Sarina Wiegman – in her infinite wisdom – said last night, “We changed society.” Not 24 hours later, that change was already evident, as thousands flooded to Trafalgar Square to celebrate the Lionesses’ Euro 2022 success.
For this was not the bedlam usually associated with English football fans. There was no booze in sight and no rioting; nobody scaled the fourth plinth or attempted a swallow-dive-turned-belly-flop into the fountain. There was no discernible police presence nor any remote need for one. Most notably, this wasn’t a sea of adult men.
Instead, there gathered a crowd this morning that seemed more or less representative of England itself. There was a disproportionate amount of children, I suppose, but people of all ages and creeds descended to serenade a team who captured the imagination of a nation.
When so immersed in men’s football in this country, it’s easy to forget how macho the fandom is. It’s easy to forget that it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no doctrine that dictates testosterone-driven hooliganism is the only, let alone the correct, way to enjoy England’s most popular sport. You can be voracious and wholehearted in your support without descending to barbaric tribalism. Here stood thousands of English fans as a perfect example.
After the behaviour that marred last year’s Euros final, the events of the last 24 hours become all the more admirable. Not least, you feel, because the societal change Wiegman foretold was destined to transpire, irrespective of last night’s result. A home tournament with record crowds and TV audiences had already happened, even if Germany won. A likeable, authentic England team had already become household names and role models, even if Germany won.
Victory no doubt emphasises the societal impact this Euros and this group of England footballers will have, but it had been earned long before Chloe Kelly poked home the winner in extra time, and it was earned not through results, but through attitude as well as ability.
Because, throughout this tournament, the importance of football has been properly contextualised. On one hand, in this sport we love, there exists a vessel perhaps unique in its capacity for social change in this country; on the other hand, there exists a trivial game entirely inconsequential to most people’s lives. Even at the height of competition this summer, these facts were understood.
Too often in the men’s game the inverse is true: football becomes life or death and its broader potential is hamstrung until it cannot negatively impact profits. Occasionally, moments of authentic goodness shine through: take, as direct responses to last year’s Euros, Spurs fans applauding Bukayo Saka when he first appeared in front of them after missing in the shoot-out, or the reception for Christian Eriksen as he made his miraculous return to elite football. But these moments just seem rarer and rarer as the sport becomes ever more streamlined and commercial.
Individual characters and a sense of humour made the Lionesses infectious. They were on display and free to act themselves. In the men’s game, it seems the disconnect between the players and the fans has never been wider: in players we now have PR machines, drilled with inoffensive banalities since their teens and taught to regurgitate them on social media and in interviews; in fans we now have men, whipped into a frenzy, ready to say and do things in the context of football that would be wholly unacceptable in any other setting.
Euro 2022 shortened that divide. Both in the team and its support, it has restored a human element to football. Normal people playing football and normal people celebrating it.
As the broadcast last night and the celebration at Trafalgar Square today showed, in the women’s game, that’s not going anywhere. Lucy Bronze, the Barcelona-bound right back, assured fans England would be back and looking to replicate their Euros success on the World Cup stage next year. Gabby Logan, meanwhile, in her closing remarks for BBC, said, “Think it’s all over? It’s only just begun.”
Whether or not the men’s game will learn anything, with the Premier League getting back underway on Friday, remains to be seen. I hope so, but I doubt it.