By Lindsay McCombie at Wembley Stadium.
Walking along Wembley Way on Sunday afternoon with thousands of people arriving for the Euro 2022 final was a ‘pinch me’ moment.
As in, ‘I can’t believe I’m here to see England play in a final’ – and ‘I can’t believe over 87,000 people are here to see it too!’
As part of the ‘lost generation’ of women who were never encouraged to play football growing up, I’ve always felt like an onlooker… I can watch, but can’t play.
I grew up in an all male, football loving family and weekends were spent watching my brother and my dad playing for their respective teams. But I never played – it never even crossed my mind.
It wasn’t until I left university and started working at Charlton Athletic that I saw football as a sport for women – to play.
The Charlton team at that time included names like Eni Aluko, Fara Williams and Casey Stoney, who all went on to have highly successful careers in the women’s game – but many of their teammates were not so fortunate. At that time they all had day jobs and trained a couple of evenings a week. For many other players, day-to-day life would have gotten in their way.
I have followed the women’s game ever since then and in the build up to the European Championship final I had many conversations with others with similar stories – whether it was the ‘99ers, Kelly Smith’s iconic goal celebration where she took off her boot and kissed it at the 2007 World Cup, or witnessing Team GB at Wembley at London 2012.
Everyone has a story about how they found the women’s game, because it’s not overtly there like the men’s. You have to find it.
Until Euro 2022.
This tournament has had it all – exceptional quality on and off the pitch with record crowds, record score lines, Mexican waves – and of course, an England vs Germany final.
Before Sunday’s showpiece, you would have been forgiven for thinking the competition would be remembered for Alessio Russo’s back heel…
Hearing a sellout Wembley crowd shout ‘Toooooooooooooone’ when she was subbed on was spine tingling (you don’t usually get this in women’s football) and then when she subsequently scored. Wow. What a finish. Is this really happening?
And then there’s Chloe Kelly, who credits much of her success to playing with her brothers in the cages on her estate when she was a kid. She, for me, epitomises what this generation of Lionesses can achieve – beyond lifting their first major trophy.
Because now I’m a mum, who encouraged her daughter to play the game I wasn’t allowed to, and she loves it. But only a few months ago, that eight-year-old suddenly stopped playing.
She overheard a group of boys her age saying ‘girls shouldn’t be allowed to play football.’
Surely this can’t continue to happen now…
Much was made of Ian Wright’s comments on TV about girls playing football in PE at school, which really resonated with me and many people like me. Both the England captain Leah Williamson and head coach Sarina Wiegman have spoken about their performance causing societal change for women in this country.
How fitting that Kelly’s winning goal celebration in extra time was a nod to Brandi Chastain who secured the 1999 World Cup for the USA. Soccer is seen as a women’s game stateside.
Now everyone knows about women’s football, where do we go from here?
Yes it came home, but to the lost generation, it means so much more…