LONDON (AP) — In soccer-mad England, considered the home of the world game, women and girls finally have a team full of heroes who look like them.
Around 7,000 singing, dancing and flag-waving fans – many of them mothers and daughters – gathered in central London’s Trafalgar Square on Monday to celebrate England winning the 2022 European Women’s Championship, the first major English football victory team for 56 years.
The tournament, hosted by England and watched by record audiences on television and in stadiums across the country, was the culmination of years of investment in women’s football, which organizers hope will encourage more girls to play the game known here as soccer.
Madison Fullerd-Jones is now on board.
The 9-year-old, from Maidstone, south-east London, got up early and came to the capital with his mother, aunt, two sisters and cousin to celebrate with the Lionesses, as England’s soccer team is known. Wearing an England shirt and waving a flag with the national cross of St George, Maddison said she hoped to one day play for England, just like her favorite player, Georgia Stanway.
“I just want to show how good I am and show that girls can do what boys can do,” she said. “I’m passionate about football.”
England captain Leah Williamson would be proud.
The tournament’s legacy will be “change of the best kind,” Williamson told the crowd.
“The legacy of the tournament was … what we did for young girls and women who can look up and aspire to be us,” she said, still wearing the winner’s medal that was draped around her neck on Sunday evening from Prince William. “I think England hosted an incredible tournament and we changed the game in this country and, hopefully, in the whole of Europe, in the whole world.”
England beat Germany 2-1 on Sunday night in an extra-time match watched by 87,192 fans at Wembley Stadium, a record for any European Championship final, men’s or women’s. The tournament as a whole attracted 574,875 spectators, more than double the previous record of 240,055 set in 2017 in the Netherlands.
Many more were watched on TV, with the final achieving a peak audience of 17.5 million viewers and an average audience share of 66%, according to Ratings UK.
The figures highlight the resurgence of women’s football in England, where the men who ruled the game once banned women from using their facilities for 50 years until the early 1970s.
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After previous generations of female footballers were forced to support themselves by working outside the sport, today’s players can focus on the game full-time following the creation of a fully professional league in 2018-19.
Now supporters of the game are pushing for greater grassroots participation to drive continued success.
The Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England, is campaigning for schools in England to provide equal opportunities for boys and girls to play football as part of the curriculum. A recent study found that 72% of primary schools provide equal education for boys and girls, but this figure has fallen to 44% in secondary schools.
“This generation of ladies had to fight and give up and do everything,” Ian Wright, a former England player, told the BBC. “Everyone is in tears because this is the culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of suffering, a lot of parents, a lot of people doing a lot of work to get them here. … It’s up to the Football Association to take the grassroots lead and get rid of all these barriers.”
The match also generated huge interest in Germany, where many feel that not enough is being done to support female athletes.
“It is a concern of the government as a whole to do more for sports, including women’s football,” government spokesman Wolfgang Büchner said Monday in Berlin.
He praised the German team for being such a positive role model for young people.
“Maybe you could say, especially in the summer with so much depressing news, that the wonderful performance of the German women’s team at this European Championship has gone down well with a lot of people in Germany,” Büchner said.
Supporters of women’s soccer hope that this victory will energize the sport in the way that the USA’s victory in the 1999 World Cup gave the sport a boost in America. That game ended with Brandi Chastain’s knee-sliding, sports bra-revealing celebration after the shootout that sealed the USA’s victory over China in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
England’s Chloe Kelly repeated that scene in the dying minutes of Sunday’s final when she tore off her shirt to celebrate her decisive goal in the final minutes of the victory over Germany.
Kelly joked about his ecstatic celebrations when he addressed the crowd on Monday, saying: “The shirt stays on!”
“I’m proud to wear this badge,” Kelly told the crowd, referring to the England shield on his team’s shirt. “But I’m even more proud to share the field with such an amazing group of players.”
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