The Women’s European Championships kicks off at Old Trafford next Wednesday and even though the Republic of Ireland did not qualify, I have no doubt there will be plenty of interest on this island.
Just like the World Cup in 2019, every game will be shown live on RTÉ2. This is an important commitment from our national broadcaster. We learned three years ago just how important this is — “can’t see, can’t be” — but now that the women’s game is beginning to stand on its own two feet, here comes a great opportunity for people to see just how good the top level of the game has become.
For Irish football supporters, who can watch every game this month, we dare to dream of what might lie ahead
The money is getting serious, as is the scrutiny created by additional coverage, and technically and tactically the sport is delivering truly elite competition.
Women’s football can stand as its own pillar in world sport and the Euros will reinforce this reality.
The hosts are definitely taking it seriously. England are serious contenders, which comes with a new pressure that they must embrace under new manager, Sarina Wiegman. The Dutch woman was at the helm for the Netherlands when they won the Euros in 2017, so I expect England to have a new depth to their play.
Wiegman has all the experience needed to guide them through the pressure cooker of expectations but they also have a very talented squad of players, with options in every position and players who have had to displayed incredible resilience to reach this tournament.
The number two side in the world, Sweden, are the tournament’s highest ranked team and go into the competition as favourites but also as a mature group, with many of their players in the latter stages of impressive careers. They feature for Europe’s top clubs, like Chelsea captain Magdalena Ericsson and striker Stina Blackstenius who is Katie McCabe’s team-mate at Arsenal.
Sweden are a side that Vera Pauw’s Ireland know well, as they currently top our World Cup qualifying group, with Ireland second after beating Georgia 9-0 on Monday evening. The Swedes are a team we know Ireland can compete with. The girls in green drew 1-1 with them in Gothenburg last April (thanks to McCabe’s wickedly deflected goal) and that bodes well for a team with genuine aspirations of qualifying for next summer’s World Cup.
Alongside England and Sweden, the Netherlands should also have a big say in the Euros, despite losing the manager who brought them through the qualifying campaign, while Germany can never be ignored.
For me though, the teams to watch are Norway, Spain and France.
Norway are in Group A, alongside England, but notably, Ada Hegerberg is back in their squad. After being the first ever female footballer to win a Ballon d’Or in 2018, she famously choose exile from her national team for their 2019 World Cup campaign due to her frustrations with how the women’s team were being treated.
She will lead Norway’s line, having returned to the national team in April with an instant hat-trick against Kosovo. She won the Champions League with Lyon in May and having seen her live in that game, I can attest to how much she influences those around her. Hederburg really understands the game, manages it and has the ability, in every facet, to play it.
Norway will have a big say in this competition. They face England in Brighton on July 11th.
Spain, who have never won a major international tournament, are genuinely interesting due to the emphatic emergence of Barcelona as the new powerhouse in the women’s club game. Alexia Putellas is worth the admission fee alone when they open their campaign against Finland — Ireland’s primary obstacle to reaching the World Cup — in Milton Keyes next Friday.
Spain were outsiders going into the 2017 Euros but since then the majority of their players have been playing in, and winning, the Champions League so their credentials coming into Euro 2022 have to be those of contenders and it will be fascinating to see how the successes of the domestic game in Spain transfer to the national team when it really matters.
Finally France, a team that are as perplexing as they are talented. With some of the best players in the world at their disposal, disharmony in the ranks has been their biggest weakness. The will go into the Euros without former captain and midfield maestro, Amandine Henry, after manager Corinne Diacre decided to exclude the 32 year-old.
This is a hugely significant omission because Henry was player of the match in the Champions League final when Lyon emphatically disposed of Barcelona. Henry orchestrated the victory from midfield.
It’s as much our loss as it is France’s that she won’t feature but off field disagreements between players and manager that affected France’s World Cup in 2019 have not gone away.
The Republic of Ireland are not involved so, like 1982 and 1986, we will focus on Northern Ireland. They have a very tough group with England, Norway and Austria for company and under the management of Kenny Shiels they could certainly make a few headlines!
But for Irish football supporters, who can watch every game this month, we dare to dream of what might lie ahead for burgeoning generations of female footballers on the biggest stage. Bring it on!