Saturday, August 6, 2022

England’s heroes have a golden opportunity to end 100 years of pain in Sunday’s Euro 2022 final

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The Lionesses have already made history at the tournament but a first major trophy would mark the transformation of women’s football a century after the FA’s ban, writes Katherine Lucas

England’s camp has been ‘electric’ since reaching the Euro 2022 final, with Lauren Hemp admitting ‘tears have shed at full-time’. The Manchester City forward spent the tournament grinning more than crying, including during the national anthem.

The sound grows more familiar after each Lionesses triumph, a cacophony of ABBA blaring from the dressing room that even the band’s Bjorn Ulvaeus conceded helped soften the blow of Sweden’s semi-final slump.

“I just think when the camera’s on me, I just chuckle to myself,” she says. “Of course my focus is always on the game, but this is my way of relaxing – just being myself, the smiley person that I am.”

It’s one of the reasons why England’s success has become so contagious. Yes, there is a deeper meaning behind all of this, 101 years after the FA’s decision to ban women’s football. Millions have been converted and there seems to be a growing minority who claim it is a sport “rather unsuitable for women,” as it was called in 1921.

The social significance of lifting a first major trophy at Wembley on Sunday would not be lost on Sarina Wiegman’s part, but they don’t make it their raison d’être.

They are here to win football games and in doing so they have already fulfilled Wiegman’s promise to “make the nation proud”. How often do you hear English fans talk about Kieran Trippier’s free-kick in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals? Now think how many times you’ve rewatched the following Croatian goals.

The 8-0 record breaker against Norway. Alessia Russo’s hoe. The opening ceremony at Old Trafford. Georgia Stanway’s Rocket. “TOOOONNEEE”. None of that will be forgotten, whatever happens in north London this weekend.

England’s women have long had a hardcore following, but these players are household names now. Football fans who would have struggled to name the starting XI at the turn of the year now have strong views on whether Russo should start (their current odds are a goal every 39 minutes off the bench) as to why Wiegman was right in using Leah Williamson in the Defense and how Lucy Bronze will intervene in Barcelona’s defence.

A staggering number of girls will be joining grassroots clubs and the 90,000 capacity Wembley Stadium will sell out. The last time England and Germany played in the final in 2009, only 15,000 fans attended.

We’re slowly getting there, and Sunday feels like the final destination. Standing in the way are Germany, eight-time European champions who have conceded one goal in the entire tournament (as many as England) and yet the hosts remain favourites.

England entered this tournament as the eighth best team in the world and blew the official rankings out of the water. There was never any doubt that they had the players. Millie Bright is a defensive powerhouse, Russo is one of WSL’s great prodigies of the past two years; Ellen White is one of the top scorers in English history and a brace against Germany could overtake Wayne Rooney at the top of the list.

The debate was whether all of these elements would come together.

“I think we were just the England we wanted to show and that’s what we did, we didn’t change anything,” says Hemp.

“Whenever we face teams that have different styles of play, we just stuck with what we’re doing and I think that’s important and that’s going to be important for the finals too. We’re just going to make sure we show the country what we’ve shown so far – and hopefully put on a show.”

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