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Euro 2022: How England's new generation made it to the top

Oliver Moody
July 30, 2022

England's women's side has never won a world or European crown. But the current squad, forged in a fiercely competitive league and standing on the shoulders of legendary predecessors, is ready to take the next step.

Fran Kirby celebrates a goal with her England teammates
On the brink of glory: It's been a long road but England's women could make historyImage: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP

After failing to reach the final at their last five major tournaments, England once again have a trophy to play for. 

386 days after the country's men lost a European final at Wembley, England's women will step out onto the same pitch and attempt to go one better against Germany. The country has never won a continental title, but the current generation are hungry to change that, and they have the ability to do so.

So, how did England's women make it back to the top of European football?

For veteran midfielder Jill Scott, the quality of England's Women's Super League (WSL) is a decisive factor.

"I think we have the best league in the world," she told DW at a press conference. "In the past, you'd play club football but then the jump to international level was so big ... [Now] when we go away with England we're already at that level."

Women's Super League

The WSL was established in 2010 but received a huge boost in 2019 when it signed a three-year sponsorship deal with British bank Barclays, reportedly worth in excess of £10 million (€12m, $12.1m). At the time, the English Football Association (FA), which operates the league, described the deal as "the biggest ever investment in UK women's sport by a brand."

In March 2021, a new record-breaking broadcast rights deal with Sky Sports and the BBC secured an additional £8 million per season, and marked the first time that the women's TV rights had been sold separately from the men's.

The boost in financial power has seen England become a choice destination for global stars, with the launch of women's sides by some of the country's top men's clubs, including Manchester City and Manchester United, further enhancing the profile of the competition.

FA Women's Super League | Manchester United Women v Arsenal Women | Vivianne Miedema
The financial power of the WSL has seen an increase in the professionalization and quality of women's football in EnglandImage: Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images

Not every team is packed with international talent, but at least the top of the league, Scott's comments certainly ring true. With most members of the national team playing their club football in England, they must prove themselves against some of the best players in the world on a regular basis.

Take the last WSL clash between the league's top two teams from last season as an example.

England captain Leah Williamson, playing for Arsenal, had to hold off a Chelsea team featuring Australia's record goalscorer Sam Kerr, Denmark star Pernille Harder and Norway forward Guro Reiten. At the other end, Williamson's centre-back partner for the national team, Millie Bright, had a task every bit as difficult: keeping out an attack of Netherlands ace Vivianne Miedema, Swedenstriker Stina Blackstenius and Australia's Caitlin Foord.

'I couldn't be part-time, never mind full-time'

Having this level of competition on a weekly basis has helped England's players push on to the next level. But the team is also treading a path that was cleared for them by previous generations, who received far less adulation than the current squad enjoys. 

"Without the commitment and dedication of those players before, we wouldn't be able to carry that on now," Scott told DW earlier this year.

At 35, Scott is the elder stateswoman of the squad, and she recalls how much has changed even in the span of her own career.

"Back in the day we had to do a lot of sessions on our own," she recalled. "We had to go to the park, take our own cones and a football, and probably dodge a few dogs that were walking through the park." 

That state of affairs remains common today in women's football. Even at this tournament, the Belgium side that shocked everyone by reaching the quarterfinals was comprised mostly of players who are not yet fully professional. In England, that situation has changed dramatically in the last decade. 

"When I started out, I wasn't in a position to be part-time, never mind full-time," said Scott. "So to have seen the journey that has gone on, and now seeing 17 and 18-year-olds signing full-time contracts, it's very pleasing."

England's Jill Scott smiles at a press conference
Grateful: England veteran Jill Scott remembers harder times for women's footballImage: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Sacrifices of previous generations

Scott made her international debut in 2006, coming on as a substitute to replace legendary forward Kelly Smith.

As a child, Smith was the top scorer of her local boys' team, until opposition parents objected to the presence of a girl on the pitch, and she was forced to leave the club. Her long-time international team mate Fara Williams, still England's most-capped player, was homeless throughout the early years of her career. 

Now England's top talents, such as midfielder Georgia Stanway, are taking advantage of the opportunities created by the perseverance of players like Smith and Williams.

"The fact that we can play our sport, we can live out our dream, we can play football every single day, and see that as a job, I think that's massive," Stanway said ahead of the final.

'It's just football'

And while there is still a huge financial disparity in comparison to men's football – the Premier League's next broadcast deal for the period 2022-25 is set to surpass £10 billion (€12bn, $12.1bn), according to The Times – the situation has changed so much that Stanway feels bullish not only about the years to come, but about the present day.

"We need to stop talking about how big women's football is getting, and talk about how big it is," she said at a press conference. "It’s not necessarily male players' names on the back [of shirts] anymore; it's female players. And I think that's the step that we're taking, that it's not just women's football and men's football, it's just football."

This is the third time England's women have reached a European final; they lost to Sweden in 1984 and Germanyin 2009. Having bested one of those sides in the semifinals, England must now vanquish the other.

Victory on Sunday night at Wembley would mean a great deal for the future of women's football in England, but just as importantly, it would be the ultimate vindication of the sacrifices made by previous generations.

Edited by Matt Ford.