MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The movie “Bend It Like Beckham” first got Kiera Burke interested in soccer. During the 2012 Olympics, she went to Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium to watch the women’s teams from United States and Canada play a thrilling semifinal.
Now the 13-year-old is among millions of Britons — including Prince William, David Beckham and “Harry Potter” actress Emma Watson — on a growing bandwagon following the English women’s team’s unprecedented progress in the Women’s World Cup.
Kiera, who plays for an under-15 team in the northern English city of Chester, has been given a pass by her dad to stay up until the early hours of Thursday to see if the Lionesses can beat Japan and reach the final. Who cares that it’s a school night?
“The time difference isn’t great,” said Peter Burke, who runs girls teams of various age groups, “but the girls have still been watching it. The publicity associated with the World Cup has been great.”
In a summer without an Olympic Games, a men’s World Cup or a European soccer championships, England’s women soccer players have seized the nation’s attention, putting their underperforming male counterparts to shame.
Many of the women are now household names.
“I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been asked what time the games are on, when the next game is, what channel it’s on,” said Nick Cushing, coach of Manchester City’s professional women’s team.
“Whether it’s at this football club or around Manchester, people really are buzzing about this England team.”
Soccer is England’s national sport, with the men’s English Premier League the most watched league in the world. The women’s game barely used to get a mention, and was often ridiculed for its perceived low standards. But things are changing — mainly due to investment by the country’s Football Association.
The creation of the two-tier Women’s Super League in 2011 has brought more professionalism to the domestic game. Attendance is growing, albeit slowly and to an average of just 728 spectators in the top tier.
The women’s national team contains players on central contracts and has its own support staff. Soccer is the largest participation sport for females in the country, with the FA saying that 2.89 million women and girls play on a regular basis. There are more than 5,000 girls’ teams, compared to just 80 when the FA took control in 1993.
The biggest driver of growth is winning on the world stage. About 1.6 million people tuned in to watch England beat host Canada in the quarterfinals, even though the match started at midnight.
“It feels like the nation has fallen in love with the Lionesses,” said Kelly Simmons, FA director of women’s football.
Beckham posted a picture of the women’s team in a huddle, with the message: “We are so proud of what you have achieved and the passion you have shown gives us so much pride.” Prince William said he hopes “many more will now seize the chance to support this great moment for English football.”
A record crowd for an England women’s game, 45,619, watched a friendly against Germany at Wembley last November and the women’s FA Cup final will be held at the national stadium on Aug. 1.
Manchester City hosted a trial two weeks ago for girls aged 8-19 and Cushing said the response was overwhelming.
“They don’t just see the benefits of playing the game now,” he said, “they can see a future, that it can be a career — not only a career financially but a career where you can achieve on the world stage.”
Burke said 15 girls signed up for his teams when they started up in 2011. Now there are 80, and junior schools are starting to have girl’s football as a sport.
“My daughter used to be told by the boys that she couldn’t play football. But after seeing some of the girls play, they’ve gone, ‘Actually, yeah, you can,'” he said. “The boys are actually respecting girls playing football.”
Concerns linger. An FA survey says peer pressure, gender stereotyping and the derogatory results of internet searches “all contribute to a perpetuation of a negatively distorted image of the women’s game.” Twenty-two percent of dads surveyed still view soccer as a “man’s game.”
There are also fears that women’s football will waste the opportunity to create a legacy from this summer.
“We have to keep these fans engaged in women’s football, through the Super League,” Simmons said. “And we want to change attitudes around the fact it should be a sport for girls and boys, like it is in Canada and the USA.
“One of the biggest legacies could be that girls think it’s a sport for them.”
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