Women’s World Cup Final Reminds England of Men’s Team’s Painful History

by Pelican Press
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In London, theatergoers have flocked to “Dear England,” a hit play that chronicles the drama and anguish of the men’s national soccer team in its long quest for another World Cup title, now at 57 years and counting. In Sydney on Sunday, the England women’s team might finally get the job done.

England will face off against Spain in the Women’s World Cup final, the first for either team. While they are closely matched, England’s impressive march through the tournament has spurred hopes that “football’s coming home,” in the ever-optimistic words of “The Three Lions,” the unofficial anthem of the men’s team.

That the Lionesses, not the Lions, might bring it home is a twist that has beguiled and bemused people in a country where the painful history of the men’s team — a litany of blown chances, unfulfilled promise and knockout losses (particularly to Germany and particularly after penalties) — is deeply engraved in the national psyche.

“It’s hard to deny that this is really a big moment for the women’s game here,” said John Williams, a sports sociologist at the University of Leicester in England. “But it doesn’t take the monkey off the men’s backs. If anything, it makes them look even less formidable and more culpable, if women do the job.”

In a country that claims to be the spiritual home of the game, winning is winning — and men and women, young and old, are rooting for the Lionesses. “As long as it’s England, I don’t care who’s bringing football home,” said Brad Jones, 25, a consultant from Bristol who was riding the underground in London on Friday.

Yet the vexed history of the men’s team, in a country that also views soccer as a vital expression of male camaraderie, has prompted criticism that the women are not receiving the same treatment that their brethren would.

The government has ruled out declaring a bank holiday — British parlance for a national day off — if England wins. Critics said that officials would do that without thinking if the men’s team ever claimed another World Cup. Neither Prime Minister Rishi Sunak nor Prince William, who is the president of the Football Association, plans to travel to Australia to watch the game.

Queen Elizabeth II attended the World Cup final in 1966, the last and only time England won (prevailing against West Germany, 4-2, after extra time, on home turf). She presented the trophy to the England captain, Bobby Moore. Spain plans to send Queen Letizia and her 16-year-old daughter, the Infanta Sofía, to the final in Sydney.

“When the Spanish team look up at the stands on Sunday morning, they will see their queen,” the columnist A.N. Wilson wrote scoldingly in The Daily Mail, a British tabloid. “When our brave Lionesses strain their eyes to see a British grandee,” he noted, “they will be forgiven for not recognizing anyone at all.”

Even pubs may not be able to serve pints before kickoff, which is at 11 a.m. in Britain, because of restrictions on serving alcohol on Sunday mornings. The government rejected a theatrical call by the opposition Liberal Democrats to recall Parliament to pass legislation relaxing the rules. But a senior minister, Michael Gove, wrote to local councils to urge them to allow pubs to open an hour earlier than normal.

Fans, Mr. Gove said, should be able to “come together and enjoy a drink before kickoff for this special occasion,” adding, “the whole nation is ready to get behind the Lionesses this Sunday in what is England’s biggest game since 1966.”

Strictly speaking, Mr. Gove has a point regarding the game’s significance. But the reality is more nuanced. The women already won the European title last year, which brought the first major soccer cup back to England since 1966.

For the men, it is the losses, not the victories, that have defined the team’s narrative. In December, England was dismissed by France in a World Cup quarterfinal in Qatar. In July 2021, at the European final, it lost to Italy in a penalty shootout that left the crowd of 67,000 at Wembley Stadium in shock and despair.

That heartbreak is captured in “Dear England,” as is another infamous missed penalty kick, by Gareth Southgate, an England player who is now the team’s coach, at a semifinal against Germany in 1996. The lingering shadow of those defeats is part of the lore of English football, which is balanced against the exuberant, diverse, and politically aware squad that Mr. Southgate has since assembled.

England’s male players have forced Britain to confront fraught issues, kneeling before games to protest racial injustice, for example. After three young Black players missed penalty kicks in the 2021 defeat, they were subjected to racist slurs.

The women’s team is less racially diverse than the men’s team, with only two Black players on the current roster. Professor Williams, the sports sociologist, said that representation reflected the development of women’s soccer in England as a suburban, middle-class sport, much as it is in the United States. But unlike the American women’s team — or, for that matter, the England men — the Lionesses have generally stayed out of the political fray.

“None of the team are known for being politically outspoken,” Professor Williams said. “They don’t have the dimension that Megan Rapinoe brought to the U.S.A. team,” he added, referring to the star American winger who campaigns for gay and lesbian rights and has been vilified by some on the political right, much as some male England players have been criticized by right-wing figures in Britain for their political statements.

England’s women are known mostly for their tight cohesion and relentless drive on the field. Their no-nonsense Dutch coach, Sarina Wiegman, is a former player who has already taken her home country’s team to a World Cup final, where it lost to the United States. She has no reluctance in running up the score against weaker opponents.

Still, merely by being women in a sport dominated globally by men, England’s players are part of a longer social story. The country’s Football Association barred women from professional soccer in 1921, in part out of a fear that the women’s game had become too popular during the suspension of men’s games because of World War I.

The 1966 World Cup victory rekindled interest in women’s soccer, but the Football Association took over responsibility for the women’s game again only in the 1990s. Its profile has grown quickly in recent years as Premier League teams, particularly Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, have fielded elite women’s teams.

Another storied club, Manchester United, reportedly wants to consult its female players — four of whom are members of the national team — in deciding whether to reinstate a star forward, Mason Greenwood, after charges of attempted rape and assault against him were dropped in February.

To some sports commentators, that attempt to show gender sensitivity ended up as an ill-timed distraction for players prepping for a World Cup final.

For all the advances in women’s soccer — whether increased television coverage or the improved quality of play — one difference is glaring: Men are paid more than women. Even England’s best players — the likes of the captain, Millie Bright; the striker Alessia Russo; or Lauren James, one of this tournament’s breakout stars — earn a small fraction in comparison with their male counterparts.

Women’s games also tend to draw more families with children than men’s matches do, Professor Williams said, and the atmosphere can seem less tribal, aggressive and alcohol-fueled.

“You’ve got some male fans who are saying, ‘It’s about time. The quality of women’s football is much better,’” he said. “But it’s clear there’s a rump of male supporters who say this is all a big waste of time. They say, ‘Watching football is a how we get away from women.’”

Passing through Victoria Station in London on Friday, Lyndsey Jefford, 45, an elementary-school principal, said, “It’s made me really proud to see how well the women have done, though it still upsets me when people dismiss women’s football by saying the men play a different game.”

Declan Bird, 24, who works in digital marketing, agreed that it did not much matter whether England’s men or women won the World Cup. And he pointed to a useful potential benefit of a women’s victory.

“Hopefully,” he said, “it inspires the men’s team.”

Natasha Frost contributed reporting.

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