The England women’s team became a familiar sight at the 2022 European Championship: coach Sarina Wiegman fielded the same starting 11 in all six matches as the host nation secured a first major tournament victory. No exceptions, no variations. A year later, four of those 11 starters — three of them forwards — are unavailable. They are absences that have tempered the euphoria surrounding the Lionesses and, to an extent, their candidacy for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, where they face Haiti, Denmark, and China in the group stage.
After winning the European Championship at Wembley with a 2-1 victory over Germany, amid national celebrations, the team issued a statement to the two candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party, current UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his predecessor, Liz Truss. It was a cry for help devised by defender Lotte Wubben-Moy, a message of social awareness, a communiqué signed by all the England players and verbalized by captain Leah Williamson, expressing their desire to leave a legacy after their triumph. The statement called for all girls to be able to play soccer in schools and thus to avoid repeating the mistakes they experienced during their childhoods. The England players asked Sunak and Truss to ensure all schoolgirls in the UK receive at least two hours a week of physical education lessons and also called for investment in and greater support for female physical education teachers and resources for girls’ football. According to statistics at the time, only 63% of girls had access to soccer sessions during school hours. “This generation of school girls deserves more. They deserve to play football at lunchtime, they deserve to play football in PE lessons and they deserve to believe they can one day play for England,” the statement read.
Seven months later, after many hours of dialogue between the players, the Football Association (FA) and government institutions, an agreement was reached in which the Sunak government announced a massive investment of almost €700 million ($in school sports and extracurricular activities so that all girls in the country receive a minimum of two hours of physical education per week and equal access to all sports, including soccer. “The magic of last summer’s Euros victory can now live on with a legacy that has the ability to change the future of women’s football and positively impact society,” said Mark Bullingham, chief executive of the FA.
It was a measure applauded by society in which, until 1971, women were banned from playing soccer at FA club grounds. This decision was approved by the institution in 1921 because, in the logic of the retrograde leaders of the time, women’s soccer was too popular. A century later, however, England won the European Championship at a Wembley Stadium packed with 87,192 spectators. It remains to be seen whether they are also the best in the world, now that the standard line-up has been significantly altered.
In defense, Williamson, who at times has played the role of midfielder, is a key absentee after a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee deprived him of the captain’s armband at the World Cup. And while the midfield remains intact with Bayern Munich’s Georgia Stanway and Barcelona’s Keira Walsh — the Women’s Football Awards International Player of the Year 2022 — the attack has been decimated. Beth Mead, the Golden Boot winner and Player of the Tournament at the European Championship, is also recovering from a ruptured cruciate ligament in her left knee. Wiegman’s side will also be without their springboard in transitions, Fran Kirby, who has also been sidelined since February with a knee injury. She tried platelet-rich plasma treatment but, after seeing no improvement, Chelsea’s medical staff advised surgery. Also missing is England’s record goal scorer, Ellen White, who retired after the triumph at the Euros.
The team that changed the face of women’s soccer in England faces a lack of firepower in Australia and New Zealand. It will fall to Lauren Hemp — the only available attacking player who started the final against Germany — Chloe Kelly, who came off the bench to score the decisive goal at Wembley, the versatile Rachel Daly, who has been drafted into the front line, Bethany England, Alessia Russo and youngsters Katie Robinson and Lauren James to fill those considerable boots.
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