There are many people in this country who would seek to denigrate women’s football, and one of the central tenets of this denigration is to point accusingly at what is received as a lack of achievement on the part of the women’s team on the international stage. Those voices may be a little quieter now, following England’s two-one win against the host nation Canada at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Vancouver earlier this morning. In front of a crowd of a shade over 54,000 people at the BC Place stadium, England overcame the host nation and booked themselves a place in the semi-finals of the competition for the first time. Moreover, although both goals came about as a result of Canadian defensive sloppiness, they are in the last four of the competition entirely on merit.
In truth, the entire match hinged on three moments of defensive weakness, two individual and one more structural. It took England less that four minutes to grab the lead, after some calamitous ball control from Lauren Sesselman allowed Jodie Taylor a run at the Canadian defence. After skipping past one challenge, Taylor’s grass-cutter from twenty yards was reminiscent of nothing so much as Andreas Brehme’s winning goal for West Germany against the Netherlands in Milan in the World Cup finals a quarter of a century ago. It was, by whatever barometer we might like to use, a magnificent shot, one which any goalkeeper on the planet – whether male or female – would have had at the very least extreme difficulties in coping with.
Barely had Canada been given the opportunity to claw their way back into the game before England had doubled their advantage, and this time responsibility for the ball reaching the back of the goal had to be shared around more evenly. England had scored from a set piece with a header at the far post in their previous match against Norway. This time it came from a free kick rather than a corner kick, but the end result was the same. Fara Williams’ looping cross was met by Lucy Bronze, whose header dropped over the Canadian goalkeeper and in off the underside of the crossbar. Canada did manage to get their way back into the game just before, after the England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley spilled a cross from the left, allowing Christine Sinclair to poke the ball in from close range to drag the hosts back into the game, but for all of their second half huff and puff, Canada were never fully to impose their will upon an English team that has grown visibly in confidence since the start of the tournament.
The scale of this achievement should not be understated. Prior to the round of sixteen match against Norway last week, England had never previously won a single match in the knockout stages of the Women’s World Cup, although it is worth pointing out that it took the men’s team until 1966 to manage this and a further two decades to do it on foreign soil, but the major significance in the performance of the Lionesses this summer has been in raising the profile of the women’s game in a country that has seen it overshadowed recent years by the Big Bang-esque global success of the Premier League. Two million people watched the win against Norway, and a million and a half stayed up until the small hours last night to see their latest win. For a sport that receives a tiny proportion of the publicity that the men’s game does, these are highly significant numbers. The profile of the women’s game is being raised in a manner in which only a successful team can manage.
Success, however, can be a transient beast when it comes to tournament football. No team is any better or worse than its last result, and it’s always possible that the hopes and dreams of millions could be dashed thanks to one bad whistle or one moment of individual madness. And in addition to this, the challenges of tournament football grow exponentially with each passing round of a competition. Norway were good, solid opponents to have beaten. Canada were likewise, but also had the considerable advantage of playing at home. England’s opponents in the semi-final will be a further, and even greater challenge. Japan are the current holders of the Women’s World Cup and the AFC Asian Women’s Cup, and were silver medallists at the 2012 London Olympic Games. They’ve won their last eight successive matches and are rightly one of the favourites to win this tournament. And yet, and yet… every single one of those eight successive wins has only been by the one goal. Last night, there were just three minutes left on the clock when they finally broke the deadlock against a moderate Australia side. Japan may well be in the winning habit, but they haven’t been doing so with with huge conviction, and may well not be looking forward to playing a team as physical as the English. Japan are probably technically the best team in this tournament, but they seem beatable and England are riding the crest of a wave at the moment. On paper, at this juncture, it feels too close to call.
With expectations already having been exceeded, the England women’s team can already rest assured that they have provided a welcome, positive tournament for many of use watching at home. The men’s team has long felt as if it is weighed down by carrying the weight of the world upon its shoulders. An air of fatalism hangs over it, yet somehow, for some, expectations remain impossibly high. The press ratchets up the tension with more opinion than could ever be good for the mental health of anybody reading it, and then claims to be its “biggest supporter” whilst benefiting significantly and chuckling aloud as it stumbles from tournament departure to tournament departure. The Women’s World Cup does at least allow us to throw off some of those shackles and enjoy some of the flavours of international football that were long ago squeezed out of international men’s football for those of us that were born in England. It is possible to have an England football team that is likeable, wins a few matches and a pleasure to watch. Who would ever have thought that such a thing might be possible?
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