England are the new name among the top seeds for Wednesday's UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2009™ draw, a reward for a superb 12 months in which their national team has qualified for the FIFA Women's World Cup for the first time.
Since the disappointment of exiting the 2005 finals on home soil in the group stage, England have moved up a gear. A spectacular 4-0 defeat of the Netherlands followed by a battling 1-1 draw in France - who had knocked them out four years before - took England into the World Cup in China next September. They are the only European country from outside the traditional powerhouses of Germany and Scandinavia to qualify. Much of that team then helped Arsenal LFC to defeat Brøndby IF and reach April's UEFA Women's Cup final.
England coach Hope Powell believes that the successes of 2006 can, in part, be put down to the near miss of the year before. "The girls competed very well but we were not satisfied with the outcome," Powell told uefa.com. "The disappointment has really spurred everybody on. The World Cup was a really big challenge, we were in a difficult group. But the whole experience from the European Championship held everybody in good stead.
We wanted more, we demanded more. The way we did it as well, unbeaten, 29 goals scored and only two conceded - that is pretty good going."
It is not just the results that have been impressive. Nearly 8,000 fans watched the victory against the Netherlands, while March's match against France attracted more than 12,000 to Blackburn. Even a recent Under-21 friendly had a crowd of 4,888 in Exeter. "They enjoy watching England women play and it really does boost the girls," Powell said. "I must credit the supporters who came to France. I've spoken to a lot of them, they enjoy it and feel a part of it. For us, that's fantastic."
The work to take English women's football to this level has been going on since Powell's appointment in 1998, not least building an off-pitch infrastructure almost from scratch, such as using sports psychologists and giving players daily personal training schedules, all introduced gradually with long-term goals in mind. Experienced playmaker Kelly Smith said: "You see it in people's eyes - they believe we can win, that's never happened before. That's come from Hope, the coaching staff, the medics - she's got a good network of support for us like sports psychologists."
Powell, who played in the England squad that qualified for the 1995 World Cup but missed out on the 1997 European finals, added: "We've moved forward, but everyone else has. We've fought very hard to put things in place to help the players do the best they can." Their improvement has been reflected in England being among the top seeds for Wednesday's draw. "I was delighted with that, it gives us a real chance to qualify for another major tournament in 2009," Powell said. "On a personal note, to be seeded shows the strides we've made forward."
She added: "It has all been worth it.
It has not been easy for us; from where we are now, it's been quite a journey for players and staff. My philosophy is always to want more, and the players have to want more because we are not the best team in the world. We've qualified for the World Cup which we haven't done for 12 years, so the whole thing is satisfying. But it doesn't - and shouldn't - end here."
This is an edited version of an article from this week's uefa.com Magazine. To read it in full click here.
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