“Bit mad to see my face up there on Tower Bridge,” wrote the England women’s national team captain, Leah Williamson on her Instagram.
A glorious sight to behold in the London night sky with the number 8 placed at the centre of the England flag with a large message to her left, “You’ve never seen an icon like this.” It sure isn’t the only branding visual of the England captain in her country.
It is hard to miss Williamson’s SRKesque ‘summer game changer’ Pepsi billboards across the nation. The 25-year old with her arms spread wide in swagger, almost as if inviting the whole damn world to come and see what England has in store for us this football summer. A Women’s Euro summer. One that presents a different narrative from the men’s championships in 2021. For one, it comes mere months after the 100th anniversary of the Football Association (FA) banning women’s football in the country.
Seeing this billboard of @leahcwilliamson all over the country is a daily shot of “look how far we’ve come!”
— Leigh Moore (@Leigh_Moore) June 15, 2022
Back in 1920’s, England witnessed a surge in the popularity of women’s football with as many as a record 53,000 having watched a charity match at the Goodison Park for unemployed and disabled ex-service men between Kerr Ladies and St Helens. An attendance record that stood for 92 years. It would however take the football governing body in the country only a year to ban the women from playing in FA affiliated venues. A ban that would last for 51 years.
“Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, Council felt impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged,” the FA’s Consultative Committee’s ruling stated.
“Complaints have also been made as to the conditions under which some of the matches have been arranged and played, and the appropriation of receipts to other than charitable objects. The Council are further of the opinion that an excessive proportion of the receipts are absorbed in expenses and an inadequate percentage devoted to charitable objects. For these reasons the Council requests the Clubs belonging to the Association refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.”
The FA received backing from the political establishment as well as sections of British media at the time. The Hull Daily Mail went as far as praising the governing body for their ruling calling it ‘an excellent thing’ and stating the game ‘not fitted for females’.
100 years later, another statement on the FA’s website reads quite different.
“England will host the UEFA Women’s EURO finals in July 2022.”
“Fans will be able to see some of the world’s best players in action as 31 matches are played at 10 venues across the country during the three and a half weeks of the tournament. Hundreds of thousands of fans are expected to attend the tournament and millions more will watch the globally televised event.”
Sheila Parker, who was named the first official England women’s team captain after the FA ban lift in 1972, couldn’t have seen this day back in her time as a player.
“Nowadays, there’s so much money involved,” she said in a recent interview with Sky Sports.
“And in my days, we had to pay sometimes to play, and money was very hard to come by in those days, but it seems to have turned completely around now.”
Parker also mentioned how it was difficult for her family and friends to follow her and the England team playing in the country.
“They only played very few and far between the games and in various places, there weren’t many around where I lived,” the 75-year old said.
“Not much of the family could get there, but those who could manage to make it, they were thrilled to bits for me.”
Fast forward to today and one would have to give efforts into not coming across something or the related to the England team ahead of the Euros. A situation best described by Sophie Bronze’s Instagram status when she saw a man on a train drinking from a Pepsi bottle that fashioned her sister, Lucy’s face. “Can’t escape you”, she wrote.
Post match interactions and selfies with the fans is an important and beautiful factor of the women’s league games in England. Even though they play in venues with lesser capacity than men, the majority of them form a more personal bond with the fans from these post match moments than their male counterparts can.
Take the pre tournament practice session where girls and women from grassroots clubs were invited at the St George’s Park to get to watch the team train ahead of the Euros. A practice session that ended with the England players clicking pictures, signing autographs and conversing with these grassroots club players, some younger and some older than them.
They can expect an even bigger lot of women and men waiting for them come Wednesday evening. Having scored 12 and conceded one across their three wins on the way to the tournament, England will start the tournament not just as hosts but also favorites.
The Lionesses, as they are referred to in England, will face Austria in the opening match of a home Euro at a sold out Old Trafford, otherwise referred to as the theatre of dreams. There couldn’t have been a finer script for a ban-to-billboards story.
One has to go back to the words around another projection of Leah Williamson and her teammates to fully understand the scope of what the country is about to witness. Nike showcased several of them around England. One, at the White Cliffs of Dover.
“You’ve never seen England like this,” it read.