“Football is a simple game – you play for 120 minutes and then the Germans win on penalties”, as Gary Lineker once observed. Oh, for things to have been that simple in Helsinki this evening. Germany, whose female team dominate European women’s football in a way that their male team hasn’t done provided formidable opposition to an England team that has surpassed all expectations by getting to the final of this competition in the first place. They had managed this without evening really playing that brilliantly. After losing their opening match against Italy, they came from two down against Russia to win 3-2 and then drew against Sweden to qualify for the quarter-finals as one of the third placed qualifiers from the group stages. In the quarter-final they saw off the hosts, Finland, and last weekend they beat the Netherlands 2-1 after extra time to book their place in the final.
Germany, though, are the queens of European women’s football. They scored ten goals in their three group matches (including five against France) seven of the last eight competitions. In eighteen meetings prior to this evening, they have beaten England sixteen times. England have managed a draw against them twice, but have never beaten them. The gulf between the best and the rest seems to be much greater in the women’s game than it is in the men’s game. For all of this, though, England come out fighting and for the first fifteen minutes the Germans look surprisingly bereft of ideas. England close down quickly in midfield, pass the ball around efficiently and don’t look out of their depth. It feels as if they are going to make a game of this.
Then Germany pounce. After twenty minutes Laudher passes to Grings, who turns the ball inside to Birgit Prinz, whose low shot clips a defender’s ankle and settles into the corner of the net. It is a turn of pace that leaves England standing completely still, and the goal rattles them. A couple of minutes later, the Germans double their advantage. Melanie Behringer seems to spot the England goalkeeper Rachel Brown a couple of yards off her line and fires in a shot from forty yards out. Brown gets what looks like a full hand on the ball, but she can’t keep it out. Germany have a two goal lead and are starting to slip out of sight. England, however, have inner reserves that the Germans might not have been expecting and within two minutes they are back in the game. Kelly Smith wriggles her way past two German defenders and crosses the ball across the six yard area for Karen Carney to stab the ball into the empty net.
After that brief flurry of excitement, the match settles back down to a more agreeable tempo. Both sides create half chances, but the defenders have taken control of the game now and Germany hold their 2-1 lead until half-time. Germany start pressing from the very start in the second half, and extend their lead again to two goals after fifty-one minutes. England fail to clear a corner, Simone Laudehr’s shot hits the post, Alex Scott clears the ball off the line and Kim Kulig eventually stabs the ball in. England, however, come back again, and inside four minutes they’re back in the game again. Karen Carney’s pass finds Kelly Smith, and Smith shoots in from twelve yards out. It’s 3-2 and England are back on the front foot.
This little wave of excitement, sadly, doesn’t last long. After sixty-one minutes, Garefrekes crosses from the right and Grings loops a header over Rachel Brown and in. England have given their all, and by now they are starting to tire. Two goals in four minutes from Grings and Prinz make the game safe for Germany, and it is concerning for a moment that this might turn into an absolute rout, but the England defence manages to hold firm in spite of a couple of close shaves, and in the last few minutes it even looks possible that they will close the gap slightly but the final whistle goes and Germany are, yet again and more convincingly than ever. They are deserved European champions and are surely likely to hold onto their World Cup winning crown – having won the last two World Cups, they host the competition in 2011. England, meanwhile, have an excellent chance of qualifying for the finals themselves with a group which contains Spain, Austria, Turkey and Malta.
Germany, the world champions, then, are the European champions again but they were flattered by their 6-2 scoreline this evening. If England can plug their defensive leaks (and, it has to be said, that it is a far better position to be to have a leaky defence as opposed to having a serious goalscoring problem), there is no particular reason why they shouldn’t continue to make solid progress, and World Cup qualification (and, indeed, progress in the finals) certainly isn’t beyond them. If this tournament has raised the profile of the women’s game in England, then that will also help. Women’s football still struggles for funding in this country, and every little helps. Losing this match may just turn out to provoke interest to be to the considerable long term benefit of women’s football in this country.