England’s win over Germany is just the start of women’s football | Women’s Euro 2022
England won. In the end, maybe that was the only thing that mattered.
This is the brutal high-end sports market: it offers hard edges, black-and-white certainties, a pedestal and a precipice. And in front of 87,192 cheering, sweat-soaked fans at Wembley, they beat Germany 2-1 to become European champions for the first time.
But of course it had to mean more than that. And as captain Leah Williamson hoisted the trophy in her rainbow armband, in front of a record crowd and what was likely to be the highest ever television audience for a women’s game in Britain, it looked like both at the end of one trip and at the start of another. The first, an endless struggle for resources and respect, for parity and a platform, is finally over. The second is a journey without maps, without a driver and without an end in sight.
For more than 150 years, football has been an integral part of this nation’s culture and way of life, a form of identity, a unit of social currency. And yet, for most of that time, women have been excluded from this club and its benefits: yelled at and excluded. The last time England men lifted a major trophy, the 1966 World Cup, women were banned from playing competitive football in any form. Today, against the same opponents in the same stadium, English football – all of it, not just half – has risen to the top step of the podium.
They are a team adored and revered in equal measure, relatable and humble but mostly athletes of the most viciously competitive quality. It’s a team of many stars and none: Tournament top scorer Beth Mead, goalkeeper Mary Earps, captain Williamson and rising stars Alessia Russo and Lauren Hemp are world class in their positions but end up submitting their talent to the collective in the way of all major sides. They play with verve, rhythm and courage; lead and advocate as we intended for our politicians; celebrate the way any of us would. In Sarina Wiegman, they have a coach whose tactical acumen and nerveless temper helped a golden generation of footballers take the step that eluded so many of their predecessors.
All of this makes this triumph inevitable, perhaps even predestined.
Naturally, it was not. Germany were brilliant and resilient, perhaps even the best team in 120 minutes, despite the late withdrawal of deadly striker Alexandra Popp. With the usual pre-game superfluities stripped away, a game of rare antagonism and bad temper erupted, with flying challenges, deadly dogfights, and a mutual grudge that seemed too visceral to fabricate.
The chances were few, but the best of them fell on Germany. Earps was at his best inspiration in the England goal, saving from Tabea Wassmuth in the first half, Lina Magull in the second and plucking countless dangerous crosses in the air. And so, with the game still stalled and deadlocked, Wiegman predictably turned to her bench. Manchester United duo Russo and Ella Toone opened the game, giving England a much-needed injection of pace and resilience.
An hour later, perhaps the game’s only real moment of clarity has come: the fragment of master calligraphy smeared on a pub’s toilet door. Keira Walsh played a delicious long ball into the stride of Toone, who opted for trickery over power, lifting the ball in a delicate arc over Merle Frohms and into the net. For decades, Germany has derided the English style of football as simply ‘kick and rush’. It was a perfect retort: a sublime long kick and a rush that was unlike anything else on earth.
With 11 minutes of regulation time remaining, the superb Magull robbed a deserved equalizer, slamming the arrival of Tabea Wassmuth at the near post after a watery English defense. Naturally, it was a ripe time for a certain traditional English fatalism. Instead, Williamson simply adjusted her socks and returned to center circle. And there’s a restlessness and stubbornness about this England team that sets them apart from their ancestors.
Knock them down and they just hit you harder, harder, with more resentment.
And yet, as extra time ticked away, the dead weight of penalties stood like an open coffin. With 15 minutes remaining, Germany looked fitter and better. But as Hemp swung into a corner, for once the impregnable German machine developed a crease. Lucy Bronze won the header, Manchester City’s Chloe Kelly swung the loose ball and, in the second moment of the request, scraped it desperately over the line: an ugly goal to generate a moment of beauty almost crystalline.
There was a moment seconds from the end when England realized they were going to win. The substitutes stood on the touchline, the crowd was on their feet, and yet none of them had the power to do anything but watch and hope. And in a way, it was the perfect metaphor for women’s football itself, a game that for decades has always been on the cusp of something, a distant promise on the next horizon, a tomorrow that seemed always getting closer without ever arriving.
Tomorrow came with a referee whistle. And as England celebrated, the picture that greeted us at Wembley would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Women commenting on television. Women type in the press gallery. Officiants, coaches on the touchline, howlers in the stands. Over the past few weeks, these views have normalized because they are, in fact, normal. The crowd will disperse. The wall of noise will dissolve. But that legacy will remain: a nation slowly reconfigured to expect something else, to expect better.
Night fell as England players continued their revelry on a silver sea of tickers. Here is a simple and mundane view of what sport can be, which also acted as a sad and melancholy view of what sport could have been all these years if the administrators and guardians of the game had valued women beyond their ability to have children and serve tea.
There is still a lot to do. It’s not a perfect game because football is not a perfect sport. But watching these women right now is like feeling part of something increasingly organic, a sprout that has sprung from the most adamant soils to thrive and thrive. For those who’ve been following the dream for a while, it’s been quite the ride. For those of you new to this: welcome.