If you passed through central London this morning and happened to walk by Trafalgar Square, you might be forgiven for forgetting that Sunday was the day the women’s England team attempted to end 57 years of World Cup heartache. Aside from the hum of traffic, the famous national viewing point was abandoned due to “long-standing maintenance”. The square was left empty, without a big screen or a football shirt in sight.
But if you had continued your stroll and headed east, towards the famous Boxpark in Shoreditch, you would have had no doubts at all. It was 10am on Sunday, and England’s female football fans were beginning to arrive. Two streets away, chants of “Sarina you’re the one” could be heard (a chant in praise of England’s manager Sarina Wiegman), rising above the noisy comings and goings of cars and shops.
During the various men’s World Cup matches, Boxpark’s bars became synonymous with the men of football. Beers are thrown in the air in celebration. Groups of friends are pictured climbing on top of each other as they cheer on a goal. Shirts are off and drinks are drunk. This World Cup though, things were different.
Outside this east London Boxpark, I joined the small queue of early arrivals. Groups of young women in vintage 1990 England shirts followed behind me; cups of coffee in their hands. Quickly though, it was clear that the coffee had more to do with the early start than a lack of festivity. “We put the event live as soon as the final whistle blew at the semi-final. We sold out the tickets in eight minutes,” one of Boxpark’s staff told me, as they hurriedly showed me to my seat.
It was an hour until kick-off and the room was bubbling. Groups of female friends in their early twenties took turns painting St George’s flags on each other’s cheeks. A grandma and her two granddaughters sat on one of the long benches, close enough to the big screen. They drank pints of beer, whilst sporadically sipping on their flat whites. A mother and her infant daughter sat behind them, her daughter wearing a football shirt as a dress; her feet hidden under its trail.
Jade Leavesley, 26, happened to be wearing two football shirts. “It’s for good luck,” she tells me, with a raspberry and lime cider in her hand. “I had two computers up to get these tickets, we were refreshing the page loads. I got them in two minutes.”
A longtime football fan, Leavesley is well aware that equality for the women’s game is still far away. Prince William, who is the president of the Football Association (FA), has been criticised for not flying out for the historic match. In a video message, alongside his daughter Princess Charlotte, he said they were “sorry we can’t be there in person.”
Leavesley rolls her eyes. “They would have given us the day off if the men were playing, for sure,” she says. “And Prince William would have definitely gone to the final.” Her friends nod in agreement. “So f**king sexist,” one chimes in.
As we got closer to game time, the bar begins to fill and latecomers resign themselves to standing. Looking around the bar, only a sprinkle of men line a sea of women. One of these men is Billy Nicholas, 40, from nearby Hackney. “I only started watching the women’s football after they won the Euros,” he says, with a coffee in front of him. “My stepdaughter, who is 14, plays and she has really got into it. She is currently watching it in Barcelona.”
Nicholas notes that he is surprised by the number of families that have come to see the game. “You don’t get that as much with men’s football. I think that’s because women bring the family together,” he says. “It’s still passionate though. It’s nice to see a lot of young women here, for the next generation.”
The number of young families is striking. Instead of screaming men, fidgeting toddlers sit on their mother’s laps, entranced by their busy surroundings. “I have been a football fan my whole life,” says Chelsea Urch, 25, and mother to her two-year-old son. “As a family with a young son, the atmosphere at the women’s game is great. It’s what football should be about. The amount of animosity at male football games can be high,” she says.
Urch wants her son to be surrounded by sports in this friendly atmosphere. “It’s how I want him to learn about football,” she says. “He doesn’t understand that there might be any difference between the men’s and women’s games. He loves it.”
Still, despite the unusually high number of families, beer and rum punches are flowing. At half-time, with Spain 1-0 up, the atmosphere is muted. Groups of friends drink their pints quietly. Instead of turning their anxiety onto the players though, the female fans look elsewhere.
Since the Women’s World Cup began in July, fans have complained that Nike, the England shirt supplier is not selling Mary Earps’s kit, despite her title as the world’s best women’s goalkeeper at last year’s Best Fifa Football Awards. “Women’s football is still not where it needs to be,” Olivia Harrald, 21, tells me as she sits with her friends. “There’s still progress to be made. The keepers kit isn’t even on sale at the minute, which I think is a big shortfall [in terms of representation].”
For the men in the room though, the atmosphere was surprisingly cheery. “In a men’s game, fans would have definitely shouted at the players,” says Warren Lee, 31. “The crowd here is still being so supportive. No one is angry.” As a football fan, Lee is excited that the women’s game is being increasingly embraced by men. “It means we now have a summer tournament every year with men’s euros, then women’s euros the year after.”
Following a painfully close second half, England eventually lost to Spain. And as the full-time whistle blew, silence took over the bar. Friends looked at each other for guidance. A few people immediately got up to leave, but far more chose to linger. England’s women might have lost, but there was a confusing tension: there is so much to celebrate. For one of the first times in the game’s international history, women’s football had clawed back the respect it deserves.
Amidst this lull, Boxpark’s hired DJ walked over to the decks. He put on his headphones and began to play England’s unofficial anthem by Mel C, “Self Esteem” and 10 other female musicians: “Call me a Lioness” immediately cut through the silence.
For Leavesley and her two shirts, this was still a massive day of celebration. “It means absolutely everything. It’s a huge achievement anyway,” she says. “This flag I’m wearing can just be a massive tissue.”