England and Austria will raise the curtain on Euro 2022 on Wednesday for a tournament aiming to take 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 sell-outs for the opening game at Old Trafford and the final at Wembley on July 31.
“This is a huge moment for us — the biggest ever — but it also gives us the platform to kick on and really take the game to another level,” said UEFA‘s head of women’s football Nadine Kessler.
“These big strides the game is taking will continue to positively shift perceptions of women’s football, but we want to do more.
“Continue to raise standards in our competitions, from youth level up, increase visibility worldwide and deliver top-class tournaments such as this one.”
Initially scheduled for 2021, UEFA moved the tournament back a year after the men’s Euro 2020 had to be delayed 12 months due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Aided by a rare space in the men’s football calendar due to the later start to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the stars of the European game on the women’s side have the chance to take centre stage.
UEFA estimate a television audience of 250 million for the tournament.
The five years since the last women’s Euro, won by the Netherlands on home soil, have been transformative for the sport.
Money has flowed in from new sponsors, television rights deals and major clubs now prepared to spend big on improving the standards of their women’s teams.
Yet, prize money of 16 million euros ($17 million) still pales in comparison with the 331 million euros on offer to competing nations at the men’s Euro last year.
In defending that gap, Kessler admitted that European football’s governing body will burden a “significant loss” in hosting the tournament due to a five-fold increase in spending on facilities compared to the last women’s Euro.
That investment is expected to be reflected on the field in the most competitive women’s Euro to date, with half of the 16 teams regarded as realistic contenders.
After losing three consecutive semi-finals, England have to handle the weight of expectation to win a first major tournament on home soil.
The Lionesses have Euro-winning experience on their side, though, in the form of manager Sarina Wiegman, who led the Dutch to the title in 2017.
“The level is so high now, it’s really difficult to predict what it will look like at the end of the tournament,” said Wiegman on Tuesday.
“Lots of countries are in a good position, we are too. In tournaments strange things can happen and we hope we can take advantage.”
Norway are expected to post the biggest threat to England in Group A, with former Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg back after a self-imposed five-year exile from international football.
Spain are the bookmakers’ pre-tournament favourites thanks to the backbone of talent that has turned Barcelona into a dominant force of the club game.
But La Roja have been rocked by a knee injury to reigning Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas that has ruled her out of the tournament.
Spain also have to get out of the group of death featuring eight-time winners Germany and 2017 finalists Denmark along with Finland.
The clash between holders the Netherlands and Olympic silver medallists Sweden in Group C is another highlight of the group stage.
France, Italy, Belgium and Iceland make up what appears the most balanced section in Group D.
Stadium balance ‘right’
However, the selection of the 4,400 capacity Manchester City Academy Stadium for three matches in that group was lambasted as “embarrassing” and “disrespectful” by Iceland midfielder Sara Bjork Gunnarsdottir.
The 7,800-capacity Leigh Sports Village will also host four matches, including a quarter-final.
But organisers have defended their choice of venues with Brighton, Brentford, Milton Keynes, Rotherham, Sheffield and Southampton the other hosts.
“We think we’ve got the balance about right,” said the English Football Association’s director of women’s football, Sue Campbell.
The opening game will break the 41,000 attendance record for a game at the women’s Euro by over 30,000, with a near 90,000 crowd for the final.