When England last held the Uefa Women’s Euros back in 2005, the tournament was overshadowed by unreconstructed sexism from the game’s two most senior figures.
“Companies could make use of a sweaty, lovely-looking girl playing on the ground, with the rainy weather. It would sell,” said the Uefa president, Lennart Johansson, shortly before the final. In the same interview, he criticised his Fifa counterpart, Sepp Blatter, for commenting that women should wear “tighter shorts”. Whatever happened to that guy?
This week, the Women’s Euros return to England. Companies have bought into the game not because of the shorts, nor the mud, sweat and tears, but because this tournament will attract record attendances and millions of TV viewers to watch a sport that has made giant strides both on and off the pitch.
There will still be those who dismiss women’s football, measure everything against the men and will make Blatteresque comments on Twitter for “bants”. Comparison, as they say, is the thief of joy. But there is already much to love about these Euros, from ticket prices starting at £10 to thousands of events happening around the country designed to encourage more girls and women to get involved in football.
Ahead of next Wednesday’s opening tie between England and Austria at Old Trafford, here is The New European’s guide to the Euros.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir (Iceland)
“No woman should have to choose between a family and a career,” said Gunnarsdóttir, shortly before giving birth to her first child last November. The midfielder also vowed she would be back to play for Iceland at the Euros.
“I picture myself playing in England and after the game getting my baby in my arms with all the Icelandic fans in the stands,” she told Forbes. “My mind is there, we will see if my body follows”. Not only did Iceland’s star player return to action but also charted her progress back to match fitness with the intention of helping other pregnant footballers do the same.
Ada Hegerberg (Norway)
In 2018, Hegerberg became the first woman to receive the Ballon D’Or, football’s equivalent of winning an Oscar – although the presenter seemingly confused the event with MTV Spring Break, and asked if the striker could ‘twerk’ on stage.
The previous year, Hegerberg had quit playing for her national team, infuriated by what she saw as the Norwegian FA’s inability to take criticism and take women’s football seriously. Five years on, Hegerberg has returned to international football, having overcome two serious injuries and remains at the top of her game. During her self-imposed exile, Norway became the first country to give equal pay to men and women playing for the national team, while one of her former teammates is now president of its Football Federation.
Dr Nadia Nadim (Denmark)
Nadim was born and raised in Herat, Afghanistan. At the age of 10, her father, an Afghan general, was summoned to a meeting with the Taliban and never returned. It took six months to find out he had been executed. She fled the country with her family in 2000 and planned to join relatives in London. Instead, they ended up in a refuge for asylum seekers in Aalborg, Denmark. Next door was a local team, GUG Boldkulb. Nadim watched boys and girls playing football, which inspired her to take up the game.
Nadim has played for clubs in Europe and America, including Manchester City and PSG. She was Denmark’s top scorer in qualifying for the Euros. Aged 34, Nadim recently qualified as a doctor and will specialise in reconstructive surgery when she retires from football.
Alexia Putellas (Spain)
The Barcelona Femení playmaker is probably the best player in the world right now. When she joined the club in 2012, Putellas was studying business administration and management. Ten years later, she’s a global Nike-contracted superstar.
In a recent article for The Players Tribune, Putellas said, “if you think that the level of engagement in women’s football is good now, you are going to look back and laugh in a few years.”
Away from football, Putellas supported the Catalans who were imprisoned in their fight to gain independence from Spain. On the day they were sentenced in 2019, she tweeted ‘The only thing that is clear is that it is NOT the solution. Everyone can say whether it is fair or unfair… but does anyone really think that #LaSentencia the problem is over? SOLUTIONS (policies) NOW, please !!!’’
COACHES TO WATCH
Corinne Diacre (France)
Readers of a certain vintage will remember The Manageress – a Channel 4 drama first broadcast in 1989 about a woman coaching a men’s team. It foretold a future fulfilled by Diacre who, in 2014, became the manager of men’s Ligue 2 side Clermont Foot. Three years later, she became the national coach. Diacre’s five-year reign could be described as ‘so far, so French’, given it has been peppered by fallouts, personality clashes and controversial squad selections. Indeed, Diacre has left both Champions League winner Amandine Henry and France’s all-time top scorer Eugénie Le Sommer out of the Euros and has put her faith in a crop of talented young stars. Nobody knows quite what to expect from the coach or her team.
Kenny Shiels (Northern Ireland)
After 40 years of trying, Northern Ireland has made it to the Euros. Not bad for a squad made up of part-timers (including civil servants, shop workers and students), ranked 32 out of 48 teams in European football. It should have been a crowning moment for Shiels. Then came an extraordinary moment following a 5-0 defeat to England in April. He told the media that “girls and women are more emotional than men” followed by a questionable claim. He believed this explained why women tended to concede two goals within a short space of time. “I probably shouldn’t have told you that,” he added. The team publicly back him and he apologised. But Shiels was right on one point; he definitely shouldn’t have told anyone that.
TEAMS TO WATCH
Given that the Lionesses have home advantage and are coached by Sarina Wiegman – the only woman to be voted ‘best coach in the world’ twice, and won the Euros in 2017 with the Netherlands – you can be forgiven for thinking the hosts would be favourites to win the tournament.
The bookies make Spain the market leader, followed by France, England and the Netherlands at around similar odds. England’s form nosedived after reaching the World Cup semi-final in 2019, prompting the FA to replace Phil Neville with Weigman last year. They haven’t lost since. Wiegman has made Leah Williamson captain and has left her predecessor, the 121-cap legend Steph Houghton, out of the squad amid long-term injuries. The nagging doubt is that England will do what England does best – heroic failure.
On May 2, Uefa announced that it would not only disqualify Russia’s bids to host the men’s Euros in either 2028 or 2032 but also that the Russian women’s team would be kicked out of the Euros to be replaced by Portugal. This isn’t the first time that Portugal has been the last team to qualify. The Selecção das Quinas got through to the 2017 finals following a playoff. It is, however, the first time Uefa has excluded a team from a tournament since 1992. Back then, a brilliant Yugoslav men’s squad had ceased to exist after the country had been broken up in April of that year. The Yugoslavs were replaced by Euro 92 winners Denmark, but it would be a seismic upset should Portugal’s women do the same.
A documentary team from Warner Bros will be following the German squad around England. Filming of this year-long project culminates at the Euros, but it’s unlikely that the producers will get a Hollywood ending.
Germany used to own this tournament, winning it eight times, including six consecutive triumphs between 1995 and 2013, but have become also-rans. Part of this can be explained by other countries investing more in the women’s game, whereas it stood still in Germany, along with the cyclical nature of international football. The German FA has recently announced every player will receive €60,000 should they win the tournament, but the task has been harder with influential midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán missing through injury, along with Germany being pitted against Spain, Denmark and Finland in a candidate for the ‘Group of Death’ – because the unofficial rules of football state that every tournament must have a Group of Death.
AND THE KITS TO WATCH
England’s kit has been made with 100% recycled polyester, features sweat maps to maximise performance and carries the inscription ‘send her victorious’. A special mention must go to the Netherlands’ away kit – a white shirt with blue and red horizontal and vertical blocks. It is a homage to the De Stijl (Style) abstract art movement that began in 1917 – one of its founders was Piet Mondrian. Will one of the commentators also mention that De Stijl is the title of The White Stripes’ second album? The football world awaits…