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England women’s football team unites fans as once-ignored squad eyes nation’s first World Cup title since 1966

It’s easy to understand why Gail Newsham can’t stop grinning as she prepares for England’s football team to play in the final of the Women’s World Cup.

Newsham, 70, grew up at a time when women in England were banned from the sport and helped lead a resurgence in the game once those restrictions were lifted. Now she’s getting ready to watch Sunday’s game against Spain on TV and hoping to see her team bring home the world championship.

“I’ll be wearing my shirt, I’ll be having a sausage roll and a glass of bubbles,” Newsham said, already sporting her blue England jersey. “That’s what I’ve done every match, so I’m going to do it again on Sunday and just, you know, cheer the girls on.”

She won’t be alone.

When the Lionesses take to the field, they will be backed by hordes of girls rooting for their heroes, mothers and grandmothers celebrating the progress that has been made since they were denied a chance to play the game. They and rabid male and female fans from all backgrounds hope this football-mad nation can finally win a World Cup after 57 years of frustration. England’s only World Cup title came in 1966 when the men won.

If last year’s European Women’s Championship final is any indication, much of the nation will be watching. More than 23 million people, or about 42% of the population, tuned in to see England beat Germany that day. Prince William will be watching the final, too. He posted a video on social media apologizing for his inability to attend, and wishing the team well. His daughter, Princess Charlotte, 8, sat beside him with a ball on her lap and chimed in “Good Luck Lionesses!″

Once again this summer, the success of 23 young English women and their Dutch coach has been a bit of good news in a nation struggling under the weight of crippling inflation, a health service in crisis and seemingly endless political squabbling.

Newspaper front pages were filled with pictures of England players Lauren Hemp and Alessia Russo after they helped power the team to a 3-1 victory over Australia in Wednesday’s semifinal.

“I feel like the Lionesses give us hope — to all of us, boys and girls, women and men,” said Huda Jawad, a feminist and member of a fan group known as the Three Hijabis for their traditional Muslim headscarves. The team provides “something to look forward to and to be proud of and to show that actually football, like society, can be joyous, it can be equal, it can be hopeful, that we can have community and friendship and solidarity”.

That hasn’t always been the story of English football.

In a nation that sees itself as the birthplace of the world’s most popular sport, people expect to win. But the men’s national team has disappointed fans at every major tournament following 1966.

That frustration boiled over in 2021 when England’s men lost to Italy in the final of the European Championship at Wembley Stadium in London. Vandalism and clashes with police after the game led to dozens of arrests, and three Black players were bombarded with racist abuse after missing their shots in the penalty shootout that ended the contest.

But in 2022, the women won their own Euros, wowing spectators with pinpoint passing and flashy goals that attracted record crowds, burgeoning TV ratings and adoring coverage.

After a second year of success characterized by smiles and hugs and more booming goals, the team is described as almost a model sisterhood. Jawad, whose group campaigns against discrimination in football, sees the team as an antidote to the stereotype of rowdy English football hooligans, though more needs to be done to increase diversity in a largely white squad.

“The Lionesses give us an opportunity to rewrite that story and say that actually the England team reflects a younger and more hopeful and more international kind of global outlook that wants to embrace diversity, equality and really wants to give people a sense of values …” Jawad said. “It sets the cultural tone for our country in a way that our politics doesn’t, unfortunately.”

England‘s Chloe Kelly celebrates scoring England’s second goal against Germany in the Women’s Euro 2022 final.

England‘s Chloe Kelly celebrates scoring England’s second goal against Germany in the Women’s Euro 2022 final. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

But winning the Women’s World Cup would take things to a new level. Some are already demanding a public holiday if the Lionesses win.

Little girls — and quite a few big girls — are proudly wearing their England shirts.

Pubs and specially erected fan zones around the country are expected to be overflowing on Sunday morning, despite the 11 a.m. local start time required by a nighttime game in Australia.

At St. Mary’s Sunbury-on-Thames, west of London, Vicar Andrew Downes decided to shorten his Sunday service so the congregation could watch a livestream of the match in the parish hall.

Cold bubbly and hot bacon rolls will be served — not exactly bread and wine, but perhaps more appropriate for the fans.

“We will be praying like mad that the referee is a lover of the Lionesses,’’ Father Andrew said. “I mean, Jesus saves. Let’s just hope our goalie saves and we come home with the cup!’’

That would provide an emphatic moment of redemption for women who lived through the long and sometimes controversial history of women’s football in England.

Newsham helped tell that story when she wrote a book about Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club, which flourished during and for a few years after World War I, when women filled the sporting gap left after top men’s players went off to the trenches. Women’s teams, many organized at munitions plants, attracted large crowds and raised money for charity. One match in 1920 attracted 53,000 spectators.

But that popularity triggered a backlash from the men who ran the English Football Association. In 1921, the FA banned women’s teams from using its facilities, saying “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.

The ban remained in place for the next 50 years.

Second from left, Lily Parr (1905 - 1978), team captain and forward for the Preston Ladies Football Club, explains tactics on a table top football pitch to her team players for an upcoming match during a training session on May 27, 1939 at the playing fields in Preston, Lancashire, England.

Second from left, Lily Parr (1905 – 1978), team captain and forward for the Preston Ladies Football Club, explains tactics on a table top football pitch to her team players for an upcoming match during a training session on May 27, 1939 at the playing fields in Preston, Lancashire, England. | Photo Credit: GETTY IMAGES

That didn’t stop Newsham from playing street football with the boys in her hometown of Preston. And after the ban was lifted, she spent two decades playing for Preston Rangers on substandard pitches, often without changing rooms or even proper toilets.

The FA took over responsibility for the women’s game in 1993, beginning the slow process of improving funding and facilities. Football writer Carrie Dunn, who has chronicled the success of the team most recently with the book “Reign of the Lionesses: How European Glory Changed Women’s Football in England”, remembers going to England press conferences that were held in cafes because too few reporters were interested in speaking to the manager.

Things accelerated after the 2012 London Olympics, when authorities began to recognize there was a global audience for the women’s game.

“It’s about time,’‘ Dunn said. “So, yes, people might be noticing a change now, but hopefully that change will be something that we see forever from now on.”

Newsham is beyond excited about the prospect of winning the World Cup.

“It’s meant to be,’’ she said. “It’s like a Greek tragedy, but with a happy ending. That’s how I feel. It was a huge injustice in 1921, and it’s taken its time to get back to where we are. So I’m really looking forward to Sunday.”

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