When the first Euro 2022 match kicks off on Wednesday at Old Trafford as England take on Austria, the country will be witnessing a very different tournament to the one hosted seventeen years ago.
In 2005, the Football Association was preparing for the ninth edition of the women’s Euros, which was a significant opportunity for the growth of the game. With England acting as sole hosts for a major women's football event for the first time, there was a lot of pressure to ensure the tournament would make a positive impact on the general population. There were only five venues: Bloomfield Road in Blackpool, the City of Manchester Stadium, Halliwell Jones in Warrington, Deepdale in Preston, and Ewood Park in Blackburn, which hosted the final.
At the time, England were not the powerhouse threat they are now. The hope was that they would simply make it out of their group, a feat they did not accomplish after only picking up three points in the group stages.
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Those three points were won in their opener, a 3-2 thriller against Finland. The 17-year-old Karen Carney secured the triumph in the 92nd minute with a chip over Satu Kunnas. Losses against Denmark and Sweden would follow, but with 29,092 in attendance at the opener, it was a record for an England women's match at the time, and it helped set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
"Everything was built around that first game and the excitement it generated," said Bev Ward, the FA executive that was in charge of the 2005 Euros marketing and communications plans.
"I remember Rachel Unitt, Rachel Yankey and Kelly Smith – leading players – saying it was the very first time they'd seen women and girls wearing replica shirts with their names on the back.
"It gave them such an uplift. They could see new possibilities. It was a really inspiring watershed moment. That tournament represented a big step change for the women's game in England."
Yankey had similar memories of the day, telling Sky Sports: "I remember there was a lot of media coverage and support before it in terms of kit launches and billboard campaigns and really thinking 'Wow, women's football is being taken seriously'.
"On the coach, driving to games, we would pass people in pubs and the only way I can look at it in similar terms is when I've gone to a men's game, you drive past the pub and there are loads of people cheering, singing and feeling merry. You had to pinch yourself. Seeing people with my name on the back of the shirt, it was just weird and I couldn't get my head around it. But it was brilliant."
At the time, Yankey, her team-mates, and players from other countries were seen as pioneers for the growth of the women's game. They were players that defied odds and were part of a collective effort to right the wrongs of the 1921 women's football outlaw: the FA's fifty-year-old ban that suppressed the women's game by not allowing football to be played on men's grounds - the FA said at the time that the sport was "quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged".
But as the country gears up to host this year's tournament, the landscape of women's football has completely changed.
There have been multiple turning points. In 2012, 80,000 were in attendance at Wembley to watch the women's final at the Olympic Games. In 2019, 11.7 million watched the broadcast of England taking on the United States.
The Women's Super League, which celebrated a decade last year, went fully professional in 2018, and now has a multi-million-pound broadcast deal allowing it to reach an array of audiences. This TV contract marks the first time women's football in the UK has had broadcast rights sold domestically.
Not to say that there isn't more to do. There is still a lot of investment that needs to go into women's football, but this tournament should really be the time where, collectively, we shift our focus beyond the growth of women's football.
The 2022 Euros has all the ingredients for a tournament for the ages. There are multiple storylines ready to be written: Can England win on home soil? Will the Netherlands defend their title? Are Spain able to match their domestic success and win their first-ever international trophy? Have Germany got what it takes to win a record-extending 9th title?
The best tactics will be on display from some of the most intelligent and meticulous managers football has to offer. Not to mention the most prominent stars are ready to show off their talents and make the tournament their own personal stage.
It's time to leave behind the narrative that women's football is solely on display for it to grow. There is room to acknowledge how far we've come, but it is way past the time for that to be the sole focus of this tournament – or any upcoming major women's footballing event. It's not only repetitive and tedious but slightly condescending.
Thanks to some elite athletes, we're about to have a summer full of incredibly enjoyable football. Let's solely focus on what they are about to offer on the pitch, just for once.
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