Record crowd at Wembley for England women's team
LONDON (AP) Equality came to the self-proclaimed Home of Football on Sunday.
More than seven years after the new Wembley opened, the England women's team was finally allowed to follow its male counterpart by playing in the $1.2 billion national stadium.
Though it ended with a 3-0 defeat by European champion Germany, the match was a validation of the steady growth that women's football has enjoyed in England, particularly since the 2012 Olympics.
''History makers,'' proclaimed the cover of the matchday program for the 45,000 fans who defied torrential rain and transport issues - 5,000 more than the crowd that watched the England men's team play Norway in a September friendly.
The Football Association's marketing machine achieved its mission, with a record women's crowd for an England game. The previous mark was just over 29,000 for a European Championship match against Finland at Manchester City's Etihad stadium in 2005.
However, the team coached by Mark Sampson fell short on Sunday as Germany mercilessly exposed England's defensive deficiencies.
England defender Alex Scott scored an own goal after six minutes, and striker Celia Sasic netted twice to show just why the second-ranked Germans could win a third World Cup next year.
''They are the benchmark everyone is aspiring to be, they've had years and years of winning ... and we're trying to reach them,'' England striker Eniola Aluko said.
''The purpose of friendlies is to understand what it's all about to play in front of a big crowd with the pressure.''
Aluko is used to playing in front of just a few hundred fans. The women's Super League, where she plays for Chelsea, saw crowds grow by 30 percent in the 2014 season but only to an average of 728. The highest attendance was 1,292 last month for Liverpool's title-clinching game against Chelsea.
Demand for tickets at Wembley, though, exceeded the 55,000 allowed to be sold in the 90,000-seat venue where the capacity was capped due to London Underground engineering work. The 10,000 no-shows were likely because of the poor weather and Tube turmoil.
But with the game on free television - unlike Sunday's Premier League games - this still felt like a successful launchpad to grow the women's game in England ahead of the World Cup in Canada.
''It's amazing the English association had a lot of people in the stadium,'' Germany defender Annike Krahn said. ''Even for the home of soccer it is not easy.''
In selecting an opponent for this landmark occasion, England sought an illustrious side rather than setting up a crowd-pleasing walkover. So the result was hardly a surprise: England had failed to win all 19 previous encounters with Germany.
And if England's women sought an equal billing with the men they got it when boos rang out around the stadium with each goal.
''The Germans are the best in the world and they're going to punish you with clinical counter-attacks and clinical finishing,'' Sampson said. ''But we've taken so much from the game today and we're in such a better place now than we were.''
One key difference between Sunday's game and next year's World Cup is the playing surface. The poor state of the Wembley grass - the result of three recent NFL games - perhaps vindicated FIFA's decision to play the games in Canada on artificial turf.
''If I could choose it I would never play on (artificial) turf but it won't be my decision,'' Krahn said. ''Football has to play on natural grass.''
But England seems content playing on plastic, rather than joining the legal action being pursued their American counterparts, who claim that not playing on grass is sexism.
''Playing on artificial turf might suit our style of play,'' Aluko said. ''There are technical differences, the ball bounces differently and runs smoother but you have to adapt to that and make sure you're ready.''
How ready England is to take on the world's best next year remains unclear. But Wembley showed there is an appetite for further women's games, ensuring the national football stadium isn't just for men's teams.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris