Of late, Old Trafford hasn’t lived up to its nickname for the Premier League club it is home to.
But England are dreaming big this summer – and the Theater of Dreams provided the ideal backdrop for the start of Euro 2022 on a night that will be remembered more for the occasion than for the Lionesses’ performance.
A summer like no other for women’s football in England began with the hosts narrowly beating the hard-working Austria side 1-0 in front of a boisterous and enthusiastic crowd at Manchester United’s home of Old Trafford.
The lionesses were far from their free-flowing best, but they got the job done. It was a successful start for Sarina Wiegman’s team who hope to advance to the final at Wembley on 31 July.
Beth Mead’s decisive goal was as striking as the events leading up to kick-off at the first European Women’s Championship to be staged in England since 2005.
With a pyrotechnic display that saw flames erupt from black boxes at the edge of the pitch, Euro 2022 started with a bang before a ball was furiously kicked.
Even the summer rains and England’s jittery performance couldn’t dampen spirits as EURO 2022 fever took hold in Manchester.
Watch out for London, Southampton, Brighton, Sheffield, Milton Keynes, Rotherham and Leigh coming your way over the next few days.
“England had to get rid of the excitement and emotion of the first game,” former Lionesses midfielder Fara Williams told BBC One.
“The whole country is behind them – it’s a difficult pressure.”
Withdraw for home euros
In what was an enjoyable evening for women’s football in England, the opening game of the tournament was watched by 68,871 spectators, a new record for the European Women’s Championship.
“It was amazing. No more words,” Wiegman said when asked about the atmosphere. “There was a lot of noise.”
Before kick-off, the Lionesses received good luck messages from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, politicians at the Prime Minister’s Questions and England men’s captain Harry Kane.
Three hours before kick-off, the fan park across from Old Trafford was full of big and small fans who had taken the day off from work and school, but also traveled from Austria to support the underdogs.
Euro 2022 flags and clapper were handed out to anyone who wanted them, and fast-paced music filled the air around the myriad souvenir stalls selling half-and-half scarves.
As the action began, chaos ensued as Mead, who was left out of Team GB’s Olympic squad last year, calmed nerves with a delicate chipped finish.
Their celebrations were delayed by a VAR check, but when it was confirmed, families jumped from their seats and hit the air. Withdraw for the home euro.
Moments later, Old Trafford was illuminated by tens of thousands of lights from fans’ mobile phones as Manchester United keeper David de Gea and captain Harry Maguire watched from the directors’ box.
This tournament should have taken place last year but was postponed due to Covid-19. The delay bought organizers more time and promised the “biggest women’s sporting event in European history”.
It would be naïve to think that the next three and a half weeks will be smooth. While pre-tournament ticket sales hit a record 500,000, another 200,000 remain unsold.
Additionally, there have been complaints about the size – or lack of size – the venues.
But just like Wiegman’s team, Euro 2022 is going.
“I’ve never seen football like this”
A home Euros, sell-out crowds and a Lionesses team that many are tipping to go all the way point to an unforgettable summer for women’s football in England.
The lionesses cannot be overlooked, whether on crisp bags, billboards, etc White Cliffs of Dover or Tower Bridge.
As thousands of fans made their way down Sir Matt Busby Way, giant posters featuring the Lionesses were draped over the buildings. “You’ve never seen football like this,” read a poster posted at a nearby hotel.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s shirts were hard to spot on a night like no other at Old Trafford.
Instead, tops bearing the name of Ella Toone, the young Manchester United England striker who grew up in Tyldesley, near Wigan, and played football in her back garden pretending to be Ronaldo, were the number one fashion item.
“That’s how you end – not at the beginning”
The last time England hosted the European Women’s Championship, 17-year-old Karen Carney scored a 91st-minute winner in a 3-2 win over Finland in the opening game.
The game on Wednesday against Austria lacked the late drama of 17 years ago. But in every other respect, English women’s football has made great strides.
Ahead of Euro 2005, England’s press secretary had to call the media to tell them the score so it could appear in the morning papers.
Media from across Europe packed the press box at Old Trafford for the first of 31 games this month.
The Lionesses still have a lot to do on the training ground before their next game on Monday in Brighton against two-time European champions Norway.
“It’s how you end, not how you begin. This is a big moment – enjoy it, celebrate it, your job is done,” former England defender Alex Scott said on BBC One.
It remains to be seen whether this tournament will have a real impact on interest and participation in women’s football.
As opening night draws to a close, the signs are promising.