Spain's triumph at the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand came against the odds; in the lead-up to the tournament, the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) was embroiled in a fierce dispute regarding squad conditions and the professionalism of the coaching set-up.
In September, it was reported that 15 members of the national team said they would resign if coach Jorge Vilda did not step down, and 12 of these players have since been frozen out following the RFEF's decision to back the manager rather than the playing personnel.
Despite the recalling of key players such as Aitana Bonmati and Ona Batlle, Spain's World Cup squad was extremely young and inexperienced as a result, with an average age of 25.3 making them the youngest team to reach the World Cup final since 1995. It's a context that made their march to the final and 1-0 victory over European champions England all the more remarkable.
However, the Lionesses faced their own share of challenges both before and during the tournament. Long-term injuries to key players such as Beth Mead, Fran Kirby and captain Leah Williamson (who all suffered ACL/knee injuries, one of the most common injuries in football), plus the retirement of experienced pros like Ellen White and Jill Scott meant that the first XI looked very different to last year's Euro-winning side.
Lauren James' red card and suspension for most of the knockout stages didn't help things, and yet Sarina Weigman's side still made it to a historic World Cup final (England's first since 1966, and the only one they've ever reached when playing outside the UK). So how did the Lionesses do it, and what have been the key factors behind their increased success in recent years? In this article, we'll be looking at the different steps that have allowed the Lionesses to improve their performances on the world stage.
A little over 50 years ago, women in England were banned from playing professional football. Since the FA introduced legislation in 1921 that prevented the women's game from being played at professional grounds and pitches of clubs affiliated to the FA (stating "the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged"), women had been forced to play in local parks rather than at the quality venues they deserved.
When the English FA finally lifted the ban in 1970, a huge amount of damage had been done to the women's game, which during the First World War and early 1920s had been attracting crowds of up to 50,000 for exhibition matches involving legendary teams like Preston-based munitions factory outfit Dick, Kerr Ladies.
The rise of women's football in England since then has been gradual, steadily pushed forward by the hard work of a collection of dedicated individuals. However, in recent years the sport's popularity has ramped up significantly, and England's performances on the world stage have reached the next level. A number of factors have contributed to this progress.
In 2011, England's top women's football league was restructured, with the FA Women's Premier League National Division being rebranded as the Women's Super League. Sixteen clubs applied for the eight places in the inaugural league, and in 2014 the creation of a second division, WSL 2, made space for the applicants who missed out in that initial draft.
In the years since, the standard of football, professionalism, broadcasting reach, and financial might associated with the WSL have expanded significantly. Much of this comes down to the FA's decision to make the WSL fully professional for the first time for the 2017/18 season. At this juncture, teams had to re-apply for their license to earn their place in the league, offering players a minimum 16-hour-a-week contract and committing to forming a youth academy.
The move was controversial, with well-established women's sides such as Doncaster Belles forcibly relegated and Sunderland moved down to Tier 3 of the women's pyramid due to their inability to comply with the regulations and offer 'elite' full-time playing facilities and opportunities. Wealthy clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal took the opportunity to become increasingly dominant in the WSL; however, this professionalisation has ultimately had an extremely positive impact on the standard and popularity of the WSL, which has grown exponentially since the 2017-18 season.
A new £8m-per-season broadcasting deal with Sky Sports and the BBC was announced in 2021, the biggest broadcast deal of any professional women's football league in the world. In recent seasons, high-profile foreign players such as Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder, Alex Morgan and Christine Press have moved to England, highlighting the pulling power of the league and strengthening its reputation as one of the best divisions in the world. The ability to play to a high level on home soil has also undoubtedly benefited younger England stars such as Lauren Hemp, Alessia Russo, and Leah Williamson (more on this shortly).
The upward trajectory of the WSL slots into a broader effort from the English Football Association (FA) to right the wrongs of the past and rapidly improve the profile and standard of women's football in the UK. Unveiled in March 2017 at the same time as the WSL reform, The Gameplan for Growth was the FA's first formal strategy for women's and girls' football in England, and it was underpinned by three bold goals: double participation, double the fanbase, and generate consistent success on the world stage.
In 2023, all three aims have been accomplished, with attendances up, performances improved, and one million girls (aged 5-15) and 1.9 million women (16+) now playing football across England.
A number of other participation programmes have been introduced by the FA alongside the Gameplan for Growth, meaning that the number of girls and women playing and watching football has grown substantially — the average WSL attendance for the 2021/22 season was 5,444, up from 1,944 the previous season.
The FA are currently two years into a three-year programme to increase average attendances to 6,000 by 2024, a plan which is well ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, the three-year Inspiring Positive Change programme, launched in October 2020, continues to work on eight goals for the growth of the game, including giving every school-going girl the same access to football as boys, whether at school or in clubs.
Largely as a result of the professionalisation of top tier women's football, young players have had access to improved facilities and greater playing opportunities from a younger age — stories of former England internationals such as Alex Scott and Fara Williams struggling to make ends meet in the late 2000s whilst playing for some of the best women's teams in the country are thankfully a thing of the past.
The increased funding for women's teams injected by clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City means more English players have had the chance to develop their skills from a young age in elite-level academies. The likes of Lauren James and Ella Toone — two players who had a crucial impact on England's run to the 2023 World Cup final — have been playing football in professional settings since they were teenagers.
Meanwhile, outside the highest two divisions, the women's football pyramid has continued to grow, improving an essential talent-growing source for clubs at the top tier. There is a recognised pathway from the women's National League to the elite academy structures that has allowed some of the England's best women's players to work their way to the highest level.
Take England's star winger Lauren Hemp, for example — after coming through Norwich City's youth ranks, the Norfolk-born player made her way to Bristol City to access playing opportunities in the WSL and WSL 2 before completing a big move to Manchester City, where she's shone since joining for the 2018/19 season, bagging a seriously impressive 54 goals in 125 league appearances.
It would be remiss of us to discuss the Lionesses' improvement in recent years without discussing the woman at the helm: England manager Sarina Weigman. Arguably the greatest international coach in women's football right now, Weigman has been a hugely influential figure since joining the England set-up in September 2021. To date, the team have lost just one match with her in charge, a 2-0 friendly loss to her former side the Netherlands in April. While manager of the Dutch national team, she reached the 2019 World Cup final, meaning that taking into account the historic European Championship win in 2022, she has guided her teams to the last three major international tournament finals available. In the process, Weigman has also become the first ever manager to reach a World Cup final with two different nations.
It's a remarkable record, and one that highlights the most obvious recent change in the England set-up: the development of a winning mentality. During the last two tournaments, the Lionesses haven't always played well, but they've always looked firm, resolute, and capable of getting a result over the line regardless. Fans of the England women's team will be hoping that Weigman stays on board for the foreseeable future; if so, there's no reason why this winning mentality can't lead to another trophy further down the line.
If you'd like to find out more about how the FA have encouraged the growth of the women's game in England and Wales in recent times, check out our interview with FA Senior Recruitment and Volunteer Manager and key EURO 2022 organiser Susan Couper.