England are the winners of Euro 22, creating their own history after a performance of nerve and control against Germany at Wembley.
Looks like it came home, then. There has been considerable talk of comparatives between the England women’s team and its men’s equivalent this last couple of weeks, of the desirability of the women to forge their own history and to disregard and cast aside the various albatrosses around their own necks that their male counterparts have managed to position over the years.
England vs Germany is special because England vs Germany is special. There can be a rivalry without it being poisonous. At Wembley Stadium in front of a crowd of 87,000 people, there was no booing of the German national anthem, no need for such basic disrespect. It’s one of the stranger aspects of this phenomenon, really. The strain of England supporter that feels a need to boo always does so in the knowledge that at some point those boos will be thrown back at them. This pointedly hasn’t been an issue for the England women’s team.
In terms of European pedigree, the gulf between Germany and England couldn’t be much greater. Germany are eight-times winners of this tournament, while this was only England’s second appearance in the final. And while Germany’s absence from the last Olympics, brought about by a failure to get past the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, had hinted at a decline on their part, performances since had shown them to be coming back to their best.
A bombshell dropped, just ten minutes before kick-off. After considerable pre-match discussion, centred not least on whether she would end the tournament as its top scorer, it filtered through that Alex Popp had been injured in the warm-up and wouldn’t be playing. The Wolfsburg striker, with 59 goals from 119 appearances for her country, would turn out to be a big loss for the Germany team.
Losing any player ten minutes before kick-off is one of the bigger unwelcome distractions that a team can go through before a big match. To lose a player of Popp’s quality only makes that distraction all the greater, and England started confidently, as Germany struggled to adapt to their late change of plans.
England nearly had a perfect start, with Fran Kirby breaking on the left to float the ball towards the far post for Ellen White to bring a comfortable save for the German goalkeeper, Merle Frohms. Fran Kirby and Beth Mead found the space on the left wing to their liking, although England did need a firm header from Lucy Bronze to direct a fierce shot on goal. As Germany settled into the game their strength, particularly in midfield, started to show.
But Ellen White, all heat and light, was leading a constant hustle which led to a run of pressure and corners, but without creating too many clear chances. Two yellow cards in the space of a couple of minutes – the first somewhat harsh for Georgia Stanway, the second likely somewhat more deserved for a slightly overheating White – hinted a small loss of their normal self-control, and England hearts were in their mouths when a goalmouth scramble required the ball to be hooked off the line.
Chances had been thin on the ground, but with seven minutes to play England finally managed a clear sight at the Germany goal when White was caught off-balance when shooting and saw the ball sail a foot over. They finished the first half the stronger of the two teams, but by the interval the score was still goalless, with clues to who might eventually win this match still thin on the ground.
England started the second half sloppily under a very high German press. With the crowd only drifting back to their seats for the start of the second half, it was an underwhelming resumption from the hosts. In recognition of this need to freshen things up a bit, Sarina Wiegman replaced Kirby and White with Alessia Russo and Ella Toone.
And cometh the hour, cometh the woman. Ella Toone had been on the pitch for barely five minutes when her moment came. Keira Walsh’s pass cut through the middle of a Germany defence like a hot knife through butter and Toone raced onto it, lifting the ball over Frohms and just under the crossbar to give England the lead. It was a marvellous passage of football, a precisely-placed pass, a beautifully timed run and a finish of some considerable sangfroid.
Wembley, of course, exploded with a vast wall of noise, but the goal was quickly by followed a warning. Magull worked her way into a little space on the right and hit the post, with Earps scrambling to save the rebound. But as Germany pushed forward, they started to press England back again and with 11 minutes left play they found a route through, Wassmuth’s pass inside finding Magull, who shot into the roof of the goal from five yards out. Suddenly and very audibly, Wembley deflated.
At the sharp end of these tournaments the margins between victory and defeat can be incredibly narrow, and as the clock ran down towards the final whistle there were further changes from Wiegman. England, it rather felt, needed the break afforded by the full-time whistle more than Germany.
England have built no small part of their reputation throughout this tournament on their outstanding game management, but this was now coming under its biggest test yet, and it felt as though they may be buckling under the strain. For the goal, the defending was a little bit tired, and Germany’s attacking play was just canny enough.
The first period of extra-time was tired. The sound inside Wembley ranged from near silence to a guttural roar of something approaching desperation. Chances were few and far between as the game frayed at the edges, but with nine minutes to play, the dam burst. From a corner on the right, Bronze’s shot was blocked by Frohms, and Chloe Kelly scrambled the all over the line, her second goal for her country, and yet another goal from the substitutes’ bench.
And this time the game management did kick in, and in a way that hadn’t happened during the first ninety. Germany managed a shot into the side-netting, but otherwise there was little tension over the course of the last eight or nine minutes. Tempers rose, with Jill Scott getting involved in some shouting which may have left lip-readers pondering how much the German players will have understood, but the full-time whistle came with Germany unable to even get possession of the ball.
So England are the European champions, and those wondering how much this meant to the players only had to see the post-match interview with Chloe Kelly, which may just go down as the one of the great football interviews, consisting as it did of her shouting something which started out as a ‘thank you’ but which then descended into something barely comprehensible, singing a few bars of ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the top of her voice, and then running off with the microphone, which was swiftly shut off, presumably just to be on the safe side.
In this historic moment, the inequities of the past should not be forgiven. The FA have at least apologised for their 50-year ban on the women’s game in this country, and their five-year plan has been self-evidently successful, but their predecessors, who didn’t get to walk out in front of a crowd of 87,000 people and cavort around the pitch singing a Neil Diamond song at the top of their voices, shouldn’t be forgotten. This England team has cut through the shackles of the past. This team and this tournament are surely a major breakthrough for women’s football in this country. The game in this country will never quite be the same again.