Leah Williamson has said England are “not robots” and immune from the pressure on them as one of the tournament favourites, before they kick off the home Euros at Old Trafford on Wednesday night.
“There are going to be nerves,” the captain said. “We’re aware of the expectation, but from within the camp it’s all about enjoying it.”
Sarina Wiegman echoed that and said it would be weird for her team not to feel nervous and excited. “We know the tournament starts tomorrow and we’ve waited a long time for that,” the manager said. “It is an exciting moment, and it would be very strange if we didn’t feel excited. We just do the same things we always do: just focus on our style of play as individuals and as a team.”
Expectations are high. England are the most invested-in national team in Europe and the Gameplan for Growth strategy launched by the Football Association in 2017 targeted success for the team at the 2022 Euros or 2023 World Cup.
Williamson said the team were “in a great place”, despite the managerial merry-go-round which began with Phil Neville’s exit for Inter Miami’s men’s team in January 2021. “We’ve put in the work over the past however many weeks, we’ve ticked the boxes we’ve needed to tick, but also we know how big of a moment it is over the summer,” she said.
“We know what it is, we know what to expect and we’re ready for it. Everyone has their own things in place to be able to deal with it. Pressure is a privilege so it’s something we’re embracing and it comes with it – it’s part of the job.”
Speculation remains over where Williamson will play, Wiegman having experimented with her in midfield and in the centre-back berth she occupies for Arsenal. “I want to be on the pitch playing for England,” Williamson said when asked where she wanted to play. “I’ve never played in a European Championship so, for me, tomorrow to get out on to the pitch for England is enough.”
Wiegman would not be drawn on where the captain would line up. “I think she can play in both, in midfield and defence,” she said.
More than 517,000 tickets have been sold for the tournament, more than double the 240,000 sold for Euro 2017 in the Netherlands. In a pre-tournament briefing, the FA’s director of women’s football, Baroness Sue Campbell, pointed to the opportunity it presents to drive the game forward across the continent. “As well as trying to break all the records in terms of making this an iconic event, we also fully recognise that the women’s game is growing all over Europe and this is a fantastic opportunity to really drive it on to the next level,” she said.
The FA’s head of tournament delivery, Chris Bryant, said “we want this tournament to be everywhere” as they push to smash records even further. For Williamson, “everywhere” has meant seeing her face on drink bottles, crisp packets and, more recently, projected on to Tower Bridge.
“Yeah, it’s not normal, is it?” the 25-year-old said. “But it’s good, it means that the visibility of us as a team and the women’s game is being recognised, as it should be. It’s strange, but it’s a good thing.”
In 2013 Uefa’s current head of women’s football, Nadine Kessler, won the European Championship with Germany. The conditions for female players at that time were far from those faced by players going into this tournament. “It’s completely incomparable,” Kessler said.
“I might need to be a bit provocative, but I think in my days people were more concerned about whether their jersey fit than the actual match result. So, we’ve come a long way. People are being treated like proper athletes and it’s a profession for more than just a few. There’s been a huge shift in culture and mindset.”