Is Euro 2022 the Payoff for England’s Women’s Soccer Play?

BURTON-ON-TRENT, England — It was only 13 years ago, England defender Lucy Bronze figures as she scrolls through her memories, when she needed to pack bags in a supermarket to earn the money she needed for her bus fare to Derby, where she and her Sunderland teammates were to play in the Women’s FA Cup Final. It was only a couple of years after that when she was still juggling her nascent career at Everton with a job at Domino’s Pizza.

Fast forward to 2022. The rapid rise of women’s soccer in England, and in much of western Europe, is such that Bronze and nearly every other top professional waved goodbye to those kinds of side jobs long ago. Today, Bronze is widely recognized as one of the best women’s players in the world: a three-time Champions League winner, Barcelona’s star summer signing and a key member of an England team that harbors ambitions of winning this month’s European Women’s Championship.

“Here we are, in 2022, and players get like helicopters to make appearances,” Bronze, 30, said after an England training session in June. “Do you know what I mean? It’s gone so far, so quickly, and I don’t think anyone could have forecast how huge it was going to be.”

That makes the start of this summer’s Women’s Euros, a three-and-a-half-week tournament that opens with the host England’s match against Austria on Wednesday night, another pivotal moment for the game experiencing a surge in both interest and investment.

At least a half-dozen nations will arrive in England’s stadiums thinking they can lift the trophy after the final on July 31. But the pressure to do so might be the highest on the host nation, which continues to pump millions of dollars into the sport. but has yet to win a major women’s trophy.

The stakes for England are high: It will roll into the tournament fresh off lopsided victories over three other tournament participants — Belgium (3-0), the Netherlands (5-1) and Switzerland (4-0) — and eager to build on a semifinal run at the last World Cup, with the next one now just a year away. The Lionesses, as England’s team is known, have not lost a match since Sarina Wiegman took over as their coach in September.

That means there is no hiding from the expectations. The faces of England players now adorn billboards in shopping centers and packaging on store shelves. The BBC will air every one of the tournament’s games on its channels or (for a few simultaneous kickoffs) its streaming platform. And England’s three group-stage matches are already sold out.

More than 500,000 tickets to the tournament have been sold, guaranteeing the tournament’s attendance will more than double that of its last iteration, in 2017 in the Netherlands. The bulk of those who turn out to cheer England will be expecting the host nation to set a new standard.

That could be why Wiegman has made an effort to moderate expectations. “I think there are many favorites for this tournament,” she said recently. “We are one of them.”

Still, her players know the game’s sudden growth, as well as the chance to play a major tournament on home soil, has placed them in a pivotal moment.

“I didn’t really have a female role model growing up in terms of football, so I think it’s massive for that,” England midfielder Keira Walsh, 25, who plays for Manchester City, said of having the Euros on home soil. “But not just for young girls — I think for young boys, they can see the women playing in the big stadiums with sellout crowds at a home tournament. I think it’s only going to grow respect for the game in that way as well.”

The tournament comes during an exciting time for women’s soccer in Europe. Its 16-team lineup features some of the world’s most talented squads, including Sweden, currently ranked second in the world; the Netherlands, a World Cup finalist three years ago; Germany, an eight-time European champion; and Spain, which boasts Alexia Putellas, the reigning world player of the year. Norway is bolstered by the return of Ada Hegerberg, and France by the core of that country’s dominant club teams, Olympique Lyonnais and Paris St.-Germain.

It is England, though, that may face the highest expectations to deliver.

Historic investments by the country’s biggest clubs in the Women’s Super League, England’s top domestic competition, have attracted some of the world’s best players, produced new revenue streams and lifted the standard of play for a new generation of England stars. All but one member of England’s 23-player Euro squad played in the WSL last season, including veterans Bronze and Ellen White and rising talents such as Walsh and Lauren Hemp.

“We’ve seen, over the years, how much the women’s game has grown,” said Hemp, 21, who this year was honored as England’s best young women’s player for a record fourth time. “I think having this home tournament is only going to help it grow even more.”

For all the gains, though, players, even the best ones, know there is still a long way to go. The investments in the WSL remain a fraction of the money poured into the men’s game in Europe, and the salaries, television deals and prize money — while significantly improved — still qualify as a rounding error when compared with the men’s paydays.

UEFA, the governing body for European soccer, has faced criticism over its choices of stadiums in the group stages, with Iceland’s Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir branding the use of Manchester City’s Academy Stadium, with a tournament capacity of 4,700, as “disrespectful.” And a survey of 2,000 male soccer fans in Britain published earlier this year found that two-thirds had “openly misogynistic attitudes” toward women’s sports, regardless of age.

Still, for veterans like Bronze, the tournament shows how far the women’s game has come and presents an opportunity to raise its profile even more. The new crop of young players she sees at training every day, she said, exhibit a fearlessness that she did not have at their age and symbolize a future — for themselves and for England — that could be even brighter.

“I look at some of the players now, who maybe haven’t been to a tournament, and I think, ‘Oh, God, when I was you, I was panicking a bit more,'” Bronze said. “But they all seem a little bit more calm.”

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