Friendly International – Friday 07 October 2022: England (2) – (1) USA. Lionesses continue to roar

When England triumphed in the Euros final this summer, brushing all opposition, including former world champions Norway and Germany, spectacularly aside, there was only one match-up that women’s football fans longed for – England v USA.

For decades, The Stars and Stripes have been the dominant force in the women’s game and are the most successful team in its history, with four World Cup and four Olympic titles to their name. And for too long, the Lionesses have fallen well short of their transatlantic rivals. England’s commanding displays on their way to Euros glory, however, seemed to herald a new era for the Lionesses – one in which there has developed a feeling of confidence, a winning mentality, dare I even say it, an invincibility. And yet, whilst demolishing Norway 8-0 and seeing off Germany 2-1 are undeniably positive signs, as too was gaining their first ever trophy, there was a sense in which England’s progress would only really be evidenced by facing the reigning world champions. So the prospect of a friendly between the two countries at Wembley was a mouth-watering one.

Sadly, some of the celebration that should have surrounded this titanic clash was tainted by the troubling findings from a report into abuse and misconduct in the National Women’s Soccer League – a disturbing reminder that women in football, in sport and in life in general continue to suffer unacceptable violations. Standing together in solidarity as sisters in arms, however, the two sides were keen to put on a positive spectacle in front of a packed Wembley and with the original Lionesses of 1972 in attendance, finally receiving their caps over half a decade on.

Billed as a friendly, in truth, it was clear that both sides viewed this match much more significantly, a real test and measure for both teams ahead of next year’s World Cup, albeit with key players missing key. For England, a core of their Euros-winning spine was absent, with pivotal captain Leah Williamson and mercurial young talent Alessia Russo both out with injury, leaving significant gaps in defence and up front, whilst this was the first match in nigh-on a decade without stalwarts Jill Scott and Ellen White. Whilst their absences were all notable, it is a marker of the Lionesses’ growing strength and Sarina Wiegman’s calm management that England’s line-up not only looked exciting and assured on paper but played that way too.

Indeed, with lightning-fast Lauren Hemp up front, supported by England’s player of the year Beth Mead and Euros final heroine Chloe Kelly out wide, the first fifteen minutes of the match in particular were some of the best football Wembley has seen – a real showcase not of the ‘women’s game’ but simply of football. And it was makeshift striker Hemp who broke the deadlock after just ten minutes, with the world champions visibly rocked and the European champions visibly in control.

Rightly or wrongly, the American team have often been accused of overconfidence, even arrogance, but it was England who had a decided swagger, certainly in the opening exchanges. The possession, speed of play and quality of passing and movement all showcased exactly what this new generation of Lionesses is about and to put on such a display against the reigning world champions was a real show of intent. In times past, there may have been a fear, an awe, even an inferiority when going to toe to toe with the USA, but in the opening quarter especially it was the Americans who looked shell-shocked.

If there’s anything sports fans know about the USA, however, it’s that you can’t write them off, so, in truth, there was some inevitability to them getting back into the game just before the half-hour mark, with the lively Sophia Smith proving a thorn in the Lionesses’ defence. But where once this setback and America’s renewed impetus may have deflated England, the culture of success and confidence that Sarina Wiegman has instilled and the Euros triumph cemented served to galvanise the Lionesses, who regained their focus and reasserted their control.

Central to this, as so often in recent times, was midfielder Keira Walsh. Her performance was a masterclass in assurance and class. Positional awareness, control, quality, there are surely few better, if any, right now than the Barcelona recruit. And whilst the Lionesses have proved they are very much a fully functioning team, for me Walsh is arguably the most important piece of the jigsaw. Elsewhere, Lucy Bronze who always seems to rise to the occasion on the biggest of stages was back to her imperious best, whilst Lauren Hemp proved her value across the front line and Rachel Daly, who is plying her trade up front for Aston Villa and is currently their top goalscorer, demonstrated the versatility and athleticism that has made her a constant in Sarina Wigeman’s team. Once again, though, this team succeeds because of its collective intent and focus, each member playing her part.

Whilst USA grew into the game and there were several nervy moments, not least with two decisive VAR interventions, England never looked overly troubled or timid. They matched the Americans’ well-known physicality and went toe-to-toe in every dual. But what was perhaps most impressive was that they stuck to their own style and strengths and took the game to their opponents. They did not sit back and let the world champions dominate, they set out their stall as European champions, at their home stadium, on their own turf, buoyed with confidence and self-belief, urged on not only by a jubilant Wembley crowd, bolstered by the women who had gone before, but by the backing of a nation who had been caught up in the Lionesses’ journey in the summer and found in their game inspiration, determination and hope.

England’s 2-1 victory over the USA may be written into the history books as just a friendly, but ask the women of 1972, ask Jill Scott, Ellen White and the World Cup semi-final-losing England team of 2017, ask any followers of the Lionesses and they’ll tell you that last night’s result was much bigger than that. It was a marker of how far England’s women’s team has come, a measure of how much the game has progressed, a signal of how bigger the interest has grown, and a warning for all other teams that this is a side who knows how to win, who believes in themselves and who are not afraid of whoever stands in their way. It is a side who are European champions and who have their sights firmly set on being world champions too. There is a long way to go to get there, but last night England made it very clear that from now on the USA and the rest of the world should beware.

Jade Craddock


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Euro Ramblings – Final: England v Germany

‘Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing/but then I know it’s growing strong… Good times never seemed so good/I’ve been inclined to believe they never would.’ The lyrics to the song that has once again become an anthem this summer, ‘Sweet Caroline’, but how fitting those words seem in particular relation to women’s football after the Lionesses’ historic victory against Germany. Banned and ridiculed not so long ago, Leah Williamson and her teammates have given the game in England its biggest boost yet, whilst many of football’s foremothers and those who experienced it in its darker days may have believed such a time would never come. It is no surprise, therefore, that when the final whistle blew after 120 epic minutes at Wembley on Sunday that so many watching on found themselves teary-eyed or downright sobbing. What was so wonderful perhaps though about this outpouring of emotion was that it wasn’t just the Lionesses’ existing fans who have been caught up and carried along in the journey this summer, but a whole new audience of supporters who have been won over not only by the skill and ambition of these women, not only by the fair play and integrity of the game, not only by the friendly atmosphere and inclusivity of the stadiums, but also by that shared dream of English football fans to see football come home after over half a century. How we would have all loved to see the Three Lions triumph last year against Italy, but maybe there was something bigger, something predestined in the women achieving that success, on home soil, against the behemoth of Germany, to really lay the marker for the women’s game. A marker now that can never be erased. We needed permanence and prestige for the women’s game and it doesn’t come any bigger, any better than being written into the history books for all time.

Women’s Euro Trophy

In truth, the final was probably not the best game of football, and definitely not the Lionesses’ best performance, of the tournament, but there was something fitting about a nail-biting, hard-fought 2-1 victory over perennial winners Germany. In earlier games, England had shown various strings to their bow, with a determined 1-0 win over Austria, an 8-0 masterclass over Norway, a 4-0 demolition of Sweden and a dogged comeback against Spain. Being pegged back in the final proved a different test for the Lionesses and one that in previous years may have been their undoing. Indeed, many may have felt as if England had perhaps come unstuck once more after Lina Magull’s equaliser, but this is a different team led by a different manager, and an extra-time win only served to add yet another string to the Lionesses’ bow. They can rip teams apart, they can come back from the brink, and they can rally in adversity – in essence, they couldn’t be beaten. And with the backing of not only a record-breaking Euros attendance but of a growing national support, this England team proved just what can be achieved, wrapping up a memorable tournament but only just beginning their legacy.

It would be remiss not to mention the two English goalscorers of the final – Ella Toone and Chloe Kelly – whose names will go down in history and very probably be quiz answers in decades to come. Toone’s goal would have been a fitting finale for England’s victory, a snapshot of the quality and skill that this tournament has evidenced, but Kelly’s own personal journey to triumph after injury setback is perhaps just as intrinsic to the Lionesses’ story of struggle and determination. Beth Mead walked away with the Golden Boot honours after her own disappointment at being left out of the Olympic squad last year, as well as the Player of the Tournament. And whilst I don’t want to take anything away from her and would happily have seen any of the 23-woman squad take the honour, for me Millie Bright and Keira Walsh were the unsung heroes, hardly ever putting a foot wrong and both playing vital if often understated roles throughout the tournament. As I said though, it’s impossible not to sing the praises of all of the team; from Mary Earps’ impressive game-changing saves, Leah Williamson’s top-notch reading of the game, Ellen White’s harrying forward play to Alessio Russo’s effervescent cameos. And, of course, who could forget the woman who oversaw it all – Sarina Wiegman. If she doesn’t get the manager of the year across the board, there’s something very wrong. In ten months, she has transformed not only the team’s fortunes but also revitalised the game in this country through the Lionesses and has done it all with a calmness, composure and humility that astounds.

(c) Naomi Baker/Getty Images

And while Sarina should be collecting this year’s managerial accolades, the Lionesses should be nailed on for all other team and individual awards. Without wanting to draw comparison, if this was the men’s team, there would be national honours, books deals and every other endorsement under the sun, and rightly so. However, it seems as if the women have already slipped under the radar with a joyous yet strangely timed and grossly undervalued ceremony in Trafalgar Square. This may not have been a world triumph, but surely a parade and a Wembley-stadium sized reception would have not been too much to except and too little to deserve for conquering Euro and bringing home the first international trophy since 1966? This is the time that the powers that be should really be galvanising the support and enthusiasm in the women’s game and making hay. Alex Scott’s impassioned calling out of several stadium partners who failed to support Euro 2022 was a reminder that the women’s rise to the top has often been played out against a backdrop of challenges and barriers even in their own back yard. But for hosts such as Rotherham, Brighton and Milton Keynes, their support of the tournament not only reflected positively on them but also showcased some of the country’s stadium gems. And it is this sense of support and endorsement not only from the hosts, but pundits and presenters, and most crucially fans young and old, new and existing, that will be one of the lasting memories of this tournament and England’s impressive victory. And long may it continue.

Jade Craddock