When Soccerella kicked off in June 2015, little could we have imagined the incredible events that would follow. From heartbreak to heroes, FA Cups to landmark caps and everything in-between - Soccerella's Lucy Manley and Ashley Brown reflect on a standout year for Women's Football!
Heading into last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, women’s football in England was sitting on a great foundation. The Women’s Super League (WSL) had been sustainably growing since its inception in 2010, average attendances were steadily rising and a number of key clubs were shifting their programmes full-time. At grassroots, the FA’s investment in the game was starting to pay off as football became the number one team sport for females. Off the pitch too, a ground-breaking multi-million pound deal for the Women’s FA Cup naming rights was announced with SSE, while women’s football got the feel-good factor as EA Sport’s FIFA 16 welcomed women’s national teams for the first time. But arguably, this was still a sport that existed largely outside of mainstream media and public attention. Until 12 months ago.
A tournament to remember
At last summer's World Cup, things began to change as a 30-yard screamer from Lucy Bronze inspired England's dramatic comeback in the first knockout round. The Lionesses began to roar, silencing hosts Canada with a convincing quarter-final victory. Although England’s semi-final against Japan saw injury-time heartbreak for the team, it still left a play-off match against rivals Germany for the European bragging rights. After a tense 90 minutes, Fara Williams converted the decisive spot-kick in extra-time, securing the Lionesses an unprecedented bronze medal which cemented their place in history and in the hearts of the nation.
Despite the after-hours kick-off times, the BBC reported that 12.6 million viewers had tuned into their tournament coverage. The Lionesses exploits had been plastered across the front and backs of newspapers, and girls and boys alike were discussing the kicks, flicks and wonder strikes of the women’s national team. The squad soon found themselves with invitations to Wimbledon and an appointment with the Prime Minister at No.10 Downing Street - everyone wanted to show their support for the team and congratulate their accomplishments. This wasn’t just a game changer; it would prove to be life-changing for the Lionesses and marked the start of a huge surge in interest and excitement for the women’s game.
Living in the spotlight
Reaping the effects of the World Cup were top-flight WSL fixtures. Compared to matches prior to the tournament, attendance was up by an average of 47% on the previous round, with teams regularly having over 1,000 fans watching. The newfound profile of the players was highlighted after matches, as growing groups of fans old and new would wait patiently to share a selfie or brief exchange with their idols. Furthermore, for the first time in history, 30,000 screaming fans welcomed the 2015 SSE Women's FA Cup Final to the home of football - Wembley Stadium, with a further 1.99 million viewers tuning in at home. The event and its success signified a change in perception and attitude for women’s football and, with an ever-growing fan base, this was the perfect opportunity to place club teams on the map and into the media spotlight.
Recognition and award nights became the norm over the following months, with the Lionesses taking home BT Sport’s Action Woman of the Year award for 2015. Yet perhaps the most significant of all occurred in November last year. Following her “absolute belter” of a goal at the World Cup, Lucy Bronze made it onto the 12-person shortlist for BBC’s prestigious Sports Personality of the Year award, alongside the likes of Andy Murray and Jessica Ennis-Hill. This was the first time a female footballer had been nominated in the award’s 62-year history. Despite Bronze seeing her nomination as more of a “representation of how the team had performed” in Canada, this well-earned individual recognition was a welcome statement for the women’s game – they were now competing alongside some of the national treasures of British sport.
Continuing success, on and off the pitch
The start of 2016 picked up exactly where the successes of 2015 had left off. Following her SPOTY nomination, Bronze was announced as the latest ambassador for Sainsbury’s Active Kids campaign, one of many of the Lionesses who found themselves with new commercial backing. With Captain Steph Houghton also featuring in a new female-focused Virgin Media advert, it appears that big brands are now realising the potential of the game’s personalities to reach new audiences. At the same time, the media presence of women’s footballers has also continued to rise, the latest example being Eni Aluko joining ITV’s Euro 2016 punditry team. With over 100 international caps to her name, Aluko is a shining example of an experienced player expanding their profile off the pitch.
On the pitch too, the girls have continued to achieve great things. In March, Fara Williams became the first-ever English footballer - male or female to reach 150 caps, during the invitational She Believes Cup in the USA. Later that month, the England team achieved their highest-ever FIFA’s World Ranking, climbing to fourth. And the girls are not showing any signs of slowing down - a series of authoritative victories has secured them qualification to the Euro 2017 with two games remaining. With over 30 players already involved in the campaign, including promising debutants such as Danielle Carter and Rachel Daly, the campaign has also highlighted the bright future ahead for the Lionesses.
So where next on this incredible journey? With fresh investment across the pyramid driving greater participation and expanding the talent pool, an increased media presence and a growing and passionate fan base, the coming year will surely continue to amaze. Following their World Cup bronze medal, FIFA ranking, and early qualification, the Lionesses have redefined expectations and a top-three finish at Euro 2017 is now almost expected from Mark Sampson's side. Pressure perhaps, but whatever these 12 months throw at the players, the barriers they have broken and the success already achieved prove they are a force to be reckoned with.
Lucy Manley is a Soccerella Ambassador and frequent guest contributor.
An MSc Sport & Health Science graduate, Lucy enjoys following a range of sports… with a minor obsession for all things ‘Olympics’. In her blog, More than just a game, she looks critically at a range of sporting topics associated with professional athletes and mass participation. Find her on Twitter at @Lucy_Manley.
Ashley Brown is Soccerella's founder.
A former strategy consultant, Ashley combined these skills and his upbringing in WoSo-friendly USA to start Soccerella in June 2015 and support the development of the women's game. Prior to Soccerella, his passion was in snowboarding, spending a winter living and working in the alpine paradise of Zermatt, Switzerland. Follow the latest Soccerella content on Twitter at @soccerella.
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