For the second successive major tournament, England’s Women have outdone their male counterparts in the latter stages of a major tournament. The Lionesses have diced with death and sailed (very) close to the proverbial wind but have made it through to the last four of the Women’s World Cup. With the USA, Germany, Brazil and France gone, England’s Women are 90 minutes away from a shot at glory.
England stand on the cusp of greatness
Where Gareth Southgate’s men narrowly and spiritedly failed – but failed nonetheless – on home soil and in Qatar, Sarina Wiegmann’s tenacious pack of Lionesses have delivered. And how. Just over a year on from that never-to-be forgotten day at Wembley, England’s Women are two games from going where no one has gone before. No women’s team have ever won back to back Euros and the World Cup. Not even the all conquering German juggernaut of the 90s and 00s. Only Spain have ever done before it in the men’s game.
Two games away from football immortality. Two games away from legendary status and a place in English football folklore. This side have already become household names up and down the country thanks to their success last year. Now, they have a chance to be mentioned in the same breath, with the same reverence, as Jeff Hurst, Martin Peters, Gordon Banks, the two ‘Bobbys’ Charlton and Moore and the rest of the Boys of 66′. To scale football’s Everest and stand unrivalled atop the pinnacle. At the zenith of the game as the winners of football’s biggest prize.
England have not played well: indeed, only against China in the final group game with qualification already secure have the real England come to the party. Yet perversely, perhaps their biggest weakness has also become their primary strength. In the Euros, England were free flowing. Fluid. Eye catching. They only really ever looked remotely in danger once, against Spain in the quarter finals. There was no doubt they were the best team in the tournament, and by some considerable distance.
This time it’s different. Far from the comforts of home, England have traipsed about as far away from Blighty as it is possible to be. Leah Williamson is absent, so too Beth Mead, Fran Kirby and the retired Ellen White. Kiera Walsh very nearly joined that club. Is it because of these injuries to the spine of their Euros-winning squad that England have yet to peak Down Under? Or the result of? Either way, there is no doubt we have seen a very different side to Wiegman’s charges over these five games. But isn’t that what the best teams do? Isn’t that what makes a side truly great – it’s all well and good having a Plan A, but you need to have a Plan B and even a Plan C too. England have certainly shown the female equivalent of cojones; whatever that may be.
Roaring Lionesses find a way
It’s testament to the resilience, determination and sheer force of will coursing through their veins England have, continually somehow, found a way. They found a way in the face of a fierce Nigerian onslaught. They recovered from a goal down against the combative Colombians in Saturday’s quarter final. They survived Walsh’s serious looking injury in the Denmark game. Lauren James stupidity in the last 16 tie with the African champions only served to make them dig deeper. Deeper than they have ever had to dig before under Wiegman. Where many expected a comfortable victory, England just about made it to the sanctuary of a shootout before coming through. Every box ticked. Every test passed. No side has had to fight harder to get this far. Whilst giants have been toppled all around them, England have stood up to be counted – and survived.
Quiet and undemonstrative, Wiegman’s calm demeanour has rubbed off on her players and she has instilled something quite remarkable in this group of players. They now feel they can conquer all comers no matter the scene, setting, situation or scenario. They are battle hardened and ready for anything thrown at them.
England out to poop Aussie party
As well they might because now comes the toughest test of all. When England walk out on Wednesday in sweltering Sydney, they will not only face the eleven Matildas of Australia, but the collective force of an entire nation. England are fourth in the world, Australia six places lower. On face value, that alone makes the Lionesses favourites. But the Aussies are riding the crest of a wave. The Aussies have Sam Kerr, possibly the greatest centre-forward in the women’s game, back fit and ready to be unleashed. They feel it’s their destiny on the biggest stage of all. They would love nothing more than to get one over on those pesky ‘Poms’ en route to their finest footballing hour. England will have even fewer friends than normal in three days time.
Australia were the team to inflict Wiegman’s first defeat as England boss. Granted it was only a friendly, but it served notice of how dangerous Australia are and the threat they pose.
History beckons, glory awaits
Should England get past Australia to reach a first World Cup final – and a second in succession for Dutch coach Wiegman – the resurgent Spaniards or the silky, suave Swedes stand in their way. England beat both in the Euros and so will fear neither but Sweden in particular have thrown down a marker when they beat ertswhile champions USA. They then followed that up with another impressive win over hotly tipped Japan.
So it all comes down to this: this time next week there will be a new world champion. Spain, Sweden, Australia or, indeed, England. Carpe diem, ladies, carpe diem. As the slogan for our Olympics in 2012 so proudly proclaimed: Inspire a Generation. Our girls have already done that whatever happens. They have earned respect and admiration from even the most tight-lipped of sceptical men. No longer is the England Women’s football team merely an afterthought, a footnote, a token gesture.
Oh by the way: they brought it home last summer, so what do we sing this time?