Hugs, cheers and thrown beers: Inside the Women’s Euro 2022 fan zone

LONDON — It was the first replay of Alessia Russo’s remarkable back-heeled goal that prompted the first beers to be hurled into the London night sky. Trafalgar Square erupted, and, in a split second, simultaneously breathed a huge sigh of relief. Some clasped their faces in shock, others laughed, a couple screamed.

Russo’s art teacher, Michelle Tilby from her old school in Maidstone, was nearby, and as she saw the replay it dawned on everyone what had happened. She shouted “Oh My God! Her parents are going to be so, so proud!” as shock mixed with incredible pride, while she danced on the spot.

It was a moment when the 4,000 or so people of all ages and backgrounds who had flocked to the middle of London to watch England’s semifinal triumph over Sweden came together. They celebrated as if time stood still, the location irrelevant thanks to a couple of hours of pure football escapism.

Earlier in the week, superstar Fran Kirby said this team wanted to give people a chance to park their own personal worries and concerns, and just enjoy themselves. The atmosphere in Trafalgar Square was just that — it was a festival, a party of people coming together to watch the Lionesses.

All week there were comparisons with last summer’s celebrations when England reached the final of the men’s Euros. The team were asked about whether they’d seen those scenes and dared to allow themselves a moment to imagine what it’d be like with one of the most famous squares with people watching them. The Lionesses did their best to park such thoughts, saying they were ignoring the noise.

Instead, any experience or understanding of the country’s passion for what they’re achieving has been kept to unexpected moments of acknowledgement — like when a group of players were walking down the street in Teddington from their hotel near there, and they were applauded by people hanging out of their windows, and those on the street.

So any understanding of this night in Trafalgar Square will only be seen through YouTube and social posts. And when they catch a glimpse — surely it’ll be unavoidable — they wouldn’t see dancing in the fountains like last year, but instead enthralled fans watching every single kick and header, young girls dressed in full England kit with their names on the back, of those repurposing last summer’s shirts and others of differing vintage, and families, with their children sitting on shoulders and standing on chairs trying to catch a glimpse of their Lionesses.

Each had their own reasons for being there. One group had come down from Bedfordshire, and are players at Sandy Tigers Under-18s — they travelled just to take in the atmosphere and be a part of something. Others had hopes of getting to the match in Sheffield, but even in one case their standing as one of the world’s best rugby players couldn’t get them in.

“I tried to get tickets to go to Sheffield to watch, but they were gold dust, and that was even before England were in the semi,” England women’s rugby star Shaunagh Brown told ESPN. “It was either going to a pub and watch it locally or come here — but it was a big event, so I was like, I’ve got to go there.”

“I live in Kent, but I wanted to make the effort and come down and be around good people. It makes you feel good about women’s sport — seeing the amount of people here, the engagement and investment — even the DJ is someone I’ve heard before — this isn’t low level, this is high key.”

Brown will be a key player for favourites England in this year’s women’s Rugby World Cup and she couldn’t help but let the imagination wonder. “I watch this and think how cool would this be,” she said. “I came up on the bus and the front page of the Metro was an England and Sweden player — and how cool would that be if that was rugby women on it as well. It shows how powerful a World Cup can be.”

Brown was catching up with friends from MurWalls, a street art company that has produced some famous murals, including several for last summer’s competition. They had put together a wall at the fan zone in Trafalgar Square, which saw representations of Fran Kirby, Leah Williamson and Beth Mead.

“We were asked to paint the three girls that are performing at the moment from London so therefore it makes sense to promote them at the Square,” CEO Marc Silver said. “We do these all over the world and you don’t lose the buzz of people appreciating your work. People are loving it, and we’re loving it.”

Pre-kick-off there were tentative discussions around whether they’d do something special for the final if England reached it. “We’re talking about it — they’re talking about if, we’re talking about when,” Silver said before kick off. “And it’ll be even bigger.” Those plans may now be fast-tracked.

Sitting just in front of the mural was Michelle Tilby. She’d travelled from Maidstone and has a special connection to England supersub Russo. She’s an art technician at Russo’s school — St Simon Stock Catholic School — and has paid close attention to her career ever since. She remembers how the 2012 Olympics caught Russo’s imagination, and suddenly several of the class said they wanted to be footballers. It was Russo who made it.

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“We’re so proud of her,” she said, having made the trip just to be there and be a part of it. A couple of hours later, she was draped in her England flag trying to process the back-heel.

There were other stories — like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who backed Ellen White to start ahead of Russo, and said his favourite player has been Beth Mead. “Last year we were talking about [Jack] Grealish, this year it’s Russo,” he said. He watched the game with his family from one of the vantage points in front of the National Gallery.

Others just wanted a beer to get their fill of a football atmosphere. A chap in his mid-20s said he’s a Lionesses convert having got caught up in the Euros this summer.

All those with different reasons for wanting to be a part of it all contributed to what was a passionate, enthralled group. The first half was nervy, and there were the usual shouts as a player was floored, or had a near-miss. And then Mead scored in the 34th minute and the place erupted, but no beers were thrown — not when the margins were that small, and the queue that long that it snaked from the fountains up to the National Gallery. Lucy Bronze’s header at the start of the second half calmed nerves and the commentary from the two vast screens hovered above the hubbub of familiar conversation. And then came the box office moments — first Russo’s back-heel, then Kirby’s chip.

When the whistle blew, there was an exhale and then cheering. There were those clasping each other a little tighter when they saw Ellen White cry, and the emotion of their heroes. Agreements were being made that they’d be back there for the final on Sunday, if they couldn’t find a ticket. Some talked about trying to get back for tomorrow night’s fanzone for France vs. Germany. One boy practised a Russo back-heel.

And then they all left into the night, some with new-found friendships, others back home way past their bedtime. The Lionesses have frequently said they want to unite a nation and make memories. Regardless of the result in the final, judging by the scenes in Trafalgar Square on Tuesday evening, they’ve achieved just that.

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