England national teams are used to great expectations. In years gone by, the country’s women’s team existed somewhat outside this pressure cooker. Much of that was done to the low-key nature of the women’s game, the rest due to England’s status as outsiders on that side of the sport. Times, in more than one way, have changed, though.
By almost every measure, this summer’s Women’s World Cup will be the biggest on record. It will be a mainstream event watched by millions around the world and England are expected to be among the challengers to win the whole thing.
Phil Neville’s side might not be favourites, currently operating on a level slightly below the likes of France, Germany and the United States, but of all the nations that could make the leap from pretenders to contenders the Lionesses stand as good a chance as any this summer.
1966 could feasibly become a mere historic footnote over the next month.
England could barely have experienced a better build up to the tournament, strolling through qualification (with an aggregate scoreline of 29-1) before beating Brazil and Japan, and drawing with the USA, in the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year. Never before has an England women’s team arrived at a major tournament with so much momentum behind them.
Four years ago, Mark Sampson’s side finished third. Since then, however, the Lionesses have become a more dynamic, more expressive side. Under Sampson, England were a well-drilled, organised outfit. They still retain that identity to a certain extent, but Neville has worked on making the most of the creative talent at his disposal.
In Lucy Bronze, England boast the best right back in the women’s game right now. Steph Houghton is an experienced operator at the top level, while Fran Kirby, previously nicknamed ‘Mini Messi’ is capable of moments of brilliance. This Women’s World Cup could make her a real superstar.
Toni Duggan comes into this tournament on the back of making the Champions League final with Barcelona. Jodie Taylor’s goal drought for England, which now stretches back over a year, will be a concern, but the Lionesses should have sufficient firepower even if her misfortune continues into the Women’s World Cup. Nikita Parris, Beth Mead, Ellen White and Duggan, of course, are all capable of picking up the slack.
Sunday’s group opener against Scotland will reveal a lot about England’s chances in France. Scotland boast a talented group of players with their own momentum behind them. They too fancy their chances of making a deep run into the tournament. However, a convincing win for England over their northern rivals would make an early statement of intent.
Whatever happens at this Women’s World Cup will mark a landmark summer for the women’s game in England. Neville’s team will have the national limelight like no Lionesses side has ever had before.
This isn’t just an opportunity bring home some silverware, but to change attitudes and to change a national zeitgeist.
Of course, this process would be accelerated if England were to go all the way in France this summer. The sight of the Lionesses lifting the World Cup, something the men’s side haven’t been able to do for over half a century, would provide an extremely powerful image at a critical time in the growth of the women’s game.
English women’s football has made great strides since the last Women’s World Cup, particularly in the development of the domestic game. The third place finish in Canada seemed to have taken the Lionesses to their glass ceiling, their head bashing against the elite above them. Now, they can crash through that ceiling and perhaps pull a few others through the glass with them in the process.