In 2017, the Dutch public fell in love with football, those who previously had no inclination towards women’s football suddenly found themselves besotted with their national team. The time was just right, half the team were professionals peddling their game outside of their home league as the men’s national team was doing little to inspire the fans. The football played by the hosts ranged from just enough to sumptuous, but they were rarely out of sight in any match, the jeopardy keeping those watching engrossed, unable to look away from the spectacle.
It was the type of tournament every nation wanted, from winning the title to the excitement that rippled through the country, creating countless new fans. It was a tournament that threw the gauntlet down at the feet of whoever was hosting afterwards. It was to be England in 2021 (postponed to 2022) who had the oversized clogs to fill and, not just emulate their Dutch predecessors, but deliver an even bigger tournament.
Maybe trying a touch too hard to ape the Dutch’s success from 2017, when England needed a new manager after Phil Neville’s early departure, the FA looked to the woman who had lead the Oranje Leeuwinnen to glory at home, Sarina Wiegman, to lead their team. The jokes writing themselves when England unveiled a radioactive orange away kit for the Euros, the hosts seemingly doing all they could to replicate the conditions that benefited the Netherlands five years previously.
The problem that everyone was forgetting, of course, was that the Dutch feel in love with women’s football in only the way the Dutch could: no matter what success their team might have had, fans from any other country wouldn’t be lining streets and galloping from left to right. Other audiences wouldn’t react to a tournament like that, even if they completely welcomed the women’s game, it would never look like that; the bar set at an unattainable height.
So, when the teams walked out at a near-full Old Trafford, with many hoping for a repeat of the opener in Utrecht, of a captive and warm audience ready to be swept up in a tidal wave of women’s football, there was something lacking. An intangible missing from the environment.
There was indeed low buzz around the Theatre of Dreams as the match got underway, the crowd that healthy mix of women’s football fans, England fans, families, a smattering of Austrians and those curious few who’d showed up for a cheap night out. The sky was grey and the rain that had threatened to tumble in the build up finally began to fall over the pitch, adding to the muted atmosphere.
The noise built whenever England progressed the ball forward but there was an unmeasurable missing throughout, in a match that should have been a celebration, a cornucopia of joy at the start of a postponed tournament, there was just something lacking that bothered me all match. The crowd cheered when England scored, earnestly too after a consultation with VAR, but as I sat behind a row of 10 year old girls who were letting out a frightful noise blowing their horns at random intervals, I looked for the celebration and could find none.
It wasn’t until hours later, in a sweaty bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter that I found that had been missing. The bar populated with women’s football fans, most of which (but not all) who identified as queer - the cover charge for the night going to Mermaids, a charity designed to help trans and gender queer youth. England shirts, both those from recent years, customised with Williamson, Kirby and Mead as well as the older Umbro favourites donned for the occasion. The playlist ranging from the football themed World In Motion and Whole Again to the cringe-worthy All the Things She Said that was belted out by everyone on the dancefloor.
It felt like women’s football. It was a celebration shared by women’s football fans who had been there for the long haul, those who play for their local teams and those involved in the professional game in one way or another. There was no need to explain who the players were; the teams they’d cut their teeth at or who they were dating, not to these fans, they were as well versed as they were well travelled.
When Atomic Kitten’s Whole Again was played by the DJ, the words having been corrupted to, Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on: Football’s coming home again! by fans of the England men’s team last summer, were changed once again. No longer was it Southgate but Sarina who was purportedly turning the bar full of women’s football fans on, it was Sarina who was going to bring it home. Just as it was Beth Mead whose name was sung out by the rowdy fans, the Arsenal woman striking terror into defences.
Wow wow wow what a night— STUDS (@__studs) July 7, 2022
Big shout out to everyone who closed out the dance floor with us to this banger.
Thank you to everyone who came we had the best time and hope you did too! @bmeado9 we love u xx pic.twitter.com/JZuM3lrq9t
For a sport that has spent so much of the last decade marketed to families and children, it was a breath of fresh air to enjoy the grownup side of the experience. Of being able to wax about the nations at the tournament with those who knew about the game, of sharing a beer with like minded people.
It was the celebration that I had been searching for at Old Trafford, unable to locate in amongst the half and half scarves. It was a uniquely queer celebration of women’s football that you didn’t have to be queer to enjoy, it was a celebration of the players both current and those who went before, paving the way for the professional game. Just as it was a celebration for the fans who had been there through the toil and it was glorious.