In the last seconds of the game, Ona Sánchez couldn’t sit down. Then, when the referee finally blew to confirm that Spain had won the Women’s World Cup, she and the people around her — women, men, parents and other fans who had gathered to watch the match in Sant Pere de Ribes, near Barcelona — burst into cheers.
“Champions! Champions! Olé, olé, olé!” Ona and her friend Laura Solorzano, both 11, and wearing a Spanish flag, sang in the small town’s central cobblestone square while other supporters sprinkled water from a nearby fountain. The two friends, both players at a local soccer club, said they couldn’t have hoped for a better ending.
“This is the first time I’ve watched the World Cup,” Ona said, emerging from a group of dancing children. “And we won! I’m really happy! It fills me with hope.”
Spain’s first victory in the Women’s World Cup and England’s run to the final were not the only formidable achievements for teams that transformed themselves into perennial title contenders in just a few years. They are also an encouraging message to the many girls in both countries who are increasingly involved in the sport: Women, too, can lift a country to the top of the soccer world.
The final reflects the rising interest and investment in women’s soccer in Spain and England, where more and more girls are joining clubs and leagues that are growing in size and professionalism — a profound change in the countries where soccer has long been the preserve of all powerful men. teams, and one that is likely to accelerate after this year’s World Cup.
“The perception of women’s soccer has changed,” said Dolors Ribalta Alcalde, a specialist in women’s sports at Ramon Llull University in Barcelona. “It is now seen as a real and exciting opportunity for girls. This World Cup, with its high profile, will have an impact on how people view women’s soccer. It will help taking a big step forward.
In England, the mood was more somber as the national team’s hopes of following up European Championship success were dashed. However, professional and recreational leagues have seen an increase in interest in recent years from women and girls, in a country that considers itself the spiritual home of the game. The Lionesses’ progress to the final only fueled that optimism.
“This is a catalyst for change,” said Shani Glover, an equal game ambassador for the London Football Association, which has promised to encourage girls and women to play at both professional and recreational levels. An advocate for that shift, Ms. Glover said he saw a growing interest in girls signing up to the sport, particularly after England won the European Championship. “Having women center stage – it changes the mind-set of the public,” she said.
“If it’s like before, I can’t be motivated; it was quite isolated,” said Cerys Davies, 15, watching the final from a community center in East London. Cerys trains several times a week at a football academy focuses on giving unfortunate players a path to elite careers. “It’s good that women are getting the recognition and support they need,” she said, adding that she was heartened to see the crowd in the stadium for the final. “It lets me know that I’m going to be supported,” she said.
In Sant Pere de Ribes, residents don’t have to wait for this year’s World Cup to benefit from the new spotlight on women’s soccer.
Aitana Bonmatí, the Spanish star midfielder who was named the best player of the tournament, grew up in the town and played for the local youth soccer club for several years. When Ms. succeeded Bonmatí, many girls took up soccer, hoping to follow in his footsteps.
“Our club has grown a lot,” said Tino Herrero Cervera, the club’s manager, noting that the number of girls’ teams has jumped from one to 10 since 2014. The girls are now make up a third of the club’s players.
“Seeing Aitana become a good player motivates me,” said Laura, who wants to become a professional soccer player. His team won the youth league championship this year with a 14-point lead over the runner-up.
“They are the next Aitana,” said Mr. Herrero about Laura and Ona, smiling. He added that the high caliber of the girls’ game has helped the club rise in the league rankings. “It’s simple,” she said, “we want more girls to play.”
That is not always the case. Dr. Ribalta, the sports academic, also oversees women’s soccer at Espanyol, a professional club in Barcelona, where he previously played for more than a decade. “A girl playing soccer used to be a trauma for the family,” he said.
Until recently, she said, female players were sometimes insulted on the pitch and denied access to proper training equipment and professional coaches, and they had to reconcile their sporting ambitions with the impossibility of earning a living from in soccer.
And many Spaniards saw a hint of sexism afflicting the women’s national team when the president of Spain’s soccer federation, Luis Rubiales, planted kisses — including one on the lips — to forward Jennifer Hermoso at the awards ceremony. medal after the team’s victory over England.
Women’s soccer teams have long been ignored — if not outright banned, as was the case in England in 1921. The country’s Football Association was alarmed by the popularity of the women’s game, which gained followers while the men’s league was suspended. during the First World War. The ban was enforced for 50 years.
In Spain, the women’s national team has long been without elite training facilities and even jerseys designed to be worn by women. It reached its first Women’s World Cup only in 2015, under a long-serving coach notorious for dismissing players as “chavalitas,” or girls.
Change has only come in recent years. England created a professional domestic league for women in 2018, and Spain followed suit three years later. Corporate sponsors flocked in and elite women’s clubs such as Arsenal and Barcelona Femení began to attract more attention. The Barcelona team has won two of the previous three editions of the Women’s Champions League.
That trend has filtered down to smaller and more novice leagues, as well as younger players. In England, the number of teams playing in a girls’ league at Hackney Marshes, a popular playing ground for recreational soccer in East London, has grown to 44 teams from 26 in one season. In Spain, the number of registered female players has doubled since 2015, reaching nearly 90,000 today.
That’s still a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of men playing in the two countries. But many are convinced that this year’s World Cup will inspire more girls to take up soccer and join talented youth teams, a pipeline for women’s national teams.
“Many girls have watched these players on big screens for weeks and followed them on social media,” said Soraya Chaoui López, the founder of Women’s Soccer School in Barcelona, an academy started in 2017 to help girls play soccer and promote the role of women in the sport. “They are references that they will listen to and imitate. They can look forward to becoming professional players themselves now.”
Looking at the faces of the Lionesses on the screen in London, Destiny Richardson, 14, said, “Even though we came in second, it’s still pretty good.”
He added that he was inspired as a player, saying, “You want to be there one day.”
In London, a rare young player who was overjoyed at the win was Mariam Vasquez, 9, who was delighted when Spain won, in honor of the Spanish side of her family.
“I’m glad to be with her to watch it,” said her mother, Hind Aisha, adding that the whole family supports Mariam’s own soccer dreams. “I’m very proud — it’s a women’s game.”