Following England’s horribly cruel Women’s World Cup semi-final exit, thoughts turned to the third-place play-off against Germany. After a hard-fought 120 minutes, England came away victorious and claimed the 3rd place spot. In doing so, the team were able to beat the Germans for the first time in thirty-one years. They also secured the best World Cup finish by an England side since the men’s team won in 1966. While this is not what the players were ultimately aiming for, the emerging support for the team making history has been simply sensational.
Even Laura Bassett’s last-minute own-goal in the semi-final, while being one of the most heartbreaking sporting moments in recent times, has shown the sheer support that now exists for this England team. Anyone on social media following England’s defeat will be aware of the outpouring of love that came her way. Following the third place finish, large numbers were also keen on sharing with the world how proud they were of the team and what they achieved.
The ultimate aim of the “Lionesses” was to make it to the World Cup Final, and in doing so increase the level of support and participation in the sport back home. If audiences are anything to go by, they have made a major leap in the right direction. 2.6 million people tuned in to watch England’s opener against France, with approximately 2 million tuning into their latter group-stage games against Mexico, Colombia and Norway. High-profile sportsmen and celebrities have also shown their support for the squad, increasing the attention surrounding the competition even further.
The main focus of those involved in the sport from now on will be to translate the support at the World Cup into increased attention to the game on a domestic level. The FA Women’s Super League restarts next weekend and hopes are high that attendances will be boosted, especially in places where the Lionesses play their club football.
In their final game prior to the World Cup, Manchester City took on league leaders Chelsea in the WSL. The game finished 1-1 with England players Karen Bardsley, Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze, Toni Duggan, Eniola Aluko, Claire Rafferty and Katie Chapman all involved. Despite attracting audiences in their millions as part of the England squad, these players were only bringing in an audience of 750 prior to the competition. Earlier in the season a match-up between the league’s top two teams Arsenal and Chelsea finished 2-1 to the latter, with a slightly higher 936 in attendance. Comparing that to the 45,000 and 60,000 in attendance at the equivalent men’s games shows exactly how far behind domestic attendances are.
On an international level, England women have already shown that they are capable of pulling in vast audiences. Their 2014 match-up against Germany saw 45,619 people in attendance at Wembley. Their 1-0 defeat to the USA earlier this year, however, pulled in 14,369 people to the Stadium MK. Realistically women’s matches aren’t going to pull in the numbers that the men’s game manages, at least not in the near future, but the buzz created by the World Cup has the potential to increase the support surrounding the women’s game.
One thing that is not good news for the sport, however, is the cull of Team GB football teams ahead of the next Olympics in 2016. FA Director of Women’s Football Kelly Simmons has gone as far to say that it is “devastating” for the women’s game to miss out. When considering the excitement surrounding the Team GB Women’s team at London 2012, it is easy to agree with Simmons.
At the 2012 Olympics the GB Women’s Football team, led by Hope Powell, made it as far as the Quarter-Finals where they lost to Canada 2-0. Prior to this, the team were drawing in record crowds of 70,584 at Wembley in their 1-0 group stage victory against Brazil. Amongst that squad were Karen Bardsley, Alex Scott, Steph Houghton, Claire Rafferty, Jill Scott, Fara Williams, Karen Carney, Ellen White and Eniola Aluko; All of whom played for England this time around. While interest at London 2012 did not translate into sustained attendances at domestic matches, events such as this on the World stage can only increase awareness of the players and the sport.
By finishing as one of the best three European teams at the World Cup, England have already achieved the standard needed to secure a place for a Great Britain side to play in the Olympics next year. The English FA were keen to take part, but its plans were scuppered earlier this year after opposition from other home nations’ football associations, who fear sending a team to Brazil would threaten their independence in the international game.
If campaigning from the likes of journalists such as Jacqui Oatley and the players themselves has any impact, we should see increased attendances at League games with the teams and players getting the attention they deserve. As the Olympics showed, however, this attention may not necessarily be sustained. The World Cup has increased the attention to the sport once more, and the existence of a Team GB at next year’s Olympics would only further benefit the game by showcasing the players that the public have now fallen in love. Team GB would also have enabled football fans to learn more about the players from other countries such as Kim Little and Jess Fishlock, making a huge impact on the other side of the Atlantic with Seattle Reign, to only name a couple.
What is clear is that the Women’s game in this country is certainly growing. The FA WSL began in 2011 and has since been joined by the WSL 2 in 2014. Furthermore, an extra team will be promoted into the WSL 1 and 2 this season which will only increase their competitive nature. BT Sport are showing an increasing number of Women’s WSL 1 matches on television and more female players are taking up the role of pundit, with Rachel Brown-Finnis, Rachel Yankey and Natasha Dowie all playing a role in the most recent England coverage on the BBC. The likes of Steph Houghton and co. who are now able to play full-time at a select number of clubs also shows how the game is growing.
The increased attention that automatically surrounds an Olympics would have provided a welcome further boost to the women’s game. For the players themselves, it is a personal achievement that they too will miss out on. With no football team amongst Team GB, the pressure is put back on the league teams, international teams (although the next major tournament will not be until the EURO 2017) and those involved with them to increase awareness and encourage regular attendance in the long term. Only then can we show the corporations that they should invest in the players and the sport and further increase the media coverage.
The Lionesses have certainly inspired a nation and now it is time for the nation to show their support when they return to the UK. I for one will continue to support my local side Reading FC Women, home to our very own “Mini Messi” Fran Kirby, and I hope that the World Cup has inspired you to do the same.
The Women’s Super League continues on 11 July, with our Lionesses involved in the following:
- Reading Women v Durham Women, 11 July at 6PM
- Chelsea Ladies v Bristol Academy, 12 July at 2PM
- Manchester City Women v Birmingham City Ladies, 12 July at 2PM
- Arsenal Ladies v Liverpool Ladies, 12 July at 6PM
- Liverpool Ladies v Notts County Ladies, 18 July at 2pm
- Birmingham City v Arsenal Ladies, 19 July at 2PM
- Notts County v Birmingham City, 22 July at 7.30PM