Hurrah The Lionesses
Some moments you remember all your life. One of mine happened fifteen minutes after England won the World Cup in 1966. Like almost everybody else in the country, Plum, my wife of three months, and I had just watched the final on TV, and were driving in my little red MG Midget to celebrate with our friends. I was 25 and Plum was 21. People married young in those days.
It wasn’t a particularly warm summer’s day in Liverpool, but we had the car’s hood down anyway. We were happy and we wanted everyone to see how happy we were. And, as we drove out of the city, it seemed to us that we were joining in some kind of spontaneous national jamboree as the driver of virtually every car we passed pipped his horn and waved to us.
And we waved back feeling that we were stars ourselves. Every generation should have a victorious day like that.
Because it felt like our victory. Yes, Geoff Hurst, Bobby Moore and Martin Peters had done the heavy lifting that afternoon at Wembley. But, during the game, they had become us and we had become them, uniting us all in a great endeavour that can only be created in extraordinarily emotional moments.
And this Sunday morning, when England take on Spain in the final of the Women’s World Cup at Stadium Australia in Sydney, will be another of those moments. For the first time since 1966 an English football team will be in a World Cup Final. It’s a moment to remember and enjoy.
But how has this happened? And so suddenly? Just the other year it seemed that the nation was indifferent to women’s football. The noise and bragging and over-spending of the Premier League with its international multi-millionaire players didn’t seem to have left any space in the national psyche for the women’s game.
Then along, almost from nowhere, came the women’s European Championship win last summer, and suddenly anything began to seem possible. Not just for stars, like blonde pony-tailed Alessia Russo and Lucy Bronze, and manager Sarina Wiegman, whose innate talent would always have taken them on to great things.
But for all the young women in teams around the country who until now have rarely got more than a few dozen friends to turn up and see them play; and most of all for all the schoolgirls watching at home with their parents, their mouths open in awe as the tournament in Australia has progressed.
We’ve seen them on TV this week, their very expressions conveying the enthusiasm and the hope in their hearts. ‘If they can do it,’ their eyes seem to be saying, ‘so can I. So can we. And the Lionesses are showing us how.’
For too long football has very largely been a male preserve, which seems odd in a nation that embraced feminism decades ago. Yes, the Premier League puts a premium on speed and strength, departments in which women footballers are only ever going to come second.
But the joy of playing football isn’t just in how fast you can run or how hard you can kick the ball. Skill and team organisation top everything. And there is no physical reason at all why women players are less skillful or organized than men…especially not if they start being coached early.
And here lies the future. Will parents now demand that schools begin to provide more football facilities for girls? I think they will.
But will schools be able and willing to provide them? I believe they may find they have to. It’s just astonishing that it has taken the women’s game so long to catch up.
We’ve all seen those wonderful films ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ and ‘Gregory’s Girl’ in which girl footballers are the centre of the story. But they were make-believe. This week make-believe has become a real-life.
When the schools reopen in September expect to see a lot of young girls in football boots. That is what the Lionesses have achieved. They’ve opened the eyes of a whole generation of girls and young women to a new possibility.
Football is by some measure the most popular game in the world. In England, thanks to the Lionessses, it’s going to be more popular than ever now, and not just as a sport to be watched. Girls and young women are going to want to play it, too.
But where does that leave men, who for generations have found football talk to be the lingua franca of the world? Will they now feel that their all-male territory is being encroached upon? Some stick-in-the-mud blokes will probably think so. There are always some miseries.
But just as Plum and I congratulated each other over England’s win against West Germany in 1966, we can all now envisage a future of more women at men’s football matches…and, just as importantly, more men at women’s games.
Ray Connolly’s memoir Born At The Right Time is now available through Amazon.