There are few places that lay society’s deepest prejudices bare quite like a British drinking establishment.
One night in June 2015 – during the halcyon days of my final university summer – I found myself in a sports bar in South London during the England Lionesses’ World Cup quarter-final against Canada. The game had all the ingredients for a classic encounter: here was a chance for an unfancied side to dump the host nation out of the tournament and move a step closer to bringing an international soccer trophy back to English shores for the first time since 1966.
Only, as the game kicked off, it soon became apparent that no one in the bar was watching.
When Jodie Taylor drilled England ahead in the 11th minute, a few punters turned their heads towards the various TV screens on the wall showing the game. Then, in the 14th minute, before the bar-goers were given chance to return to their rum and colas, Lucy Bronze nodded home Fara Williams' free-kick to double the Lionesses’ advantage and stun the Vancouver crowd into silence.
However, what should have been a moment of euphoria at seeing your nation score two goals in three minutes of a World Cup quarter-final instead seemed to arouse an undercurrent of antagonism. Rather than celebrate the goal, some chose to mock the Canadian goalkeeper’s attempt to save the England defender’s header, while others quipped that such a thing would never happen in a men’s soccer game.
To them, this was not David Beckham, Wayne Rooney or an icon of the men’s team firing England to World Cup glory, but rather an unfamiliar, less talented individual scoring in a tournament that was somehow deemed to mean something less.
Lucy Bronze scores England's second goal during their 2015 Fifa Women's World Cup quarter-final against Canada
By the end of the evening, the Lionesses had clung on for a 2-1 win which is widely credited as being the catalyst for an upswing in popularity for women’s soccer in the UK, and one that has finally seen attitudes to the female game start to take a turn for the better.
Many of those previously held archaic views – the overarching one being that the sport somehow belongs to men - were fuelled by a lack of exposure. People did not know when to watch women’s soccer, where to find it, or who the players were. Even I must confess that – despite my well-researched account of the game’s events – I could not name the majority of the Lionesses who lined up to play Canada in 2015.
So - without wanting to fill this column with too many false accusations – it might not be too far-fetched to suggest that James Corden, the English actor better known as the host of the Late Late Show in the US - had little knowledge of Ellen White four years ago – the very same Ellen White who he last week announced on Twitter was one of six forwards called up by the Lionesses for this summer’s Women’s World Cup in France.
In fact, it would not be surprising to learn that Olly Murs, Emma Watson, Greg James, or any of the other 19 English celebrities enlisted by the FA to reveal the Lionesses’ squad in a 23-post Twitter thread had not previously heard of the names they were asked to read out in a brief video clip.
However, whether they were previously fans of England’s women’s soccer players is not what is important here; what is important is that they are now, and that they are using their platform to ensure that thousands of other people will be as well.
Last week’s announcement was the second creative squad reveal in as many years to be rolled out by the FA, which in 2018 made headlines for recruiting young fans from across the country to confirm that the likes of Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Jordan Pickford would be representing England in Russia.
The brief for the FA’s marketing team then, however, was to reengage with a fanbase that had become disillusioned with the England team and felt disconnected from a group of players believed to favour the riches of the club game over the glory that could be achieved on the international stage. Come the end of the tournament, that relationship had been restored beyond expectation.
The FA is looking to grow the profile of the Lionesses after helping the England men's team reconnect with their fans last summer
If last summer was about reconnecting with English soccer fans, the Lionesses’ squad reveal confirmed that the next two months or so have to be about making new connections, thrusting the female game into the mainstream and ensuring that the England women’s team is championed beyond its handful of stars.
If that is indeed the goal, then the FA has arguably never been better placed to achieve it. As well as their new celebrity fans, the Lionesses go into the Women’s World Cup equipped with the backing of new sponsors such as Budweiser, Boots and Lucozade, while the BBC has committed to providing blanket coverage of the tournament.
Put simply, all of this matters. There is likely to be cynicism whenever a company now jumps on the so-called women’s sport bandwagon, but each of those new platforms are already helping the FA to fuel excitement in a tournament that has previously been greeted by a collective rolling of the eyes and shrug of the shoulders.
This is still only the beginning, of course, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility - as others will have suggested already - that women's soccer stands on the cusp of a tipping point heading into this summer's World Cup. The Lionesses' squad reveal suggested that the FA is set on inspiring that step change sooner rather than later.