To my mild shame, I haven’t been among the record-breaking TV audiences watching the 2022 Women’s Euros. The football tournament concludes this Sunday with the final in which, a BBC notification informed me on Tuesday night, the “brilliant” England team have earned themselves a place. I could cite being busy (I haven’t been watching Love Island either) but that’s only a proximate cause. Almost nothing would have stopped me watching every single England game of a men’s Euros, which is of course exactly what I did last summer, when the men’s team also reached the final of the delayed Euro 2020 tournament (the first time they’d got to the final of any major tournament since winning the World Cup in 1966).
For days last summer you could see a brown splatter on the ceiling of my local pub where some overexcited imbecile had launched his Guinness, of all things, into the air at the final whistle, showering his neighbours with smashed glass and stout. You can still see a curved indent in the plaster made by the rim of his glass. If memory serves, this display of euphoric vandalism occurred not during the semis, nor even the quarter-finals: it was during the last 16 (which was against Germany, to be fair). I’ll remember that ecstatic night for the rest of my life – which is to say of course, I’ve totally forgotten it, especially the sensation of untrammelled collective euphoria, probably only otherwise attainable with the aid of chemicals. All that remains is the knowledge that it happened, and the stylised dream which I began superimposing on the real experience even while it was unfolding.
My shunning of the women’s Euros comes not from any prejudicial assessment of the calibre of the women’s game. (“Shunning” is too strong since, even with the media coverage, the success of the Lionesses, the sold-out stadiums and crowd zones, it’s been easy not to watch – still, it seems, the path of least resistance.) Rather, my neglect, or so I suspect, stems chiefly from envy, the legacy of a childhood loss I’ve ignobly nurtured into an adult grudge. As I wrote about a couple of years ago, I was a devoted footballer as a child. Like virtually all boys but very few girls at the time, I wanted to play professionally until roughly the age of 12, when the sport was brutally segregated. At that point, no longer allowed to play with boys (as I always had, because so few girls played and even fewer played well), the road before me seemed to abruptly fork: the choice was between incredibly serious, life-consuming proto-professional football and football of such poor quality it stopped being fun – with girls who, thanks to decades of discouragement and under-investment, hadn’t developed the casual technical competency that most boys acquired without even thinking about it.
It suddenly seemed all or nothing, in effect, and after briefly dabbling in all – going to trials, training multiple evenings a week in London suburbs, playing for a club – I chose, or settled for, nothing. I’m sure my decision was overdetermined, the result of many factors (craven fear of injury, scholastic enthusiasm etc), but it can’t have been irrelevant that the “all” then available, as it presented itself to me anyway, in south London in the mid-2000s, wasn’t exactly irresistibly appetising or glamorous – wasn’t even visible (the women’s game in the UK was barely professional, let alone televised). Jess Bhamra, after all, as I noted in the last piece, leaves for the US to pursue her footballing career at the end of Bend It Like Beckham, a film, 20 years old this year, which I treated like a kind of cinematic scripture, rewatching it with the baffling stamina kids have for repetition.
I probably only dreamed of playing professionally for five years, but when you’re seven, five years lasts a long time. Indeed, if John Berger was right when he made the terrifying suggestion that your childhood lasts in experience as long as the rest of your life, then that pre-adolescent juncture was arguably my mid-life crisis. It’s also perfectly possible, going by the high standard of the women’s game now, that I wasn’t good enough anyway to make it professionally (nearly everyone told me I was but that was just the currency of praise then, so rare was the sight of a girl as good as or better than the boys).
I now play happily once or twice a week (in an amateur league that happens to be all-male except for me) but the weekly reminder of my truncated technical development, paused at 12, still smarts. Such losses – of childhood dreams, talents and foreclosed trajectories – are of course commonplace, if not universal. Nonetheless, witnessing the flourishing of women’s football – rationally, I know, an unambiguous cause for emphatic celebration but arriving cruelly soon after my own decision to give up the sport – activates my residual bitterness. And so I find myself not watching it.
Cycling home on Tuesday evening – from a pub where the women’s football was playing, though no one seemed to be watching – I thought about what a deliriously special night it would have been were it the men’s team getting through to a final, a night we’d milk and cherish, discuss elatedly for weeks, and remember (ie, in its fundamentals, forget) forever. How the rest of life – anxieties, disappointments, sadnesses – would temporarily subside, paling in comparison to the sublime thought of the final this weekend. How great it would be, I reflected, if women’s Euros and World Cups were as fanatically anticipated, as socially significant, culturally momentous and summer-dominating as the men’s tournaments.
Such cultural change doesn’t happen overnight, of course – and, though clearly under way, may never completely materialise at all – and it can’t exactly be willed into being either. But I’m coming round to the magnanimous resolve to do my bit – to put away childish hang-ups and, even if it at first requires some effort and artifice, to transmute my bruised indifference into extravagant enthusiasm, to consciously lend my support to the spectacle that I hope will soon inexorably draw us all in.