England celebrates Euro 2022 win, hoping women inspire new generation

LONDON — It has come home, at last.

But with England finally able to rejoice at winning a major soccer tournament, it is not the country’s renowned male stars who have adorned newspaper front pages, been greeted by mass crowds in the capital or led the nation in delirious song.

Fans, players and coaches now hope victory for the women’s soccer team — and the unified moment it stirred — will prove to be not just the end of decades of pain in its national sport but a watershed moment for the women’s game in the country and beyond.

A record crowd of 87,000 fans and at least another 17.4 million at home watched England’s 2-1 victory over Germany in the European Championship final Sunday.

Those who packed into London’s Wembley Stadium greeted the final whistle with a rendition of “Three Lions,” a much-loved pop song whose yearning chorus, “Football’s coming home,” has become a cornerstone of a national sporting culture that has until now been seen as almost entirely male.

Long ignored and underfunded compared to the all-conquering men’s game, with its multibillion-dollar TV deals and teams owned by oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds, women’s soccer is now getting attention like never before.

Rachel Yankey, who was the first professional female footballer in Britain and became one of the most successful players of her era, told NBC News that England’s win was a key moment.

“We need to normalize the game and value our female stars as much as we do our male stars — not just looking at it as ‘Oh, it’s only women’s football.’ It’s football that’s played by women,” she said.

“At this tournament that’s what I think has happened, more than any other,” she said.

Yankey, who played for England 129 times, shaved her head and called herself “Ray” at age 8 in order to play on a boys team.

Now, only a third of girls ages 5 to 18 play soccer every week, and just 63% of schools in England offer girls the chance to play soccer during gym lessons, according to the Football Association, the game’s governing body.

“There’s still a lot to do, but the visibility of yesterday is the most important thing,” Yankey said.

England’s win will have a positive effect on boys too, she added: “It educates our young boys too that girls can have the same dreams as boys and do the same jobs. It gives our kids the power to believe in what they want to be.”

Many fans remarked on social media that the powerful image of striker Chloe Kelly whirling her jersey over her head after scoring the winning goal Sunday was an empowering moment reminiscent of Brandi Chastain’s celebration after winning the World Cup for the United States in 1999.

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