England’s historic victory over Canada in the Women’s World Cup has been hailed as a game-changer for women’s football, as a wave of new fans tuned in to see an England team reach a World Cup semi-final for the first time since Italia 90.

Despite a 12.30am kick off for UK viewers, more than 1.6 million people watched England beat hosts Canada 2-1 in Vancouver, in front of a sell out 54,027, which mostly comprised fiercely partisan home fans, at the BC Stadium on Saturday.

“This feels like a really special moment in the history of the game,” said Kelly Simmons, director of the national game and women’s football at the FA. “I think this is the moment that the general public fell in love with the Lionesses. So many people back home are supporting us and are rightly proud – in terms of awareness this has been absolutely fantastic.”

In the deafening arena, which matched any male World Cup tie for passion and dedication, thousands of Canadians did their best to cheer the ball into England’s net. But after a superb strike from Jodie Taylor and a looping header from Lucy Bronze, England managed to resist pressure from Canada, which mounted even higher after Christine Sinclair pulled one back for the hosts just before half-time, and held on for a nail-biting victory that had fans on the edge of the seats until the final whistle.

The Duke of Cambridge, president of the FA, said he was thrilled to see the England women progress to the semis for the first time.

“This team is making history and I can’t wait to see them in action against Japan. I know a lot of people have been following the team’s progress, and I’m sure many more will now seize the chance to support this great moment for English football,” he said. “The Lionesses are doing their country proud.”

England manager Mark Sampson said his team had matched their male counterparts from 1966 and 1990 by reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup. “They are history-makers again, the third ever England team to get to a semi-final,” he said. “They have shown a desire I’ve never seen from an England team before to hang on in there and get us through to the next round.”

His team – a diverse, now largely professional, group of 23 women – have created an extraordinary bond and unity of purpose. From Chelsea’s Claire Rafferty, who works as an analyst for Deutsche Bank, to Katie Chapman, a mother of three, and Eniola Aluko, taking a sabbatical from her career as a lawyer to turn professional, they appear to peaking in perfect synchronicity.

England will face world champions Japan in a crunch match on Wednesday, which will now be shown on BBC1, rather than BBC3, after the tournament has proved a ratings hit – peaking at with more than 2 million viewers.

England fans have been swept along by the victory, with huge stars of the game adding their voices to the congratulations that swamped the England players.

“England women doing the country proud. Huge congratulations on reaching the semi finals,” wrote the captain of the men’s team, Wayne Rooney – who earns £300,000 a week, compared to the women’s captain Steph Houghton’s £35,000 a year. Gary Lineker added: “Great to see England reach the Women’s World Cup semi-finals. 25 years since one of our teams did that. What a massive boost to the sport in this country if they could go on to win it.”

Only 27 players in the Women’s Super League (WSL) are on full professional contracts, but the professionalism in the game is growing rapidly, said Simmons. Participation in the women’s game is booming – in 1993 there were just 80 registered girls’ teams; today there are 5,143, with 1,437 registered adult sides. “There are still cultural barriers in the UK that you just don’t see in places like Canada and the US,” she said. “The Women’s Super League is definitely helping, but becoming fully professional is fundamental. We need to transfer this fantastic support to regular coverage and fans for the WSL.”

Lionesses fan Carrie Dunn, author of a book about the WSL and head of sports journalism at the University of East London, said the British media now had to commit to covering the women’s game – and not just at the World Cup.

The England’s women’s team has a budget of £10.8m, higher than any other European country. But attracting commercial sponsorship and a larger fanbase, so clubs can become self-supporting, remains crucial for the success of the game.

“This could be a game-changer, but it has to be built on,” said Dunn. “The argument has always been that people aren’t interested, but this clearly shows they are. This is a chance to get the whole nation behind them and that money invested.”

Speaking in a haze of joy after the victory in Vancouver, Rachel O’Sullivan, who spends most of their free time and money following England with pal Sophie Downey for their website Girls on the Ball, said she “still couldn’t quite believe” the Lionesses had done it. “We’re sure now, more than ever, that they can go all the way,” she said. “We’re so immensely proud of our pride.”

Asif Burhan, a dedicated England fan who travels around the world supporting both the men and women’s teams, said there was no difference between the atmosphere in Canada and the men’s World Cup in Brazil last year. “Results change perceptions,” he said. “As the players walked off the pitch last night I shouted to them that they had changed the country, and made us proud. I don’t think they knew what I was going on about – they won’t realise how much people care.”