England and Lauren Hemp lead the way in Women’s Euros that promise much

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At Old Trafford on Wednesday night the Women’s European Championship will get under way in front of a crowd of 73,000. England, the tournament hosts, will play Austria with Sarina Wiegman’s team hoping to prove their credentials as leading contenders for the trophy. Alongside a lavish opening ceremony, it is guaranteed there will be fireworks – a showcase for a sport exploding in popularity.

When England last hosted a Women’s European Championship finals, in 2005, the mood was very different. The coach of the national team – the pioneering Hope Powell – declared before the tournament that “the women’s game here is a second-class sport”. Her players were part-time, matches were played only in the north-west, and only eight teams took part. Lennart Johansson, then the president of Uefa, suggested one way to grow the sport further might be for sponsors to run campaigns featuring a “sweaty, lovely looking girl” playing in the rain.

Related: David Squires on … Euro 2022 coming to merry old England

Johansson’s words were thankfully ignored, and 2005 began a long journey of growth for women’s football in England. The team were popular, with players such as Karen Carney, Kelly Smith and Eni Aluko, alongside Powell, going on to become well known. Participation in football among women and girls began to rise and the proposed idea of a professional women’s league started to take shape.

In 2022, Powell is the head coach of Brighton & Hove Albion, who compete in the FA Women’s Super League, a fully professional competition that last year signed what is thought to be the biggest broadcasting rights deal in women’s football history. In 2020, before the onset of Covid, 3.14 million women and girls were playing the sport in England, double the total of three years previous. Carney, meanwhile, is a respected pundit, including with the Guardian, one of a growing number of female voices who analyse all forms of the game in the media.

The challenge for Women’s Euro 2022 is to move the game on further and there are already positive signs. Uefa confirmed last week that 500,000 match tickets had been sold for the 16-team tournament, more than double the number of the previous Euro finals in the Netherlands in 2017. All bar one of the knockout matches are sold out, and every fixture will be shown live on the BBC (and, according to Uefa, in 194 other countries). A global audience of 250 million is predicted; for women’s football few moments have matched the potential of the next three weeks.

There will be no more effective amplifier of this potential, from a domestic perspective at least, than a strong run for Wiegman’s side. The Dutch coach has made a decisive impression since taking over the England role last autumn. Her demanding standards and team-focused approach have led to a record of 12 wins and two draws in her 14 games with an astonishing 84 goals scored and only three conceded.

Wiegman has moved her captain, Leah Williamson, from defence to midfield to make her team more robust. She has nurtured a productive understanding between the record goalscorer Ellen White and the electric 21-year-old winger Lauren Hemp, who could be the tournament’s breakout star. Wiegman has experience, youth and confidence in her squad, but it is not a guarantee that England will even win their group, with Norway and icon of the game Ada Hegerberg standing in their way.

Competition for the title doesn’t stop there. Spain are many people’s favourites, blessed with the current world player of the year, the attacking midfielder Alexia Putellas, alongside a host of talent from Barcelona and Real Madrid. France boast a key contingent from the European champions Lyon, and did not concede a goal in qualifying. In 2017 Wiegman led her home nation to victory and the Netherlands remain strong challengers, with Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema leading the line.

If you want an underdog, don’t look further than Northern Ireland, who have qualified for their first tournament and are the lowest-ranked side. Off the field there will be entertainment too with a series of fan festivals and cultural programmes in places such as Milton Keynes and Rotherham, not traditional host venues for football tournaments.

Related: Just the ticket: Ella Toone splashes out for England’s Old Trafford opener

If there has been one controversy to this point it has been over the locations, with some smaller and less well-connected stadiums chosen as official venues. Iceland’s Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir described hosting fixtures at the 4,700-capacity Manchester City Academy Stadium as “disrespectful”. On Tuesday afternoon tickets remained available for 13 of the 24 group stage matches.

The European tournament comes on the back of a domestic club season in England during which average attendances slipped back to roughly half what they were before the pandemic. For Maggie Murphy, chief executive of Lewes FC and a leading voice in the women’s game, the proof of success for this tournament will be if the crowds start coming back.

“I think that there’s a number of fans who come to watch women’s games once a year, who might treat it like they would going to the theatre,” she said. “What we’re really trying to do is figure out whether it’s possible to turn some of those supporters into regular fans.

“This is a really great time for the Euros to be here, to see if we can strike up the habit again. There’s no doubt we’ve got some of the best players in the world playing in England week in, week out, and [we want] people to want to go and see those stars play across the country. Not just at Arsenal and Chelsea but also at Durham and at Coventry and also at Lewes as well.”

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