A A curious sight appeared on the London skyline late Monday evening. Tower Bridge is 43 meters high at its centre, and for a few moments its entire span was adorned with an image of England captain Leah Williamson: decked out in brilliant England white, a ball at her feet. This was not an isolated phenomenon. Around the same time, giant light show lionesses appeared all over the capital: Lucy Bronze on Battersea Power Station, Demi Stokes on the Thames Barrier, Keira Walsh on the facade of the National Gallery.
Two days before England’s biggest sporting event for women, the symbolism was clear enough. For decades, these women—and thousands before them—fought, fought, and suffered for the simple privilege of being seen. Over the next 25 days, as Sarina Wiegman’s team and her 15 rivals serve up a feast of football on prime-time television, they can be difficult to avoid. Now – and with the greatest respect for the Commonwealth Games, Wimbledon and Co. – comes the true jewel of the British summer of sports.
For Williamson and her teammates, the trick is to remember that what feels like a pinnacle is just a start. That tournament took five long years to arrive, that blazing beacon atop a distant hill they could always see but never really touch. For months their diaries were filled with interviews, promotional appointments, team meetings, analysis sessions, all of which boiled down to this one point. Now comes the hard part.
If you’re an occasional or even a relatively new follower of this team, chances are you’ve heard some vague rumors of England’s victory. You’re probably wondering how much of this is real and how much is projection. To clarify that part first, England can definitely win. They have talent to rival the best, attacking combinations that boggle the mind, a coach at Wiegman who has been there and done this, six sold-out home crowds awaiting. They should probably start off as easy favorites. But none of that alone is enough. Just ask the French, an impossibly talented generation of footballers who crashed at their own World Cup three years ago and who now seem to quietly implode before a ball is kicked. Torn by discord and coached by the spirited and divisive Corinne Diacre, it says a lot about France’s squad strength that they can be seen challenging even without the brilliant Amandine Henry and Eugénie Le Sommer, stars of Lyon’s Champions League win.
The same can be said for a Spanish team with nine members of the Barcelona squad, which has started to challenge our way of thinking about the game in recent years.
Led by the shrewd Irene Paredes and one of the youngest sides in the competition, Spain are laced with skill and discipline when it comes to blowing away weaker sides, but lack tournament experience and are placed in the toughest group. Alexia Putellas’ late withdrawal is a blow and puts even more pressure on players like Aitana Bonmatí to blossom creatively in the last third.
Besides these three, the main threats should come from Northern Europe. Germany, the Netherlands and Norway are former winners, Sweden silver medalists at the Olympics, Denmark 2017 runners-up and with many threats beyond the inspirational Pernille Harder. Yes, that’s half the field. It’s not fence sitting; it’s just a measure of how inscrutably open this tournament is. Italy is pretty good too. Iceland could deliver a shock. Don’t rule out the Swiss. Etc.
Many games should be played in front of a full or almost full audience. The choice of stadiums has been the source of some controversy.
The 4,700-seat Academy Stadium and 8,100-seat Leigh Sports Village don’t look great considering the smallest venue at next year’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand will hold 22,000 spectators. The demand is there – tickets to the final will sell out in an hour and overall sales are set to break all previous records – but don’t blame the organizers.
Every major stadium in the country has been asked by the Football Association to apply for the hosting rights. If your club doesn’t host a game, it either didn’t want to or the local authorities failed to play ball.
And yet perhaps the most refreshing aspect of this tournament is how little its success depends on a home win. Even considering Uefa’s recent record at major events, the likelihood of problems is tiny, the specter of empty stadiums already avoided, the quality of football guaranteed, the audience already there.
This in itself is its own devastating victory. For much of its history, women’s football has been forced to stand up for its own right to exist. Time and energy is wasted talking to people who don’t want to listen, fighting people who want it to fail, and arguing for a respect that’s always grudgingly shown.
Well, this argument was won. The misogynists have already lost. And this is the result: a pure football tournament, a pure celebration, a pure space for women to seduce and be seduced, a space created by the toil of the pioneers who came before but not by history or tradition were dependent.
The church has converted. The churches stand. The doors are about to swing open. Time for these women to clear their throats and belt out some anthems.