Naomi Short has been playing football on and off for nearly 30 years and cannot wait for England to host the Euros this week, but she’s even more excited that her 13-year-old daughter will witness the biggest ever women’s sporting event. “It’s brilliant – they’ve got the future I probably would have wanted,” she says.
Short, 45, plays for Longford Park Ladies FC in Manchester, a grassroots team that was set up by mothers five years ago to train alongside their children when there were hardly any teams around for women who just wanted to play for fun.
Now the team is getting excited for a summer of women’s football along with thousands of other grassroots and amateur sides. Many of these were set up or massively expanded after a successful Women’s World Cup in 2019 catapulted England’s Lionesses into the limelight.
Short says “loads” of people at Longford Park Ladies FC have secured tickets for Euros matches, although she laments that the number of tickets could not meet unprecedented demand. Still, she is heartened that more than half a million have been sold and considers it a sign of the sport’s meteoric ascent. “It’s good that people want there to be more seats available and to play at bigger stadiums.”
Other female footballers who spoke to the Guardian shared their elation that England is hosting the tournament this July, with many securing tickets for matches as well as booking tables in pubs for sold-out fixtures, organising tournaments and taster sessions, hosting screenings and throwing parties.
The goal is to celebrate beyond the FA’s official fan festivals while boosting the sport’s profile further in the hope of replicating the explosion in signups that followed the Women’s World Cup.
Some are doing this in imaginative ways. AFC Leyton, one of the largest women-only football clubs in the UK, with more than 600 players, has created a custom beer in collaboration with the local brewery Signature Brew.
“We will be drinking a pint of our very own red-coloured IPA at the brewery to launch the Euros in a couple of weeks’ time,” says AFC Leyton’s Louise McGing.
Lots of players have tickets for multiple fixtures and some are planning days out. “The girls are buzzing about what players play in their own positions and where their own footballing journey could take them,” McGing says.
She says that whenever there is a large event, the club always sees an uptick in interest, and this has been boosted by fixtures increasingly appearing on mainstream television, and teams securing high-profile global brand sponsorships.
“[It’s] raising the profile of elite female football players, which is in turn inspiring the next generation of female footballers. It’s long overdue and long may this continue,” she says.
Teams in the north-east have also been finding ways to access games, despite the fact the region isn’t hosting any. Gary Sykes, who runs Washington AFC in Tyne and Wear, is taking 150 female players to Sheffield to watch Sweden v Netherlands in the evening, and has organised a tournament with local teams during the day.
“At the time when it was announced there wouldn’t be any football locally, there was a lot of disappointment,”’ he says, adding that his team are now “very excited” to see a match even if they have to travel for it.
Sport England said it was hard to tell exactly how big a boost the Euros had given to grassroots football, since numbers were still recovering after the onset of the Covid pandemic, but 460,000 more women started playing football after the World Cup in 2019 and the body has tried to “get ahead of the game” by announcing £1m in funding for adult recreational football last year.
Reaching the UK’s diverse communities is also a key aim. This is shared by Queen’s Roar, an arts and community initiative in Newham, the most ethnically diverse borough in the UK, which is bringing together local grassroots teams, fans and artists to create a local strip, football anthem and opportunities for more women to play. “It’s about making it visible so other girls and women in the area feel they can participate in the future,” said the creative producer Beki Bateson.
Munaf Abrham, the chair of Leytonstone FC, agrees things have changed dramatically in recent months; his club, which is rooted in the local south-Asian community, set up girls and women’s teams 18 months ago, and the growth has been “absolutely mad”. He is thrilled because “there haven’t been many girls over the years playing football from the south Asian community”, and applications this year for female teams have outnumbered those for male squads.
He is planning to get tickets for the team members for the quarter- and semi-finals in London as well as hosting a big community event showing the matches on a screen.
“Everyone’s looking forward to the Euros; the girls are looking forward to it. Every weekend at training they’ll say to me: ‘Coach, have we got our tickets sorted out?’”