In the last seconds of the game, Ona Sánchez could not sit down. Then, when the referee finally blew the whistle to confirm that Spain had won the Women’s World Cup, she and the crowd around her — women, men, parents and other fans who had gathered to watch in the game in Sant Pere de Ribes, near Barcelona. – burst out with joy.
“Champeonas! Champions! Olé, olé, olé!” Ona and her friend Laura Solorzano, both 11, and wearing a Spanish flag, sang in the small town’s central cobblestone square while other supporters splashed water from a nearby fountain. . The two friends, both players at a local soccer club, said they couldn’t have hoped for a better ending.
“This is the first time I’ve watched a World Cup,” said Ona, who came from a group of dancing children. “And we won! I’m so happy! It fills me with hope.”
Spain’s first victory in the Women’s World Cup and England’s run to the final are not just formidable achievements for teams that have become perennial title contenders in just a few years. It is also a reassuring message to the many girls in both countries who are increasingly involved in the game: Women, too, can raise a country to the summit of world football.
The final shows the growing interest and investment in women’s soccer in Spain and England, with more and more women joining clubs and leagues of increasing size and professionalism – a major change in countries where soccer has long been the preserve of all powerful men. teams, and one that will likely accelerate after this year’s World Cup.
“The perception of women’s soccer has changed,” said Dolors Ribalta Alcalde, a specialist in women’s sports at Ramon Llull University in Barcelona. “It is now seen as a real and exciting opportunity for women. This World Cup, with its high profile, will have an impact on how people see women’s soccer. It will help create a big step forward.”
In England, the situation is very sad because the hope of the national team to follow the victory in the European Championship has failed. However, professional and recreational leagues have seen a surge of interest in recent years from girls and women, in a country that considers itself the spiritual home of the sport. . The Lionesses’ advance to the final only made that optimism worse.
“This is a catalyst for change,” said Shani Glover, a fair play ambassador for the London Football Association, who pledged to encourage girls and women to play at both professional and recreational levels. An advocate for that transfer, Ms. Glover said he saw a growing interest in women enrolling in the sport, especially after England’s victory in the European Championship. “Having women center stage — it’s shifting the public’s mind,” she said.
“If it’s like before, I won’t be motivated; it was quite isolated,” said Cerys Davies, 15, while watching the final from a community center in East London. Cerys trains several times a week at a football academy that focuses on giving poor players a path to elite careers. “It’s good that the girls are getting the recognition and support they need,” she said, adding that she was happy to see people in the stadium for the final. “It allows me to know that I will be supported,” she said.
In Sant Pere de Ribes, residents did not wait for this year’s World Cup to benefit from the new spotlight on women’s soccer.
Aitana Bonmatí, the Spanish star midfielder who was named the best player of the tournament, grew up in the city and played for the local youth soccer club for many years. In the development of Ms. Bonmatí, many women took up soccer, hoping to follow in his footsteps.
“Our club has grown a lot,” said Tino Herrero Cervera, the club’s manager, announcing that the number of women’s teams has increased from one to 10 since 2014. Women now make up a third which is part of the club’s players.
“Watching Aitana become a great player inspires me,” said Laura, who wants to become a professional soccer player. His team won the youth league championship this year with 14 points ahead of the runner-up.
“They are the next Aitana,” said Mr. Herrero about Laura and Ona, grinning. He added that the high caliber of the women’s game has helped the club climb the league rankings. “It’s easy,” she said, “we want more girls to play.”
This does not always happen. Dr. Ribalta, the sports academic, also manages women’s soccer at Espanyol, a professional club in Barcelona, where he previously played for more than a decade. “A girl playing soccer used to be a trauma for the family,” he said.
Until recently, she said, female players were sometimes insulted on the pitch and denied access to proper training equipment and professional coaches, and they had to reconcile their sporting ambitions with impossibility of earning a living from soccer.
Women’s soccer teams have long been ignored — if not banned, as happened in England in 1921. The country’s Football Association was alarmed by the popularity of women’s sports, which gained a following while the league of men was suspended during the First World War. The ban was in effect for 50 years.
In Spain, the women’s national team has long lacked elite training facilities and even jerseys designed for women to wear. It reached its first Women’s World Cup only in 2015, under a long-serving coach notorious for dismissing players as “chavalitas,” or immature girls.
Change has only come in recent years. England created a professional domestic league for women in 2018, and Spain followed suit three years later. Corporate sponsors flocked in and elite women’s clubs such as Arsenal and Barcelona Femení began to attract more attention. The Barcelona team has won two of the last three editions of the Women’s Champions League.
That trend is filtering down to smaller and more amateur leagues, as well as younger players. In England, the number of teams playing in a girls’ league at Hackney Marshes, a famous soccer field in East London, has increased to 44 teams from 26 in one season. In Spain, the number of registered female players has more than doubled since 2015, reaching almost 90,000 today.
That’s a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of men playing in the two countries. But many are convinced that this year’s World Cup will encourage more women to take up soccer and join talented youth teams, a pipeline for national women’s teams.
“Many women watch these players on big screens for several weeks and follow them on social media,” said Soraya Chaoui López, the founder of the Women’s Soccer School in Barcelona, academy that started in 2017 to help girls play soccer and to improve the role of women in the sport. “They are references that they listen to and imitate. They can look forward to becoming professional players themselves now. “
Looking at the faces of the Lionesses on the screen in London, Destiny Richardson, 14, said, “Even though we came in second, it’s still good.”
He added that he was motivated as a player, saying, “You want to be there one day.”
In London, an unusual young player who was happy with the victory was Mariam Vasquez, 9, who was happy when Spain won, in honor of the Spanish side of her family.
“I am very happy to be able to watch it with her,” her mother, Hind Aisha, said, adding that the whole family supports Mariam’s own soccer aspirations. “I’m very proud – it’s a women’s sport.”