July 31 will be remembered in English football as the day the beautiful game returned home after 56 years in exile. By winning against Germany (2-1) in a match with a dramatic scenario, the Three Lionesses won their first major tournament and this is in no way due to chance, quite the contrary.
It’s hard to imagine it but yes, the covid can be good. If the pandemic had not postponed the Euros by a year, Chloe Kelly would not have been able to participate due to the serious cruciate ligament injury she suffered with Manchester City in May 2021 and which caused her miss the Tokyo Olympics. But all the energy she put into her rehabilitation ended up paying off since last April, Sarina Wiegman called her back with the Three Lionesses to finally offer him a place among his 23 who will compete in the European Championship. A winning bet since it was thanks to Chloe Kelly’s right foot that England were crowned European champions, at home, for the first time in their history, at Wembley, where 56 years earlier, the Three Lions then lifted the one and only major trophy in the country’s history. Just that.
The group lives (very) well
But beyond the symbolism of the Kelly case, this English victory against a Germany which was absolutely not unworthy (and started the final with a big blow to the noggin following Alexandra Popp’s last-minute withdrawal following of a muscle injury) is above all a collective victory. Of course, analysts on all sides will answer, except that in the case of Three Lionesses, this magic word was verified throughout the tournament. Thus, Sarina Wiegman, beyond having achieved a personal back-to-back history, has lined up the same starting XI six times in a row. No one except her had done that in a Euro yet, whether for men or women. Having a basic plan is good, with bench depth is even better. The proof, seven of the 22 English goals were scored by substitutes, some of whom entered the hearts of the public definitively, starting with the Mancunian pair Ella Toone (scorer in the final) and Alessia Russo (author of a backheel which caused a few organ raids in the half against Sweden).
With Wiegman, football is not a sport that is played at eleven, but at fourteen, even at sixteen and, since the arrival of the Dutch technician almost a year ago to replace Phil Neville, her work for to form a united and successful group is breathtaking: in twenty games played, England have won eighteen and lost none, for 106 goals scored and only five conceded. After having chained two consecutive semi-finals at Euro 2017 and the 2019 World Cup, England have finally taken a step forward and, with the World Cup scheduled for next year, now present themselves as part of the elite of the international women’s football. All this while having succeeded in provoking an unprecedented enthusiasm in the history of the discipline, like the more than 87,000 spectators present at Wembley, without forgetting the thousands of other supporters present in the fan-zones all over the countries to encourage Lionesses whom they have come to know and love sincerely and not only as a substitute team, thanks to the personalities of the players skilfully highlighted by the polished communication of their federation and their respective clubs, this one being rewarded with virtual support which now numbers in the millions of subscribers, all media combined.
Effort pays off
But all these festivities should not overshadow the work that has been done upstream to get there. The triumph of England owes nothing to chance, one could even speak of a premeditated blow. And as often, the keyword is called professionalization. Thus, when in 2010 the championship was renamed Women’s Super League (WSL) and restructured into a league of twelve clubs (before the creation of a D2 of twelve clubs also three years later), a first stone was laid for structure a competition that had been moving forward like a headless chicken until then. The year before, England lost the final of the Euro against Germany (decidedly) except that unlike other cases, the FA made the bet to capitalize on this performance by giving itself the means to dream bigger. Very quickly, locomotives appear (Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal in the lead) and less than a decade later, in 2019, all participants have the obligation to be 100% professional. The players now train in ideal conditions, play on quality pitches and above all, they earn a good living by practicing their profession. Ideal to raise the global level and stop the tendency which wanted the best talents to go abroad, in particular to the United States.
The fact that twenty of the 23 Lionesses champions of Europe evolve in the national championship is a good indicator of the latter’s value. Add to that the £30m sponsorship deal with Barclays Bank in 2021 for the next three years and the eight million per season broadcast deal with the BBC and Sky, it can be said that football executives English women know how to market their product. Practice in a sport as commercial as football. Proof in any case that the discipline has changed in dimension and that it no longer intends to tell indefinitely the same tearful stories that have marked its history. In 2017, the FA launched the Gameplan for Growtha major three-year plan, the aim of which was to double the number of women’s clubs by 2020. Mission accomplished, this rose from 6,000 to more than 12,000, while, at the same time, the influx of matches of Three Lionesses peak at 24,000 spectators on average and those of WSL, at more than 3,000. This bodes well for presenting itself in the best conditions at the 2023 World Cup with immense popular support. For other countries still seeking to develop, England could well serve as a model to follow. After all, didn’t Euro 2022 remind us of where football was invented?
By Julien Duez, in London