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.