England and Germany meet again in the European Championship final, but the goalposts have moved | Women’s European Championship 2022
THe most striking difference is the sense of space. Order in the stands and order on the field. As England and Germany enter the 2009 European Championship finals, Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium is less than half full: the rows of black plastic benches create their own shadow, the noise evaporates like steam. This is largely due to the fact that, for some mysterious reason, the final is played on a Thursday night in September. Some of the English newspapers haven’t even bothered to send anyone.
Just over 15,000 players are treated to a bang: Germany run out 6-2 winners, forcing England’s loose pack of mostly semi-pro players to chase them to exhaustion. The level of commitment is unwavering. The level of technical competence is surprisingly good. What’s missing is the intensity: the tactical finesse, the speed of thought and action, the physicality that allows modern players to sprint and change direction and jump and slide with the same vigor in the 90th minute as in the first.
It feels like ancient history, and in a way it is and in a way it isn’t. Some of the players involved in the game are still working. Reserve goalkeeper Lisa Weiss is Merle Frohms’ assistant student at Wolfsburg. The unsinkable Jill Scott, now 35, has featured for England at this year’s tournament. But the game they played then and the game they play now might as well be two different sports existing in two different universes.
And so, 13 years after Faye White and Birgit Prinz led England and Germany out to a half-empty stadium and a world indifferent to them, Leah Williamson and Alexandra Popp feel the noise and claustrophobia of a sold-out Wembley before they even have time. exited the tunnel. Today, they are fully salaried professionals and household names. They detect millions of eyes on them in pubs and living rooms and on phone screens across the continent. They’ve both been on this crazy ride long enough to feel the vertigo and appreciate how far it’s come in such a short amount of time.
Is it even remotely possible to think of this as just a football game? Knowing what it all means and not feeling it at the same time? Are you trying to harness emotions and sense of occasion or are you trying to block it? And that’s before we even dig into some of the finer details of this game: the battle between Keira Walsh and Lena Oberdorf for midfield supremacy, the scrap between Popp and Beth Mead for the Golden Boot, which team can best support the press and which team can’t. best to resist it.
All of this adds up to what is quite simply one of the most important football games ever played in the British Isles. For years, decades even, we’ve been told that women’s football in England is on the cusp of some great, some indeterminate great leap that will propel it from a minor sport to a prime time for millions. No one really knew what it would look like. But we swore we’d know it when we saw it.
England have been friendly but merciless hosts: clinical in front of goal, unashamedly partisan in the stands, the team has gradually realized just how good they are. They’ve blown opposition parties apart (Norway, Northern Ireland, Sweden) when they’ve had the chance, and grounded them (Austria, Spain) when they haven’t. Above all, they have played the kind of football their predecessors could only dream of: well-drilled, robust, full of meme-able skill and a millennium enriched by the highest available coaching, logistics and sports science.
The danger is to take a breath, to stop to admire the view, to stay even for a moment to think about the magnitude of what they can achieve. This makes Germany the most dangerous side they could face. If there’s any team better equipped to handle the occasion, it’s a team that’s been to eight previous finals and won the lottery, with a culture and collective muscle memory calibrated to games like this that just can’t handle the pressure of it. a monumental piece of furniture, but enjoy it, reflect it, turn it to its host like a mirror.
Germany have been ruthlessly efficient with their chances and ruthlessly competitive without the ball. They have handled the pressure better than any team in the tournament. Frohms has been inspired. Popp, playing his first European Championship at the age of 31 after missing the 2013 and 2017 tournaments through injury, has been a talismanic presence: brilliant in the air, great at sniffing out opportunities in the penalty area and a wise, calming head in the dressing room. room. Germany has been on its own journey and has gotten a little stronger with every step.
If Germany is a team that seems to shed their baggage, then England is kind of the opposite. History makers, trailblazers, heroes: the inevitable wave of admiration and recognition that greets England’s victory is its own deterrent force. Playing Germany in the finals of major championships at home is hard enough without also having to carry the burden of leadership, influence, giving this stuffy country something to be momentarily proud of.
And yet, if England’s players are best served without considering the wider context, the rest of us can be moved by a sense of progress. The 2009 side, managed by Hope Powell, played on annual routes worth around £16,000. The Women’s Super League was still a concept that was only realized in 2010. Women’s soccer was still a sport of volunteers and pioneers: players and coaches worked for free, borrowed their own time and money, and grimaced in the freezing rain in vain hope. that one day their followers might find their way a little easier.
Maybe in 13 years we’ll look back at this team and gasp again at the momentum of the rise. However, talking about a lasting legacy should probably be taken with a grain of salt. The sugar feeding that England’s players have generated over the past few weeks is fundamentally separate from the slow work of real change, a process that does not result in one game of football but requires patience and political will and, above all, strategy. and investments. Meanwhile, seeing five all-white XIs gives the lie to the idea that these women somehow represent us as a nation. Much has been achieved. Much more is still needed. A win or a loss against Germany doesn’t change that.
And so this is a day not to wonder where this team might go next, but to marvel at how far they’ve come. How admirably they have outgrown their space. These women stand on the shoulders of those who went before them: Kelly Smith and Eni Aluko and Steph Houghton and Fara Williams and Casey Stoney and Gillian Coultard and Kerry Davis. And above all, Powell, the woman who played for nothing and fought for everything, who led this team for 15 years, who, after being knocked out 6-2 by Germany, never lost sight of the bigger picture. “It makes girls stronger,” she said afterward. “And one day it will be our day.”