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Wednesday August 10th, 2022 1:09AM

How England's national team became a power in women's soccer

By The Associated Press
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There have been messages of support and praise from the royal family and Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The coverage is widespread, across the rolling news channels and both the front and back pages of the nation's newspapers.

The “Football’s Coming Home” chant is back in vogue.

The England women’s soccer team is the talk of the nation and capturing hearts and minds because of its run to the final of the European Championship.

After a 4-0 win over Sweden in the semifinals on Tuesday, the Lionesses — as they are also known — are one victory away from a first international title in the women’s game, and a first in either England men’s or women’s soccer since the men won the World Cup in 1966.

With so much focus and glare on the behemoth that is men’s soccer in England, the women’s game has for so long lagged behind their rivals on the continent. Not anymore, with the Lionesses now a constant in the latter stages of the biggest tournaments.

Here’s a look at the reasons behind their rise:

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MONEY

Investment in the women’s game in England has soared to record levels in recent years.

A game-changer is Barclays’ sponsorship of the top two leagues, the Women’s Super League and the Women’s Championship, with 30 million pounds ($36 million) getting injected for 2022-25. It’s the most ever invested in women’s sport in Britain, according to the Football Association. That compared with 15 million pounds ($18 million) under the bank's first deal with the FA from 2019-2022.

Added to that is the three-year agreement the FA reached with Sky Sports and BBC for the broadcast rights to the Super League ahead of the 2021-22 season, worth around 8 million pounds ($9.6 million) per year.

The revenue has been distributed across the women’s game, giving clubs more money to invest in players and coaches, as well as facilities.

PROFESSIONALISM

To think women’s soccer was banned by the FA from English grounds in 1921 because, in the governing body’s words, “the game is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

Now, all of England’s traditionally biggest clubs have women’s teams, with Manchester United’s side having started up again in 2018. Indeed, Old Trafford — the storied ground of United’s men’s team — hosted a match for its women’s team in March this year.

English players once had to move to the U.S. to fulfill their dreams of becoming a pro soccer player. Now, the top American internationals have played in England with Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath among those to have come over previously. Global superstars like Australia’s Sam Kerr and Denmark’s Pernille Harder currently play for Chelsea. England’s players get to play with superstars of world soccer on a day-to-day basis, improving their own game.

The professionalism of the top clubs in the English game was grown, with Man City’s women using the same state-of-the-art training facilities as the men, likewise at Arsenal and Everton. Reading and Birmingham are among the teams to play in the same stadium as their men’s teams. Facilities at lower-ranked women's teams can still leave much to be desired, however.

‘NEXT LEVEL’ COACH

England had reached the semifinals of the last three major international tournaments — the World Cups in 2015 and '19, and Euro 2017 — but that proved to be the ceiling. The players needed someone to get more out of them.

Enter Sarina Wiegman. The Dutchwoman had guided the Netherlands to the European Championship title in 2017 and the World Cup final in 2019, where they lost to the United States. She came with a strong reputation for results and an entertaining style of play, but also pragmatism and having a plan.

Unlike the previous coach, Phil Neville — a big name in men’s soccer after playing for Manchester United and England but someone with little coaching experience — Wiegman was not necessarily a headline-grabbing appointment for the casual fan but, crucially, had expertise of the women’s game.

“I’ve come here to take (England) to the next level,” Wiegman said at her presentation last year, and she’s been true to her word.

England is unbeaten in 19 matches under Wiegman, has scored more than 100 goals in that time — the team is the top scorer at Euro 2022 with 20 goals in five games — and is playing pleasing-on-the-eye soccer, even under the pressure of a major tournament on home soil.

Only three coaches have won the Women’s European Championship two times. Wiegman could do it in charge of two different nations.

INCREASED PARTICIPATION

A peak TV audience of 9.3 million watched the England-Sweden semifinal match, showing just how women’s soccer has made its presence felt in the already-crammed English sporting landscape. Other figures demonstrate that, too.

The average attendance for a match in the Women’s Super League, the top division in England, has risen from 728 in 2015 to 1,931 for the 2021-22 season, according to the FA.

There was a record attendance of 49,094 for this year’s Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium and a 47% peak increase of TV viewers compared to the 2021 final.

There are live matches and weekly highlight shows of the top two leagues and the cup competitions on free-to-air and pay-TV broadcasters.

The FA says there are around 11,500 female-only teams and nearly 200,000 affiliated female players. In 2020, the FA said 3.4 million women and girls actively played soccer, up from 2.89 million in 2015. The number of coaches in the women’s and girls’ game is on the rise, too, at the current figure of 16,210.

Among the governing body’s Women’s and Girls’ Football Strategy for 2020-24 — its tagline is “Inspiring Positive Change” — is an objective for England to “win a major tournament.” That could happen sooner than planned.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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