HAD this summer’s Women’s European Championships been taking place a decade ago, the overriding aim from a domestic perspective would have been to ‘grow the sport’.

That will still be important over the course of the next month, with Europe’s best female footballers descending on England to showcase their skills in ten different stadia, with every game due to be broadcast live on the BBC. Clearly, there is huge scope to attract a new audience and inspire a generation of youngsters, particularly young girls, to become fans of the women’s game.

Ten years on from the 2012 Olympics, which was a landmark moment for women’s football with Team GB starring at Wembley, though, and it feels as though the need to preach the virtues of the sport has waned.

There is no longer a necessity to fret about growing the game because the game has already grown. All three of England’s group matches for this summer’s tournament have already sold out, as well as the final, and with estimates suggesting around 500,000 tickets will be sold in total, the tournament is set to comfortably exceed the record attendance for a Women’s Euros, which was set in the Netherlands in 2017. The Women’s Super League is now a staple of the mainstream sporting calendar, with its media profile having soared in the last few years, and at a grassroots level, girls’ football continues to grow at a remarkable rate.

It is no longer the responsibility of England’s female players to be trailblazers for a sport struggling for recognition. Instead, as they complete their preparations for next Wednesday’s opening group game against Austria at Old Trafford, they find themselves facing a different challenge. Billed as one of the favourites for the Euros, Sarina Wiegman’s squad are tasked with going one step better than their male equivalents last summer.

England’s female players have made giant strides since the Euros were last held on home soil in 2005, when their predecessors failed to get out of the group stage. However, while they have come close to winning a major trophy, they have still not actually done it. Given the level of investment that has been pumped into the women’s game in this country in the last few years, it is fair to suggest that has to change.

Finalists in 2009 and semi-finalists at the last Euros in 2017, England boast a decent recent record in the competition. They have been equally impressive at the World Cup, making the last four in both 2015 and 2019, but getting over the final hurdle has proved a step too far. Will this be the summer when that changes?

The signs were hardly positive when Phil Neville stepped down as manager at the start of 2021, with England having been on a run of seven defeats from 11 matches before Covid struck. Wiegman was appointed as Neville’s replacement, and the former Netherlands boss has overseen a marked improvement that means her side will head into their group games in a buoyant mood.

The Northern Echo: England manager Sarina Wiegman believes teams will be tougher at the Women's European Championship than in World Cup qualification (Liam McBurney/PA)

Wiegman has begun the process of shifting England away from the old guard that were so influential at the last three major tournaments, with the decision not to select former skipper Steph Houghton dividing opinion but confirming a desire not to be tied to the past.

There are still some experienced campaigners in the England squad – Lucy Bronze, Demi Stokes, Jill Scott, Ellen White – but Wiegman has also embraced youth, handing a starring role to 21-year-old Manchester City winger Lauren Hemp.

Whitby-born Beth Mead, another product of Sunderland Ladies, is a potential superstar, having starred in the WSL with Arsenal last season, and the group-stage draw has been relatively kind to the Lionesses, with matches against Northern Ireland, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, and Norway following next week’s opener against Austria.

The Northern Echo: England forward Beth Mead

Things will get trickier from that stage on though, with Germany or Spain waiting in the quarter-finals assuming they finish in the top two in Group B. England’s players will also have to cope with the weight of pressure created by an expectant home nation, and while members of Gareth Southgate’s men’s squad have spoken at St George’s Park about their experiences last summer, for many of the women’s players, the next month will be a giant step into the unknown. Provided they can handle it, they have every chance of emerging triumphant.

Their main threat could come from a Spain side who tend to line up with eight members of their starting XI drawn from the all-conquering Barcelona team that boasted a 100 per cent record in La Liga last season and reached the Champions League final. Their star striker, Jennifer Hermoso, is missing through injury, which is unquestionably a blow, but in Real Madrid’s Esther Gonzalez, they have a pretty decent replacement.

They should go close, although they find themselves in the toughest-looking group, which also features Denmark, Finland and Germany. The Germans won all seven of their qualifiers, and draw a large chunk of their squad from Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich, two of Europe’s stand-out club sides. Watch out for 20-year-old Lena Oberdorf, who has rapidly established herself as the linchpin of Germany’s midfield.

France look strong, although they have been perennial underachievers at international level given Lyon and Paris St Germain’s strength in the club game. There are suggestions the French camp is not a particularly happy one, with head coach Corinne Diacre having fallen out with a number of key players, hence the absence of world-class dup Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer. Even without that duo, however, France boast a hugely talented squad.

If you’re looking for a dark horse, it might well be Sweden, who are a team in the truest sense and who won bronze at the 2019 World Cup and silver at the 2021 Olympics. Led by Arsenal striker Stina Blackstenius, the Swedes have arguably the best balanced squad at the Euros and should not be overlooked.