Famous faces give England women perfect World Cup launch
LONDON -- At 8 a.m. on Wednesday, England women's manager Phil Neville was nervous.
He had already spoken the day previous to those players he had picked to go to the World Cup, and broken the news to those missing out. He had sat on his decisions for close to a week. But as the Football Association prepared to unveil their unique manner of revealing England's squad for the Women's World Cup, Neville started to get butterflies.
For the first time, things had been taken out of his control and the Lionesses were about to be thrown into the country's sporting consciousness like never before.
At 9 a.m., Prince William took a break from his newfound uncle duties to confirm captain Steph Houghton as the first player in the 23, via his official Buckingham Palace Twitter account. Then every 15 minutes came another celebrity naming the next jigsaw puzzle piece.
It was brilliantly executed and inadvertently, amid the celebration and joy at seeing the likes of David Beckham, James Corden, Emma Watson, Ian Wright, Ellie Goulding and Jordan Pickford read out their names, prepared Neville's players for the spotlight to come in France when they start their World Cup campaign on June 9 against Scotland.
Neville joked he had to speak to a few of his old footballing mates to get them on board, and was nervous due to his "old-school values." And with one flick of a switch, the players had gone from an environment where being humble was the priority to having their name lit up in social media lights.
"We inspire by making things visible," Neville said. "The announcements have made my players visible.
"We've tried to keep our players humble over the last 12 months, but today's a day to shout it from the rooftops to reward their efforts and sacrifices."
Neville is not an emotional man, but he admitted to getting choked up over how his players reacted when they were told the news. While there was the delight of the 23 included, he took heart from the reaction of those missing out. Izzy Christiansen was a notable omission from the 23, then there was the likes of Beth England who has recently hit top form. But each player gave Neville her well-wishes and reiterated the team's hope and goal of coming away from France as world champions.
But there is a bigger picture to the announcement. For so long, World Cup squads were read out in a stuffy room. But in the past couple of years, the FA has aimed to take these events to another level, away from mere formality and targeted at younger fans. Ahead of the men's 2018 World Cup, England unveiled their squad via youngsters the country over in a video released on YouTube. And on Wednesday, it was the turn of well-known football faces and personalities to use their social media reach to announce the women's players.
Neville noted the estimated 170 million followers who would have seen Wednesday's announcement. That's 2019 for you, in the age of social media, where reach is king. But there was also time in the spotlight for those from slightly more traditional vintages with Karen Carney and Jill Scott included, with both appearing in their fourth World Cup.
But Wednesday's announcement has to be seen as being one part of a wider, grander project. Neville remembers being inspired by the likes of Steffi Graf and Ian Botham growing up -- now he wants names like Fran Kirby and Lucy Bronze to be ever-present across all forms of media this summer but equally for the tournament to take on a greater significance.
"Forget England, there's a bigger picture," Neville said. "It's going to be the greatest, biggest Women's World Cup of all time and I hope that when young boys, girls, males, females, adults watch it, I want them to feel like they want to go and watch a WSL game the next week, or buy a kit or take their daughter to a game.
"This game is a tipping point for the women's game. It will go 'boom' and it'll only get bigger and better. That's the bigger picture for the Women World Cup."
England face two more official warm-up matches against Denmark and New Zealand before their tournament opener on June 9, while Neville revealed they will also likely have a behind-closed-doors game to ensure the players are ready for Scotland.
Neville's biggest challenge between now and June 9 is to fine-tune his sartorial choices. The players were, with more than a touch of tongue-in-cheek, less than impressed with his decision to wear a tracksuit against Kazakhstan. He also felt awkward: he was raised on blazers and ties. "I am what I am," he said. And as he sat there in the heart of Wembley in his neat three-piece suit (complete with waistcoat) there were echoes of Gareth Southgate about him. Southgate's men's squad galvanised the country when they reached the semifinal last year, but Neville wants his Lionesses to go one further.
"I am confident we can deliver the trophy," Neville said. "I sit here today in a position where I'm convinced we can go to this World Cup and have a successful tournament. We have a squad that's motivated and full of world-class players and now has the belief and confidence to go to a World Cup and be successful."