The 2015 Women’s World Cup felt like a turning point. Women’s football was suddenly in the spotlight. As England battled back from defeat by France in their first group game to reach the semi-finals, the country rallied behind them. Millions tuned in to watch.
Not saddled with the weight of expectation, Mark Sampson’s side beat the hosts, Canada, and European champions, Germany, on their way to a historic third-place finish. Only an agonising Laura Bassett own-goal in the second minute of extra-time against Japan ended the Lionesses’ chance of a place in the final. But they had exceeded all expectations, challenged perceptions and changed attitudes.
The wheels were already in motion in this respect. Team GB women’s team at the London 2012 Olympics feasted on a wave of support galvanised by the positivity surrounding the whole event. After the team had topped their group without conceding, 28,828 fans travelled to the City of Coventry stadium to watch a 2-0 quarter-final defeat by Canada.
And yet in between the big summer tournaments, while progress has undoubtedly been made domestically, support has crept up at a steady but slow pace. The recently retired Arsenal and England striker Kelly Smith, whom many would describe as the best player England have produced, has said awareness of the domestic leagues is so low she would get asked why she plays only one game a year, the flagship FA Cup final – which is the one women’s game to get top TV billing annually and this year drew a record crowd of more than 35,000 to Wembley.
As Women’s Sport Week unfolds, the 2017 Women’s European Championship is just under four weeks away. For the first time in a very long time, for the men’s or women’s team, England head into a major tournament as one of the favourites. Many of the players, and Sampson, have put the togetherness of the team, built through a collective appreciation of what it has taken for each individual to ‘make it’ in the game, at the…