LONDON — On a small side street just off a bustling road in central London, I walked past a flower stand this morning.
“Did you see the England women’s team last night?” asks one bloke to another. Brief interjections regarding the success of England’s Lionesses have been frequent across this nation I call home over the past few weeks during the World Cup in Canada.
It’s inspiring. It’s uplifting. And, most of all, it reflects the power soccer has on society on these shores.
On Thursday morning people across England were waking up to learn that head coach Mark Sampson and his side were devastatingly knocked out of the World Cup by reigning champions Japan in the cruelest of fashions. Laura Bassett’s last-gasp own goal handed the Japanese victory as English soccer now has another heartbreaking moment to add to a long list of “what might have been?” World Cup campaigns.
[ MORE: Future is bright for Lionesses ]
However this felt different. There was a positive vibe despite the tears on the pitch at the end of the game, which reminded most England fans of Paul Gascoigne sobbing uncontrollably at Italia ’90. England’s women had never won a knockout game at a World Cup finals before this summer but they pushed the defending champs all the way in the final four and were arguably the better team for vast swathes of the match. Only a cruel slice of luck denied them a spot in the World Cup final against the USA.
National newspapers held the printers until 2 a.m. local time on Thursday so they could splash England’s exploits all over the morning editions. The England women’s team was mentioned in parliament by Prime Minister David Cameron, plus a good luck message came from Prince William as well-wishers sprung up on TV and across social media to throw their support behind just the third English team in history to reach the semifinals of a World Cup.
Despite going out of the World Cup at the semifinal stage — just like the men’s side last did in 1990 in a similarly agonizing fashion following a penalty shootout defeat to Germany — what the 23 women on the English national team have achieved in Canada this summer cannot be underestimated.
Sure, it will take some time for England to become a nation who truly embraces women’s soccer like the United States, Canada or Germany does, but the achievements of the Lionesses reaching the final four against all the odds will have provided inspiration to millions of young girls across England.
“We came into this tournament as a huge underdog, with the weight of a nation on our back,” Sampson said in an emotional, awe-inspiring interview just after the full time whistle. “There were skeptics and critics who said we weren’t good enough to get this far and I’m just so proud of them [the players]. They’ve really inspired a nation back home and they deserve to go back home now as heroes. They’ve played their hearts out and given their all and we should all be very proud of them.”
Sampson was right. They have inspired a nation. As you can see below, fans gathered in bars in London to cheer on the team with the game in Edmonton kicking off at midnight local time, and despite England’s games kicking off late in the evening throughout the tournament, millions stayed up to watch and the BBC put the semifinal game vs. Japan on its marquee channel, BBC One.
Progress. Pride. Promotion. All three words epitomize what England’s unlikely run to the semifinals has been about.
But, due to many complex and deep-rooted reasons, there are big challenges ahead in the domestic game where most of England’s players ply their trade. The professional women’s league has had several incarnations in England but has never really taken off. In 2011 the FA’s NWL was set up and it now has 18 teams, but average crowds of just 719 for the 2014 season show how far women’s soccer still has to go to totally capture the minds of the English public. Compared those crowd figures to an average attendance of 4,137 for games in the NWSL in the U.S. and you start to understand why England’s successful run to the semifinals is a big deal and it can act as a catalyst for more interest in the women’s game in the nation which proudly calls itself the home of soccer.
[ MORE: Overwhelming support for Bassett ]
Women’s soccer is getting plenty of support from Premier League teams too as Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Sunderland, Everton, Aston Villa and Watford all have teams in the NWL. More giants of England soccer will need to support the women’s game going forward, and momentum from this World Cup success should not be allowed to drift away.
One factor that will hurt women’s soccer in England is that Team GB will not enter an Olympic team for Rio 2016 despite England qualifying through their World Cup performance. Due to disputes between the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish FA’s about linking up to field one team for Great Britain, no team will be entered in 2016. But you can’t help but think success in the Olympics would help grow the women’s game further in the UK as a whole. Putting those politics aside, the Lionesses now have a platform to build from by setting new records in Canada this summer. With the English FA investing millions in the women’s game and attendances of over 45,000 at Wembley Stadium for a friendly vs. Germany in 2014, the signs of progress are clear for all to see.
“I know the team are bitterly disappointed,” said HRH Prince William, who is also the honorary president of the English FA, on Thursday. “But I hope more than that they will be proud of what they have achieved. They’ve inspired thousands of girls and boys around the country and entered history as one of England’s great teams.”
Now, soccer fans in England need to embrace the women’s game like they’ve never done before as young female players of the future will look back at late night’s spent watching the likes of Jill Scott, Steph Houghton and Fara Williams playing in the summer of 2015 as the moment they awoke to the power soccer bestows.
England’s players did more than just reach the semifinal of the World Cup. They inspired a nation.
“I really hope that tomorrow morning at 6 o’clock in the morning before school, thousands of young girls who have never kicked a football before, will pick up a football and say, ‘Mom, I want to be Laura Bassett today,’” added Sampson.
On the evidence of the past few weeks, plenty of young girls will have done just that this morning across England. Sampson and his side can be proud of their achievements. Just like the whole of England is.