England open their European Championship finals campaign today. Yes, really. You hadn't heard? Ah. Maybe because it is England's women's team.
Were it the men's side meeting Italy in this Finnish town Sky Sports would be broadcasting non-stop from outside the team hotel and the nation's paper boys groaning under the weight of all the pull-outs. But it is the distaff side, so there has been barely a mention.
This is par for the course with the women even though they have as decent a shot at winning the tournament as the men's teams normally do. Football may be the national game but the female version is still developing as a sport in Britain. There is limited public interest and the players remain part-time and, in the main, unpaid.
They are not complaining; not much anyway. Arsenal defender Faye White, the captain and an international for a dozen years, said: "It's disappointing, you want your sport to be covered, but we are not under any illusion that we will get it because we play football and that is our national sport. We have to play well, and be successful."
Such is the realism among the 22 players in Hope Powell's squad, but there is a recognition that matters are improving and should continue to do so. Powell remembers having to prepare for internationals by sleeping overnight in a gym having met up just a day or two beforehand. Now the women benefit from back-up akin to the men's side. The squad are billeted in good hotels and have two-dozen coaching and support staff enabling them to enjoy the full range of modern sporting expertise and perks, from a personal chef and games room to video analysis and the dreaded ice baths.
This year central contracts were introduced worth £16,000. Unlike the salaries of their male equivalents that is per year, not per week, but it enables players to fit increased training demands around part-time, rather than full-time work; or, in the case of Katie Chapman, the only mother in the squad, defray childcare costs while she plays and trains.
It is not all good news though. The Football Association now put £5m into the sport but, with their television income uncertain, blanched at the provisional cost of a professional league (another £500,000 a year) and deferred the professional league which had been planned for next summer. This was potentially devastating to the future of the sport. An eight-team competition may seem a tentative start but a well-funded full-time league is fundamental to women's football being taken seriously, leading to TV coverage, increased sponsorship and media interest. As it is there is an unbalanced league, unhealthily dominated by Arsenal, which largely operates in a vacuum.
Ironically this may have a short-term benefit as six of England's squad were lured to America's new professional league and are now playing and training full-time. Three, Kelly Smith, a globally-recognised star of the women's game, defender Alex Scott and promising striker Eniola Aluko, made the All-Star team.
This afternoon's opponents are four places below England's ninth spot in the Fifa rankings but are improving. With Sweden favourites to win a group which also contains Russia, a winning start may be critical if England are to make the last eight, Powell's minimum target.
"It is vital we are even more successful than in the past," added White, "not only for ourselves but also to promote the game and keep it pushing forward."
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