England and Austria will lift the curtain on Euro 2022 on Wednesday for a tournament aimed at taking the women’s game to another level over the next month.
Over half a million tickets have been sold to fans in 100 countries, including sold-out tickets for the opener at Old Trafford and the final at Wembley on July 31.
“It’s a huge moment for us – the biggest of all time – but it also gives us the platform to launch and really take the game to another level,” said Nadine Kessler, head of women’s football. at UEFA.
“These great advancements in the game will continue to positively change perceptions of women’s football, but we want to do more.
“Keep raising the standards of our competitions from youth level to senior levels, increase visibility around the world and host top level tournaments like this.”
Originally scheduled for 2021, UEFA pushed the tournament back a year after the men’s Euro 2020 had to be delayed by 12 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Helped by a rare place in the men’s football calendar due to the late start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the stars of the European game on the women’s side have the chance to take center stage.
UEFA estimates the television audience for the tournament at 250 million.
The five years since the last Women’s Euro, won by the Netherlands at home, have been transformative for the sport.
Money poured in from new sponsors, TV rights deals and big clubs now willing to spend big to improve the standards of their women’s teams.
Still, the €16m ($17m) prize money pales in comparison to the €331m offered to nations competing at the Men’s Euro last year.
Defending the discrepancy, Kessler admitted that European football’s governing body will suffer a “significant loss” in hosting the tournament due to a fivefold increase in facilities spending compared to the last Women’s Euro.
– England awaits –
That investment should be reflected on the pitch in the most competitive Women’s Euro yet, with half of the 16 teams seen as realistic contenders.
After losing three consecutive semi-finals, England must manage the weight of expectation to win a first major tournament on home soil.
The Lionesses do, however, have Euro-winning experience in the form of manager Sarina Wiegman, who led the Dutch to the title in 2017.
“The level is so high now that it’s really hard to predict what it will look like when the tournament is over,” Wiegman said on Tuesday.
“A lot of countries are in a good position, so are we. In tournaments, strange things can happen and we hope we can take advantage of that.”
Norway are set to pose England’s biggest threat in Group A, with former Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg returning after a self-imposed five-year exile from international football.
Spain are bookmakers’ favorites heading into the tournament thanks to the backbone of talent that has made Barcelona a dominant force in club play.
But La Roja have been rocked by a knee injury to reigning Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas which ruled her out of the tournament.
Spain must also come out of the group of death with Germany, eight times winners, and Denmark, runners-up in 2017, as well as Finland.
Another highlight of the group stage is the clash between defending champions Netherlands and Olympic silver medalists Sweden in Group C.
France, Italy, Belgium and Iceland make up what looks to be the most balanced section of Group D.
– “Just” stadium balance –
However, the selection of the 4,400 capacity Manchester City Academy Stadium for three matches in this group has been lambasted as “embarrassing” and “disrespectful” by Icelandic midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir.
The 7,800-capacity Leigh Sports Village will also host four matches, including a quarter-final.
But organizers have defended their choice of venues with Brighton, Brentford, Milton Keynes, Rotherham, Sheffield and Southampton the other hosts.
“We think we’ve struck the right balance,” said England Football Association director of women’s football Sue Campbell.
The opening match will break the record attendance of 41,000 for a Women’s Euro match by over 30,000, with nearly 90,000 spectators for the final.