56 years of hurt finally came to an end for English football last Sunday as the women’s team hoisted the elegant silver trophy of the European Championships, beating Germany in what has already gone down as a momentous victory for the national game. Though, it goes without saying that women’s football has experienced far more years of hurt than the men’s game, with defiant female players having faced sexist hate, homophobia and body shaming over the course of its long history.
Instilling the same pride and inspiration as Gareth Southgate’s men did in Euro 2020, Sarina Wiegman’s team captured the imagination of the entire nation throughout the tournament, with Chloe Kelly’s goal in the final minutes of extra-time providing the extra flourish on what has been a celebratory summer for the women’s game. With 87,192 fans travelling to Wembly on Sunday night, the event made England v Germany the highest attended European Championship final of all time, even beating out the men’s game.
The journey to get to such a confetti-prompting triumph has been more of a taxing marathon than a simple sprint, however, with constant setbacks preventing the women’s game from evolving into the success we see today.
Such would start to change at the turn of the new millennium as women’s football was given a newfound appreciation, with the release of Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham lighting a fuse of sporting inspiration that would result in Kelly swinging her shirt around her head after poking in the Euro-winning goal 20 years later.
Half a coming-of-age London-based romance tale and half a compelling social commentary, Bend it Like Beckham embodied the optimistic essence of ‘Cool Britannia’ riding the wave of positivity that had undoubtedly petered out following the bombastic dawn of the 2000s. Bright and colourful whilst riding on a saccharine energy, Chadha’s film remains an utter delight to watch, telling to story of a young Punjabi girl named Jesminder (Parminder Nagra) and her friend Jules (Keira Knightley) who wish to play professional football despite their parent’s wishes.
Speaking to young girls growing up in the heart of London specifically, Bend it Like Beckham provided the early inspiration for so many women and British Asians who saw their experience of playing the game being accurately reflected on the big screen for the very first time. Presenting the adversity and sexism that female players face from onlookers, friends, and family, Chadha, as well as co-screenwriters Guljit Bindra and Paul Mayeda Berges, created a rousing call to action from female players and sporting bodies across the country.
20 years on, and the rallying cry of the cinematic cultural cornerstone can be seen in physical results, with inspired girls across the country having now grown up into international-winning players. Freestyle footballer Kaljit Atwal recently spoke to the BBC about the impact of the film on her development, recalling, “It’s like that fictional character as a kid, you don’t see as a fictional character, you saw that person as a real human and it was so relatable. Well I knew if she did it, I can do it”.
Thanks to the influence of the England Women’s football team who have long-been inspiring young girls to join the game, along with the cultural significance of the 2002, the game has seen some evident modern strides. Now the most popular sport among women and girls in the UK, in 2020, the Football Association reported that 3.4 million play the female game, increasing 54% since 2017, with the recent victory of the Lionesses meaning that the sport can only get bigger and more inclusive.
In a significant year for the iconic British film, it feels almost poetic that the England Women’s team should also find such success. Jesminder and Jules would be proud.