer we can get into our grounds at club level, to be on the journey with us,’ said Toone (below left).
She’s right. She’s better than a half-empty arena. She does deserve more. This is not the men’s game where tickets are hugely expensive and often scarce. Committing to women’s football is not ruinous. And as England’s women rise, so the empty justifications tumble.
It is no excuse that the goalkeepers are not good enough because, increasingly, they are; it is no excuse that the skill is missing because as Russo, Toone and others proved, it isn’t; it is no excuse that the game is soft because England versus Germany was as ferocious as they come; it is no excuse that it isn’t men’s football because how can it be?
Yet equally it is no excuse to stay away because Chloe Kelly isn’t paid the same as Erling Haaland; or because something rotten happened in 1921; or cos the patriarchy; or because your newspaper doesn’t cover it with the depth it devotes to Manchester United’s men.
These are all just excuses that the current European champions blew away at Wembley. These are all rationalisations that are no longer relevant.
If there is to be change those who thrilled to the achievements of this summer need to meet these bold players at least halfway.
Having finally won the lottery, English football must now buy a ticket.
HERE’S SOMETHING THE MEN COULD LEARN FROM CHLOE’S JOY
Notice the real difference with the women’s game? When they score, instead of staring moodily down a camera lens or telling the crowd to shut up, they smile, as if they have done something that pleases them. The men should try it.
IGNORE REBEKAH VARDY, LET’S PROMOTE THE LIONESSES INSTEAD
The irony of the BBC positioning itself as the home of women’s sport is that if this does prove to be the massive game-changing event they wish, the Corporation would no longer be able to afford the football.
Then again, if it is true broadcasters are now competing for the story of treacherous liar Rebekah Vardy, perhaps they might consider chucking some of that money football’s way.
DON’T COMPARE WHITE’S RECORD TO ROONEY’S
One of the qualities of this victorious England team is their self-effacing nature. Alessia Russo called her fabulous backheel goal against Sweden lucky, and castigated herself over a soft first shot which was spilled by goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl.
Meanwhile, probably the only person who did not make a song and dance about Ellen White closing in on Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring record for England was Ellen White, who seemed to accept that statistics in men’s and women’s football mean more if kept separately.
Anyway, being the all-time record goalscorer for a team that are now the European champions doesn’t seem such an inferior accolade. White hardly needs Rooney’s name to make her relevant.
BANNING WOMEN WAS FOOTBALL’S BIGGEST MISTAKE
Imagine if, instead of all but banning women’s football for half a century, the FA had encouraged it. Where would we be now?
Forget the professional side for a moment. It would obviously be considerably more developed without the ban, but the famous fixture in 1920 when Dick, Kerr Ladies drew 53,000 to Goodison Park for a charity game with St Helens cannot be taken as wholly representative.
Men’s football was still in recovery, having been suspended between 1915 and 1919 during the First World War. And on December 26, when the Goodison game took place, there were no men’s matches — the Football League fixtures over Christmas that season were played on December 25 and 27. Women’s football was popular but the reason the 53,000 attendance is still discussed a century later is because it was exceptional, not because it was the norm.
Yet what did the ban do for the women’s game in schools? The FA’s disapproval discouraged girls from playing the easiest, most accessible team sport in the world.
Nobody plays a scratch hockey game at lunchtime in the playground. It needs protective kit, it involves the aggressive wielding of many large wooden sticks. It isn’t practical. It’s downright dangerous.
Netball? A very technical game with small team participation numbers and two hoops required to be targets. Again, not much given to spontaneity.
But football? Jumpers for goalposts. One ball, you’ve got a game. Take the FA’s ban away and football would have quickly become the biggest school sport for girls as well as boys, as it may well be within the next five years given the inspiration of Euro 2022.
Certainly every school, across every age group, should have a girls football team. It’s simple to play, simple to organise and its rules adapt easily to the freedom of expression of the playground. No offside, no problem. No one wants to go in goal? Rush goalie.
For kids, football is in a class of its own. And certainly it would be already, without the actions of some very short-sighted men. What a colossal mistake they made.
TRIUMPH WAS A DUTCH VICTORY TOO
It would be boorish in the extreme to crow about football coming home and not acknowledge the route it took to get here — via the Netherlands.
Not just Sarina Wiegman, late of Ter Leede, Den Haag, Sparta Rotterdam and the Dutch national team, but her assistant Arjan Veurink, formerly with FC Twente and ATC ’65 and Anja van Ginhoven, team general manager after two stints with the Dutch FA.
As England showed no sign of reaching this technical, tactical or organisational level until Wiegman arrived, her input and that of her staff cannot be underestimated. So this is an Anglo-Dutch victory and, as such, we should be grateful. And also a little red-faced.
The investment in England’s women is huge, in all likelihood outstripped only by the United States. As such, it is a very poor show that this country is unable to produce a homegrown, female, coach. Hope Powell was the last and she departed in 2013. Since then, two men and a Dutch woman. This is a failing on the part of the English system.
We are very glad of Wiegman but should not need her to succeed. The international game is supposed to be the best of ours versus the best of theirs. If we need one of theirs, it is not wholly our win.