VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Although they’re not yet 30 years old, Jodie Taylor and Steph Houghton have already seen a revolution in English women’s soccer during their careers.
A sport once overlooked and underfunded in its football-mad nation has seized the spotlight this month, breaking barriers and toppling bastions of inveterate sexism with every World Cup victory. The Lionesses reached a new summit Saturday with a gritty 2-1 quarterfinal win over Canada, knocking out the hosts and advancing to the semifinals against Japan on Wednesday in Edmonton, Alberta.
Amid the hugs and celebration at BC Place, Houghton spared a thought for the brilliant boost they’re getting back home in the sport’s motherland.
“We always said that we had one aim when we came (to Canada),” the England captain said. “It was to inspire a nation, and if the mums and dads have let their young girls watch the game late (Saturday) in England, I think hopefully we’ve got a lot of young girls playing football at an early age, and in the next few years we have a stronger English national team.”
England already is guaranteed its most successful Women’s World Cup. The Lionesses began in Canada with a 1-0 loss to France, but have racked up four consecutive 2-1 victories since, beating Mexico, Colombia, Norway and the hosts.
One game after they confidently rallied from behind to beat Norway, they hung on through 75 tense minutes against Canada after taking an early lead in a raucous stadium ardently hoping for a collapse.
Since their only World Cup victory in 1966, the English men have made a tradition of disastrous performances on international stages, capped by their worst-ever World Cup showing in Brazil last year.
These Lionesses haven’t bowed to the weight of history.
“We’ve got such a good team, such a strong squad,” said Taylor, who scored England’s first goal. “We’re not just 11 or 12 players. I just want us to keep on and continue this journey.”
Taylor started out playing against boys in England as a kid. She debuted for women’s club team Tranmere Rovers at 15, something that would be nearly impossible today in the tiered levels of women’s soccer.
“There’s not many people under the age of 17” playing at the top level in England, she said. “If you’re 17 or 18 in the league (now), you’re doing really well. It’s kind of amazing to see the progress the league has made.”
Taylor then played at Oregon State from 2004-07, and she still suits up for the NWSL’s powerhouse Portland Thorns alongside Canada’s Christine Sinclair, Germany’s Nadine Angerer and U.S. star Alex Morgan.
But that makes Taylor an anomaly for England: Every other player on the World Cup roster is affiliated with an English club team, underlining the game’s rapid domestic growth.
“(English club) teams trained twice a week if we were lucky,” Taylor said. “I think Arsenal back then trained three times, and that was amazing. To see where the game is at now, we’re professional people that can train full-time and not have to work. The level has gotten a lot better, and I think we’ve shown by how well we’re doing as a national team. It’s a good reflection of the way women’s football in England is going.”
Although this World Cup run is doing wonders, the work isn’t done among the skeptical elements of the English public. Earlier in the week, the FA made a plaintive plea for more press coverage.
Prince William has repeatedly declared support, saying Sunday that “the Lionesses are doing their country proud.” Their male counterparts also are behind them: Wayne Rooney, Phil Jones and Ian Wright were among the luminaries tweeting their support, and David Beckham posted warm congratulations on Instagram.
Mark Sampson, the 32-year-old Welsh coach who replaced Hope Powell after the Lionesses went winless at Euro 2013, has joined Alf Ramsey and Bobby Robson as the only coaches to get an England team to a World Cup semifinal. Both of his predecessors were knighted for their efforts.
Sampson has deliberately compared his team to England’s best male squads, underlining the connections that should seize a nation’s support with just two games between the Lionesses and history.
“They’ve shown a desire I’ve never seen from an England team before, to hang on in there and get this thing through to the next round,” Sampson said. “I’m really proud of my team. I’m also really proud of women’s football.”
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