England expects as record crowds flock to Euro 2022
England will play host to the women's European Championship over the next month with record crowds raising hopes the tournament will take the female game's rising profile to an even higher level.
Nearly half a million tickets have been sold to fans in 100 countries, including sell-outs for the opening game at Old Trafford when England face Austria on Wednesday and the final at Wembley on July 31.
Initially scheduled for 2021, UEFA moved the tournament back a year after the men's Euro 2020 had to be delayed 12 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As governing bodies scrambled to restart the men's competitions as soon as possible to secure lucrative broadcast income, even the elite end of the women's game was treated as somewhat of an afterthought.
But aided by a rare space in the men's football calendar due to the later start to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the stars of the European game on the women's side have the chance to take centre stage.
The five years since the last women's Euro, won by the Netherlands on home soil, have been transformative for the sport.
Money has flowed in from new sponsors, television rights deals and major clubs now prepared to spend big on improving the standards of their women's teams.
That investment is expected to be reflected at international level in the most competitive women's Euro to date, with half of the 16 teams regarded as realistic contenders.
"The top of the pyramid became a bit wider," UEFA's head of women's football Nadine Kessler told AFP.
"It's good that so many contenders, so many teams, have even declared ambitions publicly that they all want to go for it."
After losing three consecutive semi-finals, England have to handle the weight of expectation to win a first major tournament on home soil.
The Lionesses have Euro-winning experience on their side, though, in the form of manager Sarina Wiegman, who led the Dutch to the title in 2017.
"I think we are in a very good place," said Wiegman, who is unbeaten in 14 games as England boss since taking charge in September.
Norway are expected to post the biggest threat to England in Group A, with former Ballon d'Or winner Ada Hegerberg back after a self-imposed five-year exile from international football.
Spain are the pre-tournament favorites as they boast the backbone of talent that has turned Barcelona into a dominant force of the club game, including reigning Ballon d'Or winner Alexia Putellas.
But La Roja will have to get out of the group of death also featuring eight-time winners Germany and 2017 finalists Denmark.
The clash between holders the Netherlands and Olympic silver medallists Sweden in Group C is another highlight of the group stage.
"This summer is probably one of the biggest chances to put women's football on the map," said Netherlands and Arsenal star Vivianne Miedema.
France, Italy, Belgium and Iceland make up what appears the most balanced section in Group D.
'Times are changing'
However, the selection of the 4,400 capacity Manchester City Academy Stadium for three matches in that group was lambasted as "embarrassing" and "disrespectful" by Iceland midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir.
The 7,800-capacity Leigh Sports Village will also host four matches, including a quarter-final.
But organisers have defended their choice of venues with Brighton, Brentford, Milton Keynes, Rotherham, Sheffield and Southampton the other hosts.
"We think we've got the balance about right," said the English Football Association's director of women's football, Sue Campbell.
The opening game will break the 41,000 attendance record for a game at the women's Euro by over 30,000, with a near 90,000 crowd for the final.
"The times are changing and we are really excited for all that visibility of all the kids seeing women's sport," said England's all-time record goalscorer Ellen White. "Hopefully we can inspire them."
After being shunted into the shadows for too long, Europe's best female players will again have a stage on which to shine.