MANCHESTER: A year later than planned, the countdown to the women's European Championship begins on Thursday when the draw for Euro 2022 takes place in Manchester.
England will play host to the tournament from July 6-31, which hopes to smash attendance records for women's football with Manchester United's Old Trafford the setting for the opening game before a Wembley final.
The hosts are hoping home advantage will help them win a major women's international tournament for the first time.
The Lionesses have fallen at the semi-final stage in each of the last two World Cups and Euro 2017.
England are guaranteed to kick the tournament off at Old Trafford with organisers hoping for an attendance that will break the 41,300 record for a women's European Championship match.
Holders the Netherlands, France and Germany are the other top seeds and contenders for the tournament, along with Olympic silver medallists Sweden and a rapidly improving Spain side filled with Champions League winners who play their club football for Barcelona.
Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Northern Ireland, Norway, Russia and Switzerland are the other qualifiers for a tournament UEFA hopes to be the biggest European women's sports event ever in terms of attendance.
Premier League stadiums in Brentford, Brighton and Southampton will play host to games, along with more modest venues in Leigh, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Rotherham and Sheffield.
"This was coupled with the need to strike the right balance for the tournament. Setting an ambitious ticket target - with more than 700,000 tickets available for fans - whilst seeking to achieve full venues where possible," said the English Football Association's director of women's football Sue Campbell.
"This is a balance we believe we have achieved in the selected venues and cities, with England's Lionesses due to play all of their group stage games at Premier League grounds across the country."
Women's football was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic at time when participation and popularity was growing rapidly after a successful 2019 World Cup in France.
As governing bodies scrambled to restart the men's competitions as soon as possible to secure lucrative broadcast income, even the elite end of the women's game was treated as an afterthought.
The Lionesses did not play a game for nearly a year between March 2020 and February this year, while the 2019/20 Women's Super League season was terminated with nearly a quarter of the games still to play.
UEFA also moved the women's Euro back a year to allow the men's Euro 2020 to go ahead earlier this year.
But UEFA's chief of women's football Nadine Kessler defended that decision to give "maximum exposure for women's football and the goal to provide the tournament with the centre stage it deserves."
That call was aided by a rare space in the men's football calendar due to the later start to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
After being shunted into the shadows for too long, Europe's best female players will again have a stage on which to shine.