Football

England one game away from biggest on-pitch achievement since 1966 and greatest ever off it

Twenty goals scored, just one conceded. Winning margins of four, five and eight. Ahead for 282 of 480 minutes, behind for only half an hour. Only once have they been taken beyond the 90th minute. Most of their other games at Euro 2022 have been over as a contest long before that point. It is hard to see how England’s journey to Sunday’s final against Germany and arguably the biggest night in their history could realistically have gone any better.

There has been a strange, bordering on disconcerting serenity to it all and if that’s down to any one individual, it’s Sarina Wiegman. Her reputation for not just matching but surpassing expectations through careful, methodical preparation – punctuated by yoga sessions and afternoon naps – has only been enhanced over the last three-and-a-half weeks. England have made their way to Wembley with the calm, steady assuredness of their unflappable manager.

Even on the rare occasions when her players have faced something approaching adversity, they have quickly risen to the challenge and responded. When they made a slow start at Old Trafford against Austria, Beth Mead’s first of six goals she has scored so far at this tournament settled their opening night nerves. When minutes away from a quarter-final exit in Brighton, a passage of composed but incisive play led to Ella Toone’s equaliser and Spain were second best from then onwards.

For the first half-hour of Tuesday’s semi-final, Sweden were the better side. Had they put one of several early chances away, the evening would have taken a different course. Instead, Mead scored again, England settled and went on to win comfortably. When a team cruises through a tournament in the manner that Wiegman’s has, it is often with the nagging doubt that they have not been truly tested. But England have been – particularly during these knock-out stages – and have passed that test each time.

This team has also dealt equally well with the expectations that have gradually mounted, the attention that has slowly and incrementally built up with each step closer to this final. “You talk about pressure, we talk about football,” is one of the more memorable quotes from their manager’s pre-match press conferences at this tournament and neatly sums up her approach to media duties. Wiegman lasers in on the task at hand and does not waste time discussing much else.

Two wider themes have come up throughout, though. One is history and the Lionesses’ place in it. Wiegman has stressed the importance of living in the present throughout but the scale of what her team could potentially achieve on Sunday cannot be ignored. This could be the first time in 56 years that England – either the men’s or women’s side – have won a major tournament. A statue of the only England captain to lift an international trophy stands outside Wembley. Inside, Leah Williamson could emulate Bobby Moore and become the second.

Comparisons to 1966 were already inevitable given the identity of the two finalists and their immediate surroundings, but then this also happens to be a repeat of the 2009 European Championship final – one of the record eight that Germany have contested and one of the record eight they have won. England lost 6-2 that night in Helsinki, but the scale and the pace of change that the sport has seen in the intervening years renders any comparison irrelevant.

Most of that squad, managed by Hope Powell, were semi-professionals. Jill Scott is the only survivor 13 years on but has been limited to three cameo appearances off the substitutes’ bench at this tournament, lasting a grand total of 21 minutes. The crowd at Wembley is set to be at least five times as large as the 15,877 in the Finnish capital’s Olympic Stadium. Whatever the global television audience was that Thursday night in September, you expect it was a fraction of the 30 million expected to watch this final.

All of which acts as an invitation to discuss the other wider theme. Wiegman has not shunned questions on the growth of the women’s game but embraced them. She has spoken freely of her team’s intention to inspire her adopted nation. She has expressed hope that England playing well and winning at a home tournament can not just encourage more young girls into the game but influence the attitudes of young boys too. Nearly 100,000 children have been part of the tournament’s record-breaking crowds, while 47 per cent of all fans have been female.

“I think what we’ve seen in the tournament already is that this hasn’t just been a change for women’s football, but society in general, how we’re looked upon,” Williamson, sat alongside Wiegman, said at Saturday’s pre-match press conference.

“I think tomorrow is not the end of a journey, but the start of one. And I think, regardless of the end result of that game, there will be a nice moment for reflection. Naturally, it’s my job to go out for 90 minutes, to play, and win, but I think, when we look back on this tournament as a whole, we’ve really started something.

“I think in most workplaces across the world, women still have a few more battles to face to try and overcome,” she added. “I think that for every success that we make, for every change of judgement or perception or opening the eyes of somebody who views women as somebody with the potential to be equal to her male counterpart, I think that makes change in society. I think that’s a powerful message: that we have the power to, in a typically male-dominated environment, take these strides forward that can impact everybody on that wider scale.”

Women’s football can sometimes feel like a prisoner to the discussion of its own growth but occasions of this magnitude provide an opportunity to step back and appreciate the progress made. England have accelerated that progress this summer through their many, many goals and dominant performances, winning the hearts, minds and eyeballs of their public. They are now one game away from an achievement that would rank above any in English football since 1966 on the pitch and one that would be the greatest of all off it.

Nearly 100,000 children have been part of the tournament’s record-breaking crowds

Xural.com

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