England triumph, but Euro 2022 opener in front of record crowd was a win for all women’s football

MANCHESTER, England — Roads around Old Trafford were blocked in the run-up to kick-off and men in hi-vis jackets were charging £20+ for parking in derelict lots that had been converted to pop-up car parks for the night. This usually happens when Manchester United are at home, but the fact that this was for an England women’s game was a clear indication of the sport’s incredible growth and why Euro 2022 is poised to break all records possible.

On the pitch, a goal from Beth Mead in the 16th minute was enough for the Lionesses to win the tournament 1-0 against Austria and secured Sarina Wiegman’s team their status as favorites to win the tournament (Stream the US rerun). It was nervous at times and England should have won by three or four in the end, but the opening night of the 13th UEFA European Women’s Championship was all about what happened off the pitch.

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The last time England hosted the Women’s Euros was in 2005, the tournament was held entirely in North West England, with an average attendance of 7,894 during the competition. At the last edition of the Women’s Euros – 2017 in the Netherlands – the average attendance was again under 8,000 at 7,743. On Wednesday Old Trafford was a virtual sell out crowd with 68,871 fans in the stadium – a new attendance record for the tournament.

There will be even more crowds at Wembley for the final on 31 July as all tickets have already been sold for a game that could see England win the tournament for the first time and become the first England senior team to win a major competition since the men’s World Cup triumph in 1966.

But whether England go all the way or not – and they face stiff competition from Sweden, France, Spain and Germany – the ultimate winner of Euro 2022 will be the women’s game because, as the traffic chaos outside Old Trafford has shown, it is so now an important event whenever the lionesses play.

“The amount of people that came was unbelievable,” said midfielder Georgia Stanway. “The occasion was huge.”

The names of star players like Mead, Stanway, Lucy Bronze, Leah Williamson and Fran Kirby have been etched on the backs of thousands of England shirts worn by young girls in the crowd – and their parents – and they now stand alongside the likes of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford as idols in their own right.

The growth of the Women’s Super League since its inception in 2011 has been rapid and every major Premier League team now takes women’s football as seriously as men’s football. This is why the number of women participating in football has risen sharply in recent years.

According to the Football Association of England, 1.7 million women over the age of 16 played football in 2018 – that figure had risen to 2.63 million in 2021 during the same period.

But despite the development of women’s football, FA chief executive Mark Bullingham earlier this month responded to criticism over the choice of venues for Euro 2022 by saying “very few” clubs raised their hands as potential hosts during the 2019 bid process had.

“We actually had to convince a couple of clubs and cities to come forward,” Bullingham said.

However, United were keen to offer Old Trafford – the largest club stadium in English football – as a venue for the opening game and the large attendance underscored the passion for women’s football that is soaring in the country.

It was a different crowd than the usual Old Trafford, with families and groups of young girls with their football teams crowding the stadium. And while there were a few boos at the start of the Austrian national anthem, it was more playful than spiteful and the mood was hilarious throughout.

Critics will point out that ticket prices are a fraction of those for men’s tournaments – £10 for adults and £5 for under-16s are the cheapest tickets – and that attendances will consequently be large, but concessionary or not, spectators will not attend an event if they are not interested in it. With over 500,000 copies sold for the tournament so far, this indicates great interest from fans across the country.

And it’s not just England. When Barcelona played Wolfsburg in the Champions League in April, 91,648 came to the Camp Nou to record the highest attendance ever for a women’s game in Europe.

But with great interest comes great pressure and England look set to win this tournament and become European champions for the first time.

Ahead of the game against Austria, England had won every game under Wiegman since her appointment last September, scoring 84 goals and conceding just three, but things heat up when you host and everyone thinks you can win.

But England cleared the first hurdle by winning the first game and, for once, Old Trafford witnessed a home team controlling the game and ultimately scoring the result.

Next up in Group A are Norway in Brighton and Northern Ireland in Southampton. More expectation and more packed stadiums but that’s where women’s football is at now and it’s a sign of how important it has become.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/uefa-womens-european-championship/story/4695694/england-triumphbut-euro-2022-opener-in-front-of-record-crowd-was-a-win-for-all-womens-football England triumph, but Euro 2022 opener in front of record crowd was a win for all women’s football

Emma Bowman

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