England beat Austria in a record-breaking and jubilant Euro 2022 opener last night – but the real joy for Um-E-Aymen Babar is in witnessing first-hand how the women’s game can pave the way towards inclusivity for female South Asian supporters like her.
There’s no better welcome to a city you’ve just moved to than your national team winning their opening game in the European Championships on home soil.
Last night England beat Austria 1-0 in the opening game of the Uefa Women’s Euro 2022 in Manchester. It was my first time attending a Women’s Euros game and the anticipation had been brewing since the early hours when I put on my England shirt. Noticeably, however, this time there was a big difference to previous occasions I’d donned my team colours and headed to a match.
While there was still excitement in the atmosphere, it was controlled and calm. People were cheering and spirits were high, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable. Attending a men’s football game as a South Asian woman has always made me feel anxious. I’ve been worried at the possibility of being groped, having racial abuse hurled at me, and not knowing how people, particularly men, may react if their team loses. This time it was different and, despite England winning, being able to feel comfortable and welcomed at a football game is what made it memorable for me.
Fans were gathered outside the stadium hours before the 8pm kick-off, wearing England’s new kit featuring an iridescent logo, and taking pictures outside Old Trafford with the Holy Trinity of George Best, Denis Law, and Sir Bobby Charlton. Austria fans also arrived with a similar passion, flags draped over their shoulders and taking photos outside the stadium. There were 68,871 fans in attendance, a record-breaking number for the Women’s Euros, and it was clear the England team wanted to make history.
The opening ceremony saw fireworks that filled the air with red and blue smoke, and a performance with dancers carrying flags and Women’s Euro signs across the pitch. The teams then marched on to sing their national anthem as the crowd stood up to sing along.
Beth Mead opened the scoring for England in the 16th minute of the game and the crowd roared in celebration as the striker turned to the fans with her hands in the air. The initial excitement was short-lived as VAR checked for a possible offside, but in the end the goal was given; sure enough, the buzz returned again. It may not have been the Lionesses’ best performance, but their aim was to win and they did just that, extending their unbeaten run to 15 games.
Aside from securing an important win to open the home Euros, the most memorable and striking part of the evening was the record-breaking attendance. The feeling that I was part of a landmark historic moment in women’s football was exhilarating. Fans headed back to the tram station in the hundreds, limbs draped over each other, sporting smudged face paint that not even the northern weather could rub off, with the chorus of ‘It’s Coming Home’ bouncing all around us.
The night ended with fans cheerfully singing Sweet Caroline, waving their England flags, and giving each other plenty of hugs. It was a moment I wanted to capture and keep; it felt like the start of something special. We had seen the Nike campaign a few days before which projected epic displays of the Lionesses onto landmarks across London, and last night was a testament to results you get when you invest into women’s football: you make history.
The question remains, though, how can we continue this momentum throughout the year? Women’s football has grown exponentially over the past few years and is lauded for being an inclusive, welcoming environment – my enjoyment of the game last night is testament to that.
But that is not to say that women’s football does not have its own problems. The lack of diversity within the game is a glaring problem. There are only three non-white players in England’s 23-woman squad for the Euros.
Importantly though, we have seen concerted efforts to implement changes within women’s football. The PFA recently launched their ‘See It. Achieve It’ campaign to help increase Black, Asian, and minority ethnic representation in women’s football. It is led by Fern Whelan, the former Brighton defender who joined the PFA last year as the first women’s football equality, diversity, and inclusion executive.
To feel safe at a football match as a South Asian woman was a privilege and one that I really hope will continue. But I also hope one day my safety won’t have to feel like a special ‘privilege’, and instead will be the default experience for football fans like me.
Within women’s football it feels like we have more control, and more potential to make that a consistent reality. The game is growing, and as it grows it continues to be more malleable than the men’s game. This was my biggest takeaway from it all, as I stumbled home, rewatching my Instagram stories, desperately trying to relive every moment of a magical, game-changing evening.
Follow Um-E-Aymen Babar on Twitter @ItsUmeAymen