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The moment is crushing but the positive momentum is unstoppable

Our chief executive Tim Hollingsworth on the Lionesses’ success and the work we're doing to inspire a new generation of girls to play football.

20th August 2023

by Tim Hollingworth
Chied executive, Sport England

While Mary Earps’ immediate reaction to her penalty save perhaps feels more apposite, it was actually former player Fara Williams, pitch side just after the final whistle, who best captured how I was feeling. 

“They’ve lost but they’re still heroes. The first England team to make a World Cup final since 1966…”

The loss today cuts deep for me as a fan, just as it will for the millions nationwide who woke this morning genuinely expecting the win. 

England's World Cup squad after the full time whistle

They way the team has played over the tournament, the talent on display, the will to win and the culture underpinning it all – it all pointed to a moment of triumph. What it didn’t take into account was the small margins that are always there at the highest level in sport, and most particularly the true excellence of a Spanish team that made a mockery of their supposed disunity. 

It will be a while until the crush of disappointment disappears. But it will – and it should. Because what this tournament has demonstrated in spades is the extraordinary continuing rise of women’s football and the opportunity that presents. 

Having had the privilege of being in Auckland for the opening game and in Sydney to see England’s group game win against Denmark last month I saw first hand how both host countries had taken the tournament to their hearts. Then to come back and watch the Lionesses take the country by storm yet again, following what was unforgettable success last summer in the Euro’s.  

But it is much more than that. From my professional vantage point the progress of women’s football has not been limited to the national side, or the way the WSL is hurtling into the mainstream of sport in this country. 

"The Lionesses’ success, and the way they’ve conducted themselves, can and will inspire a new generation of girls to lace up their boots and take to the pitch."

Sport England’s most recent Active Lives Childrens and Young People’s Survey showed that there are now 100,000 more girls playing football compared to 2017/18. For adults, we’ve seen also significant growth, especially in the 16-24 age group which is an age we know that too often young women drift away from sport.

It’s fair to say this increase has not happened by chance. There may be some disagreements currently around the national team which need sorting quickly, but the Football Association has to its credit invested heavily in women’s and girls football over recent years (driven by the unmatchable Baroness Sue Campbell), while their excellent Inspiring Positive Change strategy aims to provide equal access to football by 2024.

Programmes such as their Wildcats and Just Play have acted as a catalyst and, today, two thirds of schools offer equal access to football for girls in PE lessons. That gap will continue to close. 

At Sport England, we’re doing all we can to support this growth. We’re investing £26 million of funding to the FA between 2022 and 2027, the vast majority of which comes from the National Lottery, and an additional £2 million to support SQUAD a new recreational offer for teenage girls, aimed at filling the gap in provision for 12–14-year-olds.

We’ve also provided £2.25 million to create an inclusive and accessible talent pathway to help ensure that future national squads are representative of the population, and supported offers in cities that hosted games in the Euros to ensure the last summer’s tournament had a lasting impact.   

Our long-term Uniting the Movement strategy aims to tackle long-standing inequalities and the gender activity gap is an important part of this.

The Lionesses’ success, and the way they’ve conducted themselves, can and will inspire a new generation of girls to lace up their boots and take to the pitch, while our partnership with the FA will ensure, whatever level they play, that girls will have the opportunities to take part and enjoy the benefits of playing football and being physically active.

This can be brilliantly bolstered too by the expansion of pitches and other facilities, including small sided and informal places to play in urban areas, that is being driven through the Government, FA and Premier League investment into the Football Foundation.   

So while today hurts, there is no doubt for me that what the team has achieved will have a lasting impact that will benefit millions of girls for generations to come. And who knows, after that world class performance, you may even soon be able to buy your daughter a Mary Earps goalkeeping shirt….

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