TThe most striking difference is the sense of space. Space in the stands and space on the field. As England and Germany advance to the 2009 European Championship final, the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki is less than half full: the rows of black plastic seats create their own shadow, the noise just evaporates like steam. This is largely due to the fact that the final is – for some mysterious reason – held on a Thursday night in September. Some English newspapers didn’t even bother to send anyone.
A crowd of just over 15,000 faces an uneven rout as Germany knock out the winners 6-2, forcing England’s scattered assembly of mostly semi-pros to chase them to exhaustion. The level of commitment is unlimited. The level of technical capabilities is surprisingly good. What’s missing is intensity: the tactical sophistication, the speed of thought and action, the physicality that allows today’s players to run, change direction, jump and slide with the same vigor in the 90th minute as they did in the first minute.
It’s like an ancient story, and in some ways it’s there, and in some ways it’s not. Some players who participated in this game are still messing around. Alternate goalkeeper Lisa Weiss is a stand-in for Merle Fromes at Wolfsburg. The unsinkable Jill Scott, now 35, played for England in this year’s tournament. But the game they played then and the game they play now could very well be two different sports existing in two different universes.
So, 13 years after Fay White and Birgit Prinz led England and Germany into a half-empty stadium and a world indifferent to them, Leah Williamson and Alexandra Popp will feel the noise and claustrophobia of a sold-out Wembley before they even leave the tunnel. These days they are fully paid professionals and famous names. They will feel like they are being watched by millions of eyes in pubs, living rooms and on phone screens across the continent. They’ve both been on this crazy ride long enough to feel dizzy, to appreciate the distance traveled in such a short amount of time.
Can we even remotely treat this as just another football game? To know what it all means, and at the same time not to know it? Are you trying to use emotions and chance or are you trying to block them? And that’s before we get into some of the finer details of this game: the battle between Kira Walsh and Lena Oberdorf for midfield dominance, Popp and Beth Meade’s fight for the Golden Boot, which team can best counter the press and which team can better resist it.
All this makes up one of the most important football games ever played in the British Isles. For years, even decades, we have been told that women’s football in England is on the cusp of something big, some indefinite big leap forward that will transform it from a minor sport into the main occupation of millions. Nobody really knew what it would look like. But we swore that we would all recognize him when we saw him.
England have been a kind but ruthless host: fearless play in front of the goal, shameless guerrilla action in the stands, the team has slowly come to terms with how good they are. They tore apart the opposition (Norway, Northern Ireland, Sweden) when they had the chance and crushed them (Austria, Spain) when they didn’t. Most of all, they played the kind of football that their predecessors could only dream of: well prepared, reliable, full of memorable skills and millennial panache, enriched by the highest quality of coaching, logistics and sports science available.
The danger is to take a breath, to stop to take in the view, to even think for a moment about the extent of what they can achieve. That’s why Germany is the most dangerous side they can face. If there is any team that is better prepared for this event, it is the team that has competed in the previous eight finals and won everything, whose culture and collective muscle memory is calibrated for games like this one, and who won’t just handle the pressure. this event. monumental device, but enjoy it, reflect it, turn it on your owners like a mirror.
Germany was ruthlessly efficient with their chances and ruthlessly competitive off the ball. They withstood the pressure better than any team in the tournament. Fromes was inspired. Popp, who played her first Euro at the age of 31 after missing the 2013 and 2017 tournaments due to injury, was a talisman: she played brilliantly in the air, sniffed out chances brilliantly in the penalty area and calmed her head wisely in the dressing room. room. Germany went its own way and strengthened a little with each step.
If Germany is the team that seems to be dropping baggage as they go, then England is in some ways the opposite. History makers, trailblazers, heroes: the inevitable wave of flattery and recognition that will greet England’s victory is itself a deterrent. Playing Germany in the final of a major championship on home soil is difficult enough without taking on the burden of leadership, propaganda, giving this confused country a reason for fleeting pride.
And yet, if English players are best off ignoring the wider context, the rest may feel quietly moved by the sense of progress. The 2009 team, led by Hope Powell, played on fees of around £16,000 a year. The Women’s Super League was still a concept that did not materialize until 2010. Women’s football was still a sport of volunteers and trailblazers: players and coaches worked for free, gave their time and money, and grimaced in the freezing rain in vain hope. that one day it will be a little easier for their successors.
Perhaps in another 13 years we will look back at this team and again gasp at the speed of ascent. However, any talk of a lasting legacy should be treated with a grain of salt. The sugary rush of emotion generated by the English players over the past few weeks is essentially separate from the slow work of real change, a process that is not triggered by a single football game but requires patience, political will and, above all, strategy. and investments. Meanwhile, the sight of five all-white starting XIs belies the idea that these women somehow represent us as a nation. Much has been achieved. There is still a lot to be done. Winning or losing against Germany changes nothing.
And so this is a day to think not about where this team can go next, but to look in amazement at how far they have come. How wonderfully they have grown into their space. These women stand on the shoulders of those who came before them: Kelly Smith, Ani Aluko, Steph Houghton, Farah Williams, Casey Stoney, 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 losing 6-2 to Germany, never lost sight of the bigger picture. “It will make the girls stronger,” she said afterwards. “And one day it will be our day.”