Sports

England’s Women Have a Chance at Immortality on Sunday

The nation’s football fans have had their hearts broken for nearly 60 years. Of course it’s Germany that just might break them again.

Kirby and two teammates scream, pump their fists, and smile on the pitch
Fran Kirby celebrates with teammates after scoring their team’s fourth goal during the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 semifinal match between England and Sweden at Bramall Lane on Tuesday, in Sheffield, England. Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

For the second time in as many years, an English national soccer team is on the brink of winning the European championship.

One year after the England men lost the title of the pandemic-delayed Euro 2020 to Italy on penalties, the women’s team has qualified for the final of the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 tournament. Like last year, England will play the final at home, in London’s Wembley Stadium. Like last year (and 2018, and 2019), the team’s success has inspired countless chants of “It’s coming home,” the refrain from the 1996 novelty song “Football’s Coming Home” that’s been adopted as a post-ironic motif for the campaigns undertaken by the Three Lions. The “30 years of hurt” referenced in the song have nearly doubled, but this may be England’s best chance yet to break their international drought.

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The men’s side has tiptoed through its past two major international tournaments under Gareth Southgate as though they were ancient tombs filled with booby traps, Indiana Jones pouring out a bit of sand from his bag before snatching the trophy. The women, by contrast, have crashed through Euro 2022 like the boulder that gives chase to him. Their 4–0 win over Sweden Tuesday was the largest semifinal victory in UEFA history. Their 8–0 win over Norway in the group stage was the most lopsided in this tournament’s history. Those were both top 11 teams in the world entering the tournament, according to FIFA. (Finland, Denmark and Iceland better be thankful they were eliminated before they joined the Scandinavian slaughter.)

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England doesn’t merely have the tournament’s top scorer (Arsenal winger Beth Mead) but also the third- (Manchester United’s Alessia Russo) and fifth-placed (Chelsea’s Fran Kirby) players on the Golden Boot leaderboard. The team’s all-time scoring leader, Ellen White, is tied for seventh. It has scored goals that are simple and goals that are thunderous and enough goals to have hit nearly everything in between. The foremost among them was an improvised nutmeg backheel from Russo against Sweden that unexpectedly earned one of the highest accolades the 21st century has to offer: a “Sheeeeeeeee-it!” from State Sen. Clay Davis himself.

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And so there is plenty of firepower, and coach Sarina Wiegman is unafraid to use it. Wiegman, who led her native Netherlands to the Euro 2017 title and then to the World Cup final two years later, has yet to lose a match as England’s manager since taking over in September 2021. In World Cup qualifying last year, her team beat Latvia 10–0 away and 20–0 at home. (That “20” is not a typo.) In a warmup for this tournament, England beat the defending champion Dutch 5–1. It dispatched Germany 3–1 in February.

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In a tournament where many favorites and dark horses failed to coalesce, it has been the obvious team to beat. Spain—a popular pick to win following the not-quite-total dominance of Barcelona last season—saw the world’s best player Alexia Putellas and star forward Jenni Hermoso get injured before the tournament and bowed out narrowly to England in the quarterfinals. France lost Division 1 Féminine Player of the Year Marie-Antoinette Katoto to a torn ACL in its second game and sputtered for the rest of the tournament, scoring six goals in the approximately 90 minutes she was on the field and just four in 370 minutes without her. The Norway with star winger Caroline Graham Hansen and striker Ada Hegerberg and the Denmark boasting midfielder Pernille Harder both fizzled in the group stage. Italy won a group that featured Australia and Brazil in 2019, but it failed to win a single game this year.

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Germany has been one of the few teams to meet or exceed expectations. The traditional powerhouses, winner of this tournament eight out of the 12 times it has been held, have conceded just one goal all tournament, same as England. Veteran forward Alexandra Popp, who missed the previous two Euros with injuries, has made up for lost time by scoring in every game Germany has played to match Mead’s total of six. (Mead has more assists, and so leads for the Golden Boot.) If any European team can beat England this summer, it’s Germany.

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The AP’s lede says the match “echoes decades of history.” German coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg called it “a classic in soccer, England-Germany.” Which it is, no doubt, the two teams meeting most notably in the finals of the 2009 Euros (Germany won) and the third-place match of the 2015 World Cup (England won). But when England plays Germany, it’s tough to keep the long shadow of the rivalry between the two men’s teams out. (Also, often, the long shadow of 20th Century history.) The men’s 1966 World Cup final remains the only major international tournament victory England’s men or women have ever achieved. The 1990 World Cup semifinal saw Germany’s men prevailing on penalties on its way to winning the tournament. The men’s 1996 Euro semifinal ended with Germany prevailing on penalties on its way to winning the tournament again. English fans can tell similar tales of woe about 1970, 1982, 2010, and 2020 … err, 2021.

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The subsumption of this women’s game into that legacy feels a little like equality and yet also a little unfair. The English FA still prohibited women from playing on its fields in 1966 and 1970. It was still refusing to administer the women’s game in 1990, leaving it to the cash-strapped and largely voluntary Women’s Football Association until 1993. As soccer-inclined English people, the women have the same cultural claim to the national heritage of big-stage heartbreak as their compatriots, but from a sporting standpoint, they need to be given the room for their own traditions to develop. They shouldn’t have to be saddled with the expectation of angst and pressure that has come to define the men.

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Sports, particularly international sports, are easily bundled together in the minds of fans. On the day of the closing ceremonies, an Olympic gold medal in badminton, basketball, and boxing all count the same toward a country’s total. That connection between the two teams presumably helps grow interest; people used to rooting for one England team are more likely to root for another. Is it better for the legacies and accomplishments of the two teams to remain separated? Or for the fates of each to remain tied in the public spirit, inspiring the same assortment of assurance and angst and anticipation each time one of these tournaments rolls around? If the women better the men’s performance on Sunday, does it stay an uplifting story of the return to English glory, or will it become a cudgel used to castigate the other side should they disappoint in Qatar? (Even the most hardened of Eurosnobs would surely bow to our American expertise on this matter.)

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We’ll know more by the end of this year. If the women bring it home on Sunday, then what happens to the catchphrase in November, when the men travel to a World Cup they’re among the favorites to win? Fans of the England men’s team, including many of the people most invested in the women’s performance Sunday, will presumably still want their team to win the tournament in Qatar, no matter what happens this weekend. That is the point of being a fan, and the privilege of being a fan of a team that is traditionally pretty good. Can it come home again, if it has just arrived? How many “its” are there? How many rooms are in the home? No doubt some odious attention-seeker has already or will soon make the case for why this isn’t the “it” that counts, but I’m not checking Piers Morgan’s Twitter feed on this one, and neither should you. The people who allow themselves to be happy at this prospect are in the right, not the ones coming to “well, actually” it.

The “it” from the song has never really referred to “football,” which has been in plentiful supply. Instead its antecedent has always been a major footballing trophy, the acknowledgement that an England team is the best in the world, or at least on the continent, at the sport it clings to most ardently and cares about most deeply. On Sunday, for the first time in 56 years, England may get that. It should enjoy the prospect.

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