LONDON — For a soccer-mad nation like England, it’s quite surprising to realize that not long ago women’s matches were effectively banned for being unladylike. The Football Association, the governing body for soccer in England, effectively stopped women from playing between 1921 and 1971, saying that the sport was “quite unsuitable for females” and “should not be encouraged.”
Oh but how times do change. On Sunday, the nation will release a collective roar for the Lionesses, who are one victory away from World Cup glory. Bookies have them virtually even with Spain’s La Roja heading into the final.
In every major men’s tournament, the country goes more than a bit bananas, with casual fans suddenly turning into hardcore pundits. People rave about the team’s chances. No one really works on game day. Fans spill out of pubs chanting “football’s coming home,” a line from an anthem penned for the 1996 men’s European Championship — in which England was knocked out in the semifinals.
Soccer is England’s most popular sport and the hunger for the men to win a significant trophy is ever palpable. And yet, it’s the women who are getting the results that everyone is calling for. It’s the women who could end England’s 57-year-wait for a World Cup trophy. It’s the women who not so long ago brought home another major international win: In 2022, the Lionesses won the European Championship — which the men failed to do the year before.
The last time the men’s side was in a World Cup final was 1966, when the Beatles and the Beach Boys were topping the charts.
Not only have the women brought home the silverware more recently, they are connecting with the public and young girls on an emotional level.
At a soccer field in Brixton, south London, Samerah Preddie, 17, was pounding the ball deep into the net. She said that seeing the Lionesses take center stage “means the fear of judgment is no longer there.”
“Football is not something that has someone’s name on it, it’s something anyone can do. When Lionesses are out there, playing football, doing their thing, for me, as a young girl, it’s like, I can do this, it doesn’t matter if I’m in a stadium with 50,000, or on a pitch with five people, I can still play and feel like the world is watching me.”
James Reeves, a spokesman for Football Beyond Borders, a charity that uses the field, said that more work needed to be done on improving equality. His charity surveyed over 600 young people after the Lionesses won last year’s Euros, and found that the majority couldn’t name a single Lioness player.
Interest and attendance at women’s games has shot up since the women won the European title. The average attendance for England’s Women’s Super League, England’s top league for women, was 6,961 for the season up to January 2023, a 267 percent year-on-year increase — but still far behind the Premier League’s average of 40,000.
In light of the Lionesses’ string of successes, it’s hard to remember how few the opportunities were for women in England to play soccer, even after the ban was lifted in 1971.
Leah Williamson, the captain of the Lionesses who has had to sit this tournament out because of a knee injury, has spoken about how, when her mom played soccer in 1981, she had to cut her hair and pretend to be a boy.
Diane Bronze, the mom of Lucy Bronze, one of the top players in the team, told the BBC that she had to go hunting for a team that would allow girls after her daughter was told that the club at the end of their street was “boys only” after the age of 11.
Stacey Pope, an expert in women’s sports at Durham University, said that the level of interest and media coverage of the women’s game has grown massively in recent years, with the 2012 London Olympics a turning point for showcasing female athletes.
She said that in some cases, there has been “reverse socialization — the daughters getting the fathers into women’s football, rather than the traditional stereotype of the father taking his son to football matches, it’s the flip way around. It’s a chance for fathers to bond with their daughters over sport.”
But she said that there are “what you would think would be historical issues still playing out in the contemporary period,” such as physical education teachers at school “channeling girls toward what they think are ‘feminine-appropriate’ sports, like netball and [field] hockey” or male peers not wanting girls to play soccer on the playground, or girls not having the same kind of access to local clubs or feeder academies like boys do.
Pope said that the main driver for becoming a fan of the women’s game comes via major tournaments. “So this tournament could have a legacy that helps drive through wider structural change,” she said.
“It’s all pointing in the right direction, but we have a long way to go,” said Christina Philippou, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, who noted that there are big disputes over wages and prize money in the women’s game. The Lionesses are currently in a dispute with the Football Association over bonus payments to cover the tournament — a fight successfully won by their counterparts in the United States last year.
Elite female soccer players make far less than their male counterparts. The average wage in the Women’s Super League is about $60,000 a year, according to a 2022 analysis by the BBC. The broadcaster guesstimated that men in the Premier League, England’s top league for men, earn around 100 times as much. Many of the Lionesses have had second jobs as they built up their careers. Bronze, the England defender, used to work shifts at Domino’s Pizza when she was playing for Everton.
This weekend, a nation will be roaring on her and her teammates. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has hung flags outside of Downing Street. King Charles III and Prince William have led tributes to the team — although some have criticized the royals for not attending in person.
Pubs and fan zone areas screening the final have quickly sold out.
Carly Piggot, the general manager of the Four Thieves pub in south London, said that she was trying to rig up a television in her pub’s back garden to help manage the expected crowds. She added that she’s noticed a different kind of clientele for the women’s vs men’s games.
“It’s different — more inclusive, diverse, families and their dogs, it’s a nice vibe,” she said. “Everyone’s excited. My only hope is I don’t have to work too much so I can actually enjoy it.”