Euro 2022: A night like no other for women’s football in England
Lately, Old Trafford has failed to live up to its nickname for the Premier League club whose home it is.
But England are dreaming big this summer – and the Theatre of Dreams was the ideal setting for the launch of Euro 2022 on a night that will be remembered for the occasion rather than the Lionesses’ performance.
A summer like no other for women’s football in England began with a narrow 1-0 victory for the hosts over hard-working Austria, in front of a boisterous and enthusiastic crowd at Manchester United’s Old Trafford home.
The Lionesses were far from their free-flowing best but they got the job done. It was a winning start for Sarina Wiegman’s team, who hope to go all the way to the final at Wembley on 31 July.
Beth Mead’s decisive goal was as eye-catching as events before kick-off to mark the start of the first European Women’s Championship to be staged in England since 2005.
Featuring a pyrotechnics display that included flames leaping from black boxes placed around the side of the pitch, Euro 2022 started with a bang before a ball was kicked in anger.
Even the summer rain and England’s nervous performance failed to dampen spirits as Euro 2022 fever arrived in Manchester.
Watch out London, Southampton, Brighton, Sheffield, Milton Keynes, Rotherham and Leigh, it’s coming your way in the next few days.
“England needed to get the excitement and emotion of the first game out of the way,” said former Lionesses midfielder Fara Williams on BBC One.
“The whole country is behind them – that’s a difficult pressure.”
Lift-off for home Euros
On an uplifting night for women’s football in England, the opening game of the tournament was watched by a crowd of 68,871, a new record for the European Women’s Championship.
“It was incredible. No more words,” Wiegman said when asked about the atmosphere. “There was lots of noise.”
Before kick-off, the Lionesses received good luck messages from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, politicians at Prime Minister’s Questions and England men’s captain Harry Kane.
Three hours before kick-off, the fan park opposite Old Trafford was full of supporters young and old who had taken the day off work and school, while there were also a healthy number of fans who had travelled from Austria to support the outsiders.
Euro 2022 flags and clappers were handed out to anyone who wanted them and high-tempo music filled the air around the countless souvenir stalls selling half-and-half scarves.
Once the action started, bedlam ensued when Mead, left out of the Team GB Olympic squad last year, settled nerves with a delicate chipped finish.
Her celebrations were delayed by a VAR check but once it was confirmed, families jumped from their seats and punched the air. Lift-off for the home Euros.
Moments later Old Trafford was lit up by tens of thousands of lights from mobile phones of fans as Manchester United keeper David de Gea and captain Harry Maguire looked on from the directors’ box.
This tournament should have been held last year but was postponed because of Covid-19. The delay bought organisers more time and they promised the “biggest women’s sporting event in European history”.
It would be naive to believe the next three-and-a-half-weeks will be plain sailing. While pre-tournament ticket sales numbered a record 500,000, another 200,000 remain unsold.
In addition, there have been complaints about the size – or lack of size – of the venues.
But just like Wiegman’s team, Euro 2022 is up and running.
‘Never seen football like this’
A home Euros, sell-out crowds and a Lionesses team tipped by many to go all the way point to an unforgettable summer for women’s football in England.
As thousands of fans headed for Sir Matt Busby Way, giant posters featuring the Lionesses were draped over buildings. “You’ve Never Seen Football Like This,” read one which hung from a nearby hotel.
On a night like no other at Old Trafford, Cristiano Ronaldo shirts were hard to spot.
Instead the number one fashion item were tops showing the name of Ella Toone, Manchester United’s young England forward, who grew up in Tyldesley, near Wigan, playing football in her back garden pretending to be Ronaldo.
‘It’s how you finish – not start’
The last time England staged the European Women’s Championship, 17-year-old Karen Carney scored a 91st-minute winner in a 3-2 win over Finland in their opening game.
Wednesday’s match against Austria lacked the late drama of 17 years ago. But in every other sense, the English women’s game has come on leaps and bounds.
Prior to Euro 2005, England’s press officer had to phone media outlets to tell them the score of games so it appeared in the morning newspapers.
At Old Trafford, media from all over Europe squeezed into the press box for the the first of 31 matches this month.
The Lionesses have work to do on the training pitch before their next game against two-time European champions Norway at Brighton on Monday.
“It’s about how you finish, not how you start. This is a huge moment – enjoy it, celebrate it, job done,” former England defender Alex Scott said on BBC One.
It remains to be seen whether this tournament will really have a lasting impact on interest and participation in the women’s game.
If the opening night is anything to go by, the signs are promising.