England’s Lionesses meet Germany tomorrow in front of a packed Wembley Stadium, and we find out from Chelsea Women legend Eniola Aluko what it is like to run out at the home of English football when the stands are full…
Five years ago this month, this same fixture drew a crowd of 45,619 for the first England Women match played at the new Wembley Stadium. Hopefully, we will see almost double that amount inside the ground this weekend to cheer on Phil Neville’s side, with all tickets sold by mid-October.
When Eniola Aluko was preparing to feature for the Lionesses in that 2014 game (in which she started the match and was replaced by Fran Kirby after an hour), we spoke to the Blues striker to look back on another occasion when she had played at Wembley, which at that point was yet to become the venue for Women’s FA Cup finals in this country.The earlier match was back in 2012, when the women’s Olympic football tournament was taking place and the Great Britain side hosted Brazil at the stadium in their final group fixture. Aluko had no doubts about its importance: ‘It was the game-changer – the single biggest match in the history of women’s football in this country,’ she said in our interview in 2014.A crowd of 70,584 packed into Wembley Stadium to see Hope Powell’s side in action; never before had a women’s football game in Britain attracted so many spectators, although the record was soon to be surpassed by the final between the United States and Japan, which drew 80,203 supporters.
‘It was like an out-of-body experience, everything was a blur up until the tunnel,’ recalled Aluko. ‘I'm quite a spiritual person and I remember closing my eyes and just trying to take it all in – I was just really grateful to be there. Then, before I knew it, we were singing the national anthem and I couldn't even hear myself think! I had goosebumps...
‘I think, on an occasion like that, the best thing to do is simplify it in your head: ‘It’s just any other game.’ Sometimes you can start to over-think, and then you end up doing things you don’t normally do. Ultimately, we’re all great footballers and we can play the game.’
Team GB, in keeping with our national identity, were the clear underdogs. However, cheered on by what manager Powell described as an ‘inspirational’ crowd, Britain upset the odds to secure a thrilling win through Steph Houghton’s early goal.
‘I think the game is something people will always remember about the Olympics,’ added Aluko. ‘For me personally, I remember not being too happy with how often I was getting into the game, but that changed in the second half and I got a penalty which Kelly Smith took. Unfortunately she missed, but we still managed to hold on for the win.’
A nation’s imagination was captured. The effect the performance had on not only the 70,000 spectators inside Wembley Stadium but also the millions watching on television cannot be underestimated.
‘I stand by what I said before – it was a game-changer in terms of how seriously the nation took the game,’ said Aluko. ‘Since that time the media have got more involved, players are receiving better contracts, teams in the Women’s Super League are more professional – all sorts of different things. That's no coincidence. It changed a lot of negative perceptions of women's football prior to that.’
Great Britain’s campaign may have come to an end in their next match, against Canada, but Aluko and the women’s game in this country have gone from strength to strength with each passing year.
The forward helped us to five trophies in four years and made an appearance on the BBC’s MOTD2 Extra webcast, becoming the first female pundit in the 50-year history of Match of the Day. She was named Player of the Match in the first Women’s FA Cup final played at Wembley, when we beat Notts County in 2015 in front of 30,710 supporters – a figure which rose to 45,423 for our 3-1 triumph over Arsenal in the 2018 final – and now plays for Italian side Juventus.
This season we are seeing Barclays Women’s Super League sides turn out in front of big crowds at the stadiums of the men’s teams they are affiliated with, including the Blues taking on Tottenham Hotspur in front of a crowd just shy of 25,000 when we opened our WSL campaign in September. Of course, the Lionesses also famously attracted a peak television audience of 11.7m in the UK for the World Cup semi-final against USA earlier, which was the highest of the year so far back in June.
Hopefully we can look back on tomorrow’s fixture in years to come and view it as another landmark occasion in the growth of the women’s game.
Watch our current England players in action along with their Chelsea team-mates when we take on Manchester United at Kingsmeadow on Sunday 17 November. The match will be the first time we have come up against the Red Devils and it kicks off at 2pm. Shortly after this encounter, the Blues host Tottenham Hotspur in the Continental Tyres Cup on Wednesday 20 November, which kicks off at 7pm.