Every once in a while a team or a sport in general will have its seminal and defining moment - its very own point in time where it stands up to be counted and shows itself to be worthy of respect, admiration and celebration. After becoming the first international team from these shores to reach the semi-finals of a major football tournament in a quarter of a century, the English Women’s football team have very much just had theirs.
By finishing third at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, following an agonising and cruel semi-final defeat to Japan but a historic and famous recovery in the 3rd placed play-off win against Germany, Mark Sampson’s side may not have gone down in history as the new champions of the world but the future impact of their achievements is significant. England has found its love for international again but it is our heroines, not heroes, who have fuelled it. A bronze medal and the best World Cup finish by any England side since 1966 has finally given the women’s game its place in the sun – the warm glow from increased viewing and participation will now hopefully only grow stronger.
Since that famous summer’s day in 1966 when Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup we had previously come so close only once in 1990 - think Gazza’s tears in the semi-final loss to Germany. Yet this time it was Laura Basset’s floods of despair as her unfortunate own-goal denied her side a final spot their efforts had more than merited. It was a sorry end to a triumphant story yet the many inspiring chapters that preceded it will live long in the memory, with many equally enthusing future sequels surely to come. This was no great tournament run brought about by the proverbial tournament fortune that some who manage to hang around to the end of the party experience. This was done through true technical quality, power of will and an insuppressible team spirit spawned by the tactically astute and superbly motivational coach Mark Sampson.
An opening defeat to France was quickly forgotten with triumphs over Mexico and Columbia to see them through to the knock-out stages. This preceded displays of admirable ability and strength of character to come from behind to beat one of the favourites, Norway, before then fending off hosts Canada and their 50,000 strong partisan support. There was certainly no shame in eventually falling to 2011 champions Japan, although the manner of their 2-1 defeat, losing in injury-time, was heart-breaking for the 2.4 million people watching. The satisfaction of redemption was partly found by beating two-time winners Germany in extra-time in the 3rd-place-play-off, their first win against them in 20 attempts. It was a fitting end that symbolised how far they had come, if not the perfect conclusion the romantics longed for.
Various moments stick in the memory - Fara Williams’ extra-time penalty to beat Germany, Lucy Bronze’s stunning long-range goal against Norway and Jodie Taylor’s crowd silencing solo strike against Canada to name but a few. During each contest England had periods where they their backs were firmly against the wall, yet each time they showed the resilience to bounce powerfully back off it. Women’s football engrossed the nation during the 2012 Olympics, and even a little when England finished runners-up at Euro 2009, but never like this. It was the first time it has truly captivated the nation; it will surely not be the last.
Sampson coxed them into a team full of rehearsed formations and game plans, glued together by shared confidence, belief and of course talent. One of his great achievements was his ability to implement near constant squad-rotation so successfully to keep his players fresh and sharp as well as happy, using 22 of his 23 woman squad. However, despite the supremacy of this collective, one of the furthermost allures for this side was the heroic individual performances of a certain few. According to Sampson, Bassett’s consistently rousing efforts were worthy of a place in the team of the tournament, while Lucy Bronze made Fifa’s Golden Ball shortlist, the award for the tournament’s outstanding player. Captain Stephanie Houghton, Karen Carney and Fran Kirby are all worthy of special mentions. Nonetheless, the beauty of this team effort was that it was very much about the team, a story of all 23 squad members.
Despite their excruciating defeat, as a group they won a far greater battle. The joy, pain and drama they provided us means that women’s football can now demand respect rather than simply asking for it. The record crowds that turned out to watch the first round of matches for the new Women’s Super League season, which now has two-tiers, has shown the instant effect of the Lioness’s World Cup endeavours. The average attendance was 78% higher than the average for the first half of last season. Next month, the FA Women’s Cup Final will be played at Wembley Stadium for the first time. The World Cup has given the domestic scene the shot in the arm it needed, although women’s football is already currently the fastest growing sport in Britain.
England were the best performing team from their continent and have captured imaginations across genders; they have made their own history, discovered their own identity and formed their own role models. This has done an immeasurable amount of good – persuading a nation finally to fall in love with women’s football and inspiring an entire new generation of young female players. More players, teams and leagues, along with further media coverage, attendance and sponsorship, means greater opportunities. If there was ever a moment for young female players to embrace this moment and take on the ultimate opportunity of playing football abroad, now is that time. Sport Lived provide fantastic football gap year programmes in Australia and New Zealand that will make that prospect a reality.
While they now stand alongside those successful men’s teams of tournament’s past, this women’s side deserve to be lauded in their own right. This was their moment and the catalyst for further progress at international, domestic and grass roots levels. This has not been just about inspiring a love of English international football but of the women’s game in all its various guises. Inspiration is a strong would that should be used fleetingly and with caution. Yet there can be no denying its suitability to what England’s women have achieved. The Lionesses almost went all the way at a World Cup, yet the longer-term effects are far more profound than this pride could ever imagine.
“I hope this team’s performance here will serve as a catalyst to change everything, to inspire a new generation of female players. Hopefully girls will be going out and buying pairs of football boots now.” (Mark Sampson, England Head Coach)