England won. In the end, perhaps that was the only thing that mattered.
This is the brutal bargain of high-end sport: it offers hard edges, black-and-white certainties, one pedestal and one precipice. And in front of 87,192 delirious, sweat-soaked fans at Wembley, they beat Germany 2-1 to become champions of Europe for the first time.
But of course it had to mean more than this. And as captain Leah Williamson hoisted the trophy aloft in her rainbow armband, in front of a record crowd and a television audience likely to be the highest ever for a game of women’s football in Britain, it felt simultaneously like the end of one journey and the beginning of another. The first, an undying struggle for resources and respect, for parity and a platform, is finally complete. The second is a journey with no maps, no driver and no end in sight.
For more than 150 years football has been an intrinsic part of this nation’s culture and lifestyle, a form of identity, a unit of social currency. And yet for most of that time women have been excluded from this club and its perks: shouted down and shut out. The last time England’s men lifted a major trophy, the 1966 World Cup, women were banned from playing competitive football in any form. Now, against the same opponents in the same stadium, English football – all of it, not just half – has ascended to the very top step of the podium.
This is a team adored and revered in equal measure, relatable and humble but primarily athletes of the most viciously competitive quality. It is a team of many stars and none: tournament top scorer Beth Mead, goalkeeper Mary Earps, captain Williamson, and rising stars Alessia Russo and Lauren Hemp are world-class in their positions but ultimately submitting their talent to the collective in the way of all great sides. They play with verve and pace and guts; lead and advocate in the way we wished our politicians did; celebrate the same way any of us would. In Sarina Wiegman, they have a coach whose tactical nous and nerveless temperament has allowed a golden generation of footballers to take the leap that eluded so many of their predecessors.
All of which makes this triumph sound inevitable, perhaps even predestined.
Naturally, it was nothing of the sort. Germany were brilliant and resilient, perhaps even the better team over 120 minutes, despite the late withdrawal of their lethal striker Alexandra Popp. Once the usual pre-match superfluities had been dispensed with, a game of rare antagonism and ill-temper broke out, with flying challenges, bruising aerial tussles and a mutual grudge that felt too visceral to be confected.
Chances were few, but the best of them fell to Germany. Earps was at her inspired best in the England goal, saving from Tabea Wassmuth in the first half, Lina Magull in the second and plucking countless dangerous crosses out of the air. And so, with the game still gridlocked and deadlocked, Wiegman predictably turned to her bench. On came the Manchester United pair of Russo and Ella Toone, opening the game up, giving England an injection of pace and elasticity they so badly needed.
An hour in came perhaps the game’s only real moment of clarity: the fragment of master calligraphy daubed onto the door of a pub toilet. Keira Walsh played a delightful long ball into the stride of Toone, who opted for guile rather than power, lifting the ball in a delicate arc over Merle Frohms and into the net. For decades Germany has derided the English style of football as mere “kick and rush”. This was a perfect retort: a sublime long kick, and a rush that felt like nothing else on earth.
With 11 minutes of normal time remaining, the superb Magull burgled a deserved equaliser, slamming home Tabea Wassmuth’s finish at the near post after some watery England defending. Naturally this was a moment ripe for some traditional English fatalism. Instead, Williamson simply adjusted her socks and walked back to the centre circle. And there is a restlessness and a stubbornness to this England team that sets it apart from its forebears.
Knock them down and they simply hit you harder, stronger, more resentfully.
And yet as extra-time leaked away, the deadweight of penalties loomed like an open casket. With 15 minutes remaining, Germany looked the fitter and better side. But as Hemp swung in a corner, for once the impregnable German set-piece machine developed a kink. Lucy Bronze won the header, Chloe Kelly of Manchester City swung at the loose ball and, at the second time of asking, scraped it desperately over the line: a goal of the utmost ugliness to generate a moment of almost crystalline beauty.
There was a moment a few seconds before the end when England realised they were going to win. The substitutes were standing on the touchline, the crowd was on its feet, and yet none of them was empowered to do anything but watch and hope. And in a sense this was the perfect metaphor for women’s football itself, a game that for decades has always been on the cusp of something, some distant promise over the next horizon, a tomorrow that always seemed to get closer without ever actually arriving.
Tomorrow arrived with a referee’s whistle. And as England celebrated, the tableau that greeted us at Wembley would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. Women commentating on television. Women tapping away in the press box. Women officiating, women coaching on the touchline, women bellowing in the stands. Over the last few weeks these sights have become normalised because they are, in fact, normal. The crowds will disperse. The wall of noise will dissolve. But this legacy will remain: a nation slowly being rewired to expect different, to expect better.
Night was falling as England’s players continued their revelry on a silver ocean of tickertape. Here was a simple and unremarkable vision of what sport can be, which also acted as a rueful and wistful vision of what sport could have been all these years had the game’s administrators and custodians valued women beyond their ability to bear children and serve tea.
There is still plenty to be done. This is not a perfect game because football is not a perfect sport. But to watch these women right now is to feel part of something growing and organic, a shoot that has sprung from the most unflinching of soils to thrive and prosper. For those who have been following the dream for a while, it’s been quite a ride. For those of you new to this: welcome.