21:53 – the time last night when the tears of a nation started flowing as the final whistle was blown on England’s 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign.
It was a heart wrenching, soul destroying moment, seeing those 23 athletes whom we’ve come to adore over the last four weeks left lying on the baking French turf in complete despair while the Americans celebrated as though they’d won the tournament.
Waking up this morning, the pain for many was just as raw as it was hours earlier.
On reflection though, while being knocked out in another semi-final is tough to take, the Lionesses have already achieved something even more important than a maiden World Cup title.
They have galvanised an entire nation into following women’s team sport.
That’s not to say this is something we’ve not experienced before – the last few years have produced a myriad of exceptional performances in football, rugby, hockey and netball that have captured our hearts.
But this was different. Rather than just jumping on the bandwagon of success, this time the Lionesses were at the forefront of our attention from the off.
It all started with the awesome #BeReady campaign when the squad was announced back in May, which we wrote about in our year-long series.
Add into that an hour-long documentary that gave an unprecedented behind-the-scenes insight into the team and even before a ball was kicked we were already hooked on the story of England’s finest.
Their opener against Scotland, broadcast live on BBC One, then attracted 6.1 million viewers to the BBC, the highest number for any women’s football match in the UK.
That record was then broken three times more, with the figure rising to 11.7 million during last night’s semi-final, making it the most watched British TV show of 2019 so far last night.
📺 11.7m TV viewers on @BBCSport!
📈 50.8% UK audience share.
🔝 Most viewed women’s football match ever on UK TV.
🤩 Record broken 4 times during @FIFAWWC 2019.
🤯 Most watched TV show of 2019!
— SPORF (@Sporf) July 3, 2019
This unequivocally proves that people really do care about this team.
It’s not just the viewing figures that confirm this either; it’s the changes in attitude that you can hear in everyday conversations and see on social media.
For every sexist, misogynistic and wrong comment being made on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram there is now another telling a story of how the Lionesses have inspired the author or someone close to them.
Listening to conversations in the street yesterday I could hear people – men, women, young, old – discussing the game, making plans to watch ‘the football’, ‘the semi-final’ or ‘England v USA’ (note the lack of gender-specific phrasing here).
Even though the Lionesses haven’t made the final they – and we – so longed for, they should be very proud of the cultural shift they have achieved.
Now it’s up to us (both the media and general public) to ensure this isn’t just a flash in the pan.
If our female footballers are going to ever achieve the recognition and status they deserve, it’s up to us to keep them relevant and newsworthy by talking about them, turning up to games and continuing to drown out the doubters.
With Team GB now qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and England hosting the 2021 Euros, we already have two huge platforms to continue the hype surrounding the national teams.
We pick each other up. We go again. We look forward to the play-off and at the change we’ve made to our nation. At the way you guys have backed us like never before.
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) July 3, 2019
But it’s not just here where we need to make a difference; we need to commit to supporting the domestic game too.
Attendance figures initially soared after the bronze medal finish of four years ago but have dropped significantly since, with the average attendance at a top women’s club game less than 1,000 last season.
The players deserve so much more than that.
As has been proven numerous times throughout the World Cup, the standard across all areas has risen significantly since the last iteration four years ago both internationally domestically.
The work they put in and the hours they spend on the training pitch are having a huge impact and they deserve to be showing off their skills in front of large crowds week in, week out.
We need to #ShowUp to as much football as we can, not just to continue the legacy of this tournament but to continue to inspire youngsters to want to play the game.
How cool would it be in 10 years’ time if the next generation of English footballers could say they were inspired to start playing because they witnessed Ellen White produce a sensational finish live for Manchester City? Or Carly Telford making a magical save for Chelsea? Or Alex Greenwood executing a perfect free kick for Manchester United?
Furthermore we need to keep talking about women’s football to ensure the media deem it newsworthy.
That doesn’t necessarily mean just focusing on the positives either; we shouldn’t be afraid to criticise too as that’s exactly what happens with the men.
Let’s face it; England were average at times last night and on the whole probably didn’t deserve to win.
The more we embrace and accept the game’s weaknesses and controversies, the more discussions and talking points there will be to be had that will keep the women’s game on the back pages and trending on social media.
Just look at how much interest has been generated by Alex Morgan’s celebration.
Not that we should solely focus on that though. We need to keep highlighting the power of the game, sharing the heartwarming stories that permeate it up and down the country and celebrating the success of our players.
The Lionesses have inspired a nation; now it’s up to us to ensure their legacy continues.