Sport

Alexandra Popp’s warmup woes rob her of fairytale finish with Germany

While England danced along to “Don’t stop me now”, Alexandra Popp made a long and lonely walk along the touchline to the pocket of Germany fans in Wembley’s north-west corner. She had been stopped before she had even begun. Two or three of the travelling support were able to catch the pieces of kit she tossed up: a water bottle, a bag, perhaps a spare shirt.

Popp lobbed up several gifts although, true to form, there was not a towel in sight. She has never thrown that in and it is why, even in an arena pulsating with the glory of one of its most famous nights, everybody might have spared a thought for the tournament’s best striker.

In the end Germany will feel that, sometimes, fate and fortune are simply not on your side. They have tended to expertly steer clear of such a conclusion, whether at this level or any other, down the years but thoughts will inevitably turn to the cruellest of pre-match twists.

This had been Popp’s summer: she had been its best striker and, after she had overcome a succession of cruelly timed injuries to perform with an enthralling vigour and panache, a fairytale writer with little regard for host‑nation headiness would have offered the ending she had craved for an entire career.

Instead she cut a distraught figure after pulling out with a muscle injury in the warmup and there was an impression, even before a ball had been kicked, that Germany’s narrative had run out of road. Perhaps, if those away fans had collectively closed their eyes and wished hard enough, the match might have run to penalties and Popp, dragging herself off the bench, might have slotted in the winner. But reality painted a less romantic picture, even though Martina Voss‑Tecklenburg will feel her team were by no means inferior on the night.

At an earlier point in the post‑match euphoria, Sarina Wiegman’s players were belting out Sweet Caroline in a long line facing the seats occupied by their friends and family. Halfway down the other end of the pitch, their beaten opponents leaned in to a huddle. Voss-Tecklenburg, the coach whose calm authority shone through in this tournament, stood at its centre and for a moment her players straightened up.

Germany had slumped to the floor as one upon the full-time whistle as if drowned by the tide of white-and-red emotion around them. Defeat in a European Championship final would hurt anyone; here the pain came with an extra sting. No German side had fallen short after getting this far, and then there was the fact they had done so in such a storied fixture.

Chloe Kelly pounces to score the winning goal for England.
Chloe Kelly pounces to score the winning goal for England. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Soon enough there was cause to walk taller. The loud ovation Germany received upon collecting their runners-up medals spoke beautifully of the good-natured spirit in which this entire competition has been contested but it also told a further truth. This is an outstanding side that stretched England to the limit in a tense, taut, nervy and sometimes tetchy final, dictating much of the game and not deserving to lose. For the home side, joy was heightened by the knowledge victories come no more hard-earned than this.

Popp’s absence was telling at times, particularly when Germany failed to capitalise on a succession of inviting positions before Lina Magull’s smart leveller. There was a moment when Giulia Gwinn, their superb right-back, marauded into the area and arrowed a waist‑high cross that evaded Sydney Lohmann; it took little effort to imagine Popp flinging herself gladiatorially at the ball and making sure.

There had also been cruel luck in the continued absence of Klara Bühl, the flying winger out with Covid-19, and at times it was not hard to wonder what their first‑choice attack might have achieved when the screw was turned. The substitute Nicole Anyomi – tall, strong, quick and technically excellent with it – made a difference, though, and nobody would seriously suggest this squad is anything but deep in ability.

Those absences might make German hearts look back more fondly but, on the pitch, this game was decided by two moments when things went askew. Ella Toone’s opener was sublimely taken but followed a long stoppage for injuries to Marina Hegering and Beth Mead, England reacting the quicker.

The winner by Chloe Kelly, who may not have had the chance to seize on confusion at a corner if the commanding Hegering had not been substituted halfway through extra time, came shortly after a curious sequence in which the keeper Merle Frohms sidefooted away a speculative shot from Toone. In these small episodes, the focus and application that marked an otherwise super‑assured performance appeared to waver. Most teams would let you get away with it; England are not most teams.

So Germany lick their wounds, but anyone zooming out will consider how important their sweat and tears were to the success of this occasion. A record crowd, a booming television viewership and a captive audience of new fans needed to see an event of this intensity: a physical, technical tussle played at a rattling pace by two heavyweights who both showed up on the night.

It takes a pair of marvellous football teams to make a final truly worth winning. Popp, for one, may take some convincing of such consolation but Germany contributed thrillingly to the sense women’s football will only soar in one direction from here.

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