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Is Euro 2022 the reward for women’s football in England?

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BURTON-ON-TRENT, England — It was only 13 years ago, England defender Lucy Bronze thinks as she scrolls through her memories, when she needed to pack her bags at a supermarket to earn the money she needed for her bus ticket 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 budding career at Everton with a job at Domino’s Pizza.

Fast-forward to 2022. The rapid rise of women’s football in England and across much of Western Europe is such that Bronze and just about every other top professional said goodbye to those sorts of side jobs long ago. Today, Bronze is widely recognized as one of the best players in the world: a three-time Champions League winner, Barcelona’s star summer signing and a key member of an England team harboring ambitions to win the European Women’s Championship. of this month.

“Here we are, in 2022, and players are going down like helicopters to make appearances,” the 30-year-old Bronze said after an England training session in June. “You know what I mean? It’s gone so far, so fast, and I don’t think anyone could have predicted how big it was going to be.”

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That marks the start of this summer’s Women’s Euro, a three-and-a-half-week tournament that kicks off with hosts England versus Austria on Wednesday night, another pivotal moment for the game that sees a spike in both interest as in investment.

At least half a 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 could be greater in the host nation, which continues to pour millions of dollars into the sport. but she has yet to win a major women’s trophy.

The stakes are high for England – they will come into the tournament with lopsided wins over three other tournament entrants – Belgium (3-0), the Netherlands (5-1) and Switzerland (4-0) – and eager to build further. a semi-final run at the last World Cup, with the next one now just a year away. The Lionesses, as the England team is known, have not lost a game since Sarina Wiegman took over as manager in September.

That means there is no way to hide from expectations. The faces of England players now adorn billboards in shopping malls and packaging on store shelves. The BBC will broadcast each of the tournament games on its channels or (for some simultaneous starts) on its streaming platform. And all three of England’s group matches are already sold out.

Over 500,000 tickets have been sold for the tournament, ensuring that attendance at the tournament will be more than double that of its last iteration, in 2017 in the Netherlands. Most of those who applaud England hope the host nation will set a new standard.

That could be why Wiegman has been at pains to temper expectations: “I think there are a lot of favorites for this tournament,” she said recently. “We are one of them.” — even as England’s football federation leaned on “the pride, responsibility and privilege” of the team’s cause.

Still, their players know that the game’s sudden growth, as well as the opportunity to play a major tournament at home, has placed them at a crucial time.

“I didn’t really have a female role model growing up in terms of football, so I think she’s huge for that,” England midfielder Keira Walsh, 25, who plays for Manchester City, said of having the European Championship on. his homeland. “But not just for the girls, I think for the little boys, you can see the women playing in the big stadiums with packed crowds at a local tournament. I think it will only increase respect for the game that way as well.”

The tournament comes at an exciting time for women’s football in Europe. Their 16-team line-up features some of the most talented squads in the world, including Sweden, currently ranked second in the world; The Netherlands, a World Cup finalist three years ago; Germany, eight times champion of Europe; and Spain, which has a talented team but, now, not Alexia Putellas, the current world player of the year, who he tore a ligament in his knee in training on Tuesday). 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.

However, it is England that may face the highest delivery expectations.

Historic investments by the country’s biggest clubs in the Women’s Super League, England’s premier domestic competition, have attracted some of the world’s best players, generated new sources of revenue and raised the level of play for a new generation of stars. from England. All but one of England’s 23-player European squad played in the WSL last season, including veterans Bronze and Ellen White and emerging talents like Walsh and Lauren Hemp.

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

However, despite all the gains, players, even the best ones, know that there is still a long way to go. Investments in the WSL remain a fraction of the money invested in the men’s game in Europe, and salaries, TV deals and prize money, while significantly improved, still qualify as a rounding error compared to paydays. the men.

UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, has faced criticism over its choice of stadiums in the group stage. Icelander Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir called the use of Manchester City’s 4,700-capacity Academy Stadium “disrespectful”. And a survey of 2,000 male soccer fans in Britain published earlier this year found that two-thirds had “openly misogynistic attitudes” towards female 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 their profile even higher. The new crop of young players she sees in training every day, she said, exhibit a bravery she didn’t have at her age and symbolize a future, for them 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’m like, ‘Oh, God, when I was you, I was a little more scared,’” Bronze said. “But everyone seems a little calmer.”

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