The first ball is still to be kicked, but already records have begun tumbling as England prepares to host the Women’s Euro 2022, which begins on Wednesday.
The curtain raiser, between Austria and England at Old Trafford, takes place against a backdrop of soaring ticket sales, with Uefa revealing on Friday that a record 500,000 have already been snapped up for the 26-day tournament.
All the Lionesses’ group stage games sold out months ago and tickets are no longer available for the Wembley final, where 87,200 spectators are expected on 31 July.
“We’ve already sold double what they sold in the Netherlands for Euro 2017 [a then-record 240,000],” said Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA’s head of women’s football. “We’ve got a total ticket capacity of 725,000 so there’s still availability.”
Due to a pandemic-induced 12-month delay, it is five years since the last tournament was staged in the Netherlands, where 28,102 people watched the host nation beat Denmark 4-2 in the final in Enschede.
To date 43% of seats – priced between £5 and £50 – have been bought by women and 21% ordered for under-16s, while more than 96,000 – another record – have been bought by overseas fans in 99 countries.
It’s not just in the stands that record numbers will be watching. For the first time almost all of the 31 matches will be broadcast on either BBC One or BBC Two.
With most games kicking off at 8pm, Uefa is confident of exceeding the 178 million worldwide television viewers who tuned in to Euro 2017.
Indeed, the expectation is that more than 250 million viewers will tune in to watch an event for which TV rights have been sold to countries across Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, north Africa and Asia.
“Our aim is twofold,” said Campbell. “To deliver a record-breaking tournament and a legacy to grow the women’s game.”
This is the second time England has hosted the Euros, but this year’s 16-team tournament’s structure is radically different from 2005, when only eight countries took part and all the matches were played at grounds in the north- west. A crowd of 21,105 turned up to watch Germany beat Norway 3-1 in the final at Blackburn’s Ewood Park.
Seventeen years ago the players were part-timers but now many, including England’s entire squad, are full-time professionals, with most of the regular internationals commanding six-figure salaries.
Whereas in 2005 England’s players were amazed to see handfuls of fans wearing replica shirts adorned with their names for the first time, stars of this year’s Euros – including Spain’s Ballon d’Or winning midfielder Alexia Putellas, Norway’s striker Ada Hegerberg, the Netherlands’ forward Vivianne Miedema and England’s right back Lucy Bronze, arguably the world’s finest player in that position – are household names.
Breakthrough talents can expect generous sponsorship deals. After illuminating Euro 2017, the Netherlands winger Lieke Martens acquired lucrative commercial tie-ups with Nike and PepsiCo and became the face of Dutch jewellery brand Zinzi.
For most England fans, the success of the tournament will come down to how well the host team performs. English optimism that, after consecutive semi-final exits in the last three major tournaments, their team can finally win a trophy is bolstered by Sarina Wiegman’s appointment as manager.
The 52-year-old Dutchwoman choreographed the Oranje’s Euro 2017 triumph, and since joining the Lionesses last September has presided over 12 wins, two draws, while scoring 84 goals and conceding only three.
Following England’s final warm-up fixture in Zurich on Thursday – a comfortable 4-0 deconstruction of Switzerland – the invariably circumspect, understated Wiegman seemed optimistic. “We always have things to improve, but we’re in a very good place,” she said. “This is going to be the biggest women’s event in Europe ever. It’s a chance to make everyone proud.”
Although her team should make it out of an initial group that includes Austria, Northern Ireland and Norway, they are likely to face competition from France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, in particular, during the knockout stages.
“It’s going to be a very strong, very equal Euros,” acknowledged Wiegman.