On the eve of the tournament opening Mark Perryman has a ponder. Image above by Hugh Tisdale
"Italia '90 was a watershed for English football. Post-Hillsborough, post-Heysel, post-awful 80s hooliganism. It wasn't just a working-class sport anymore. It was a national sport for everybody." - Gary Lineker
Gary's right. Italia '90 was without doubt a glorious moment. But one that was then transformed to enable the wholesale transfer power from football's governing bodies, at least nominally governing in the interests of all, to the richest clubs only interested in their own, and now super-charged, financial self-interest. AKA mod£rn football.
So deep breath, what might be the aftermath of the women's game's glorious moment, England winning the 2022 Euros? Well first off, instead of losing in the most dramatic of fashions, a feat the men's team repeated at Euro 2020, but this time in the final, at Wembley, the women won, and at home. Those two factors are of course crucial. The men losing meant the 2022 final was only remembered for flare-up-the-arse man, mass antisocial behaviour on Wembley Way, and online racial abuse of the three black missed penalty takers.
The women? A near faultless campaign, a team made up of hugely engaging personalities, a thrilling final, the whip off the shirt sports bra celebration, beating Germany (Germany!) at Wembley. No, not 1966, this was 2022 and women, not men ending England's 56 years of hurt. Who would ever have thought it?
And since then, England have beaten the reigning World champions, USA, and reigning South American champions, Brazil, both in front of full-to-capacity Wembley stadium crowds. Despite a raft of injuries affecting key players from the Euro '22 winning-squad anything less than the semis at the '23 World Cup would be considered a disappointment. Will that be enough to sustain the momentum since 2022? Possibly, though of course nothing like the impact of winning the World Cup! Now that would be off the scale, to put even '66 in the shade. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, what's the current state of the women's game?
Domestically more and more clubs are hosting their Women's Super League and Women's Champions League games at the men's club grounds. In front of sold out or near capacity crowds. For the spectator sport side of football this is both unprecedented and most welcome. Yet with precious few exceptions hardly any of the women's clubs have a ground they can call their own, playing games at lower division or non-league grounds miles away from the men's stadium, in many cases not even in the city or town the club is named after. Chelsea have tried something different. They’ve bought up AFC Wimbledon's old ground, Kingsmeadow in Norbiton, and turned it into a tasty little stadium for their hugely successful women's team, shared with the men's age group teams. Manchester City have done something similar with a mini-stadium just a long throw-in away from the Etihad. Both give their women's teams a home to call, and make, their own.
However, women's clubs lack of their own, or to use the classic feminist term 'autonomous', identity is rooted in the structural, not simply the geographical. The classic account of Italia '90, All Played Out, was written by Pete Davies and was a runaway 1990 bestseller. Six years later Pete shocked his publisher, and no doubt a lot of readers, with instead of a rewrite for the Euro '96 version, same result, out on penalties to the Germans in the semis, I Lost My Heart to the Belles. Long before the popularity of the Lionesses, Pete's book revealed the community and spirit of at the time the most successful women's club team, The Doncaster Belles. And the book inspired a fictionalised BBC series, Playing the Field, that ran 1998-2002. For what an autonomous women's game might look like, neither book can be bettered.
Of course, the resources ploughed into their women's clubs, including crucially professionalisation, by Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United are good news but it has come at a cost. Clubs like the Belles now hardly exist, certainly not at the elite level – the Belles themselves have been subsumed into Doncaster Rovers. This process won’t help shape a specific identity for women's club football, and it’s produced the total domination of the women's top division and cups by more or less the same 'big 4' as the men's game. But in the men's game this unwelcome process took several decades – in the women's game it has been achieved in a matter of a few seasons. This is what accelerated mod£rnisation looks like.
The social construction of sport
My own club, Lewes FC is in part an exception to this frankly depressing picture. The non-league part-time semi-professional men's team play in the Isthmian Premier League. The full time professional women’s team, including a good number of internationals, play in the Women's Championship. Quite a contrast, enabled by the ideas and financing of the club's pioneering Equality FC initiative. Though even with all this magnificent endeavour, whether Lewes FC is still thought of as primarily a 'men's club' is a moot point.
A new wave of participation as players, driven by school and grassroots football does at least offer the basis of a different model. And while the spark was the Lionesses’ success, there's been a welcome break from the flawed mantra of the 'role model'. In its place a focus on dramatically improving the number of girls able to play football at school. This at least has the rudiments of an understanding that sport, and in particular participation, is socially constructed.
The initial results are encouraging but this was from a very low base. And just the same as with boys, school sport is the relatively easy part to fix, what happens when they leave school and compulsory PE lessons is an entirely different matter. Competitive team sports are one of the worst versions of physical activity to encourage lasting participation – once you’re not picked for the first team, interest plummets. If participation levels are to be sustained, the challenge is to foster a culture that values all those who want to play. We need to see women's football as a social space as much as a competitive sport – the women's equivalent of Sunday league park football. And this most of all demands resources, starting with having a park which has a pitch to play on!
The men's game and the women's game - compare and contrast
And the global game we're about to enjoy in the shape of World Cup 2023? The spread of winners since World Cup 2011 albeit restricted to just two, Japan and USA (2), would appear to show how markedly different the women's global game is to the men's. With China, and Canada numbered amongst the quarter finalists through the period, this seems to further emphasise the point. And while it might pain fans of the men's England team but back-to-back England World Cup semi-final appearances is something not even Gareth Southgate has managed, nor any other England men's team manager for that matter.
So far, so different, but the women's World Cup in another way isn't so very different. There is no African winner, semi-finalist or even quarter finalist. FIFA's effort to affect this imbalance is exactly the same as for the men's game. To expand the tournament first from 16 to 24 for the 2015 tournament and just 8 years later to 32 for 2023. Again, this is accelerated mod£rnisation, and in the process it necessitates co-hosts, divided by an ocean. This only serves to undermine the cohesion of a tournament – a single host stamps its identity to make the World Cup really special, but for travelling fans and those watching on TV, co-hosts really struggle to do so.
The 2023 debut teams Philippines and Vietnam, Zambia, Haiti, Panama and Republic of Ireland, well let's see if any get out of their groups. This is a FIFA top-down rebalancing act, a fast-forward version of the men's. Far better would have been to keep to 24 nations, with a single host, but invest seriously in the confederation tournaments to raise the standard of the game globally. In hock to the Arab petro-dollar states, the striking absence of teams from this part of the world, unlike at the men's tournament, goes largely unremarked upon by FIFA – maybe it’s something to do with women being banned from playing football in these countries?
Anyway, are we going to win?
Once the tournament begins, while it's important not to forget these various failings, all England fans' eyes will be on the Lionesses’ progress. In the group Haiti up first should be a walkover, Denmark failed to get out their group at the Euros, China have been a major power, quarter finalists in 2007 and 2015, almost made knockout stages in 2019. Still, anything less than England topping their group would be quite an upset. Group 16 stage? Hope for Canada and avoid the hosts Australia, though either should be beatable.
Quarters, when England men usually exit, if pluckily, toughest opponent so far are Germany, who are desperate for revenge after the Euros. But they’re not quite the force they once were, so if England advance expect Lionesses-mania to take over. The quarter final could be a tougher proposition than a semi against France or Australia, both beatable unless the home advantage has fired up the Aussies (and losing the Ashes, yes please!). The final? Having to date avoided the reigning World Champions, well it has to be the USA, and you know we beat them only last year and weren't far off doing the same at World Cup 2019 either.
Get the bunting ready? We can but hope. Will any of this change the world of English football, not to mention anglo-masculinity? Not entirely, but neither would be quite the same ever again. Good.
The Philosophy Football Lionesses World Cup 2023 T-shirt is available here