The 2019 Women’s World Cup, Group D: Auld Enemies

It runs deep, does this. And for those of us who grew up during the 1980s, deep doesn’t necessarily have to mean good. It seems odd to criticise the women’s game at any time, but especially during the build-up to an England vs Scotland match. The oldest match in international football was abandoned as an annual fixture in 1989 by the national associations because, frankly, it was deemed to have become more trouble than it was worth after years of poor quality matches pock-marked by hooliganism both inside and out of grounds.

Whilst the flame may not burn as brightly as it once did, there is still a flicker alive, specially north of the border. To their perception, the English have, in recent times, been living down to the worst of their preconceptions. On the other side of the border, meanwhile, there is a branch of conservatism that supports Scottish independence, whilst another says, “you voted to stay in your independence referendum, now sit down and shut up.” There is a strand of Englishness that has never been able to give up its tendency to patronise and belittle Scotland, and it’s definitely become more vocal in recent years.

These, then, are complicated political times and angst is high, but sport is often vaunted to be a release from all of that. And the more toxic elements of the drone that starts up on the rare occasions that England and Scotland are drawn to play each other in the men’s game do not, broadly, seem to have transferred over to the women’s game, for which we should probably all be grateful. Local rivalries seldom bring out the best in anyone, and in the current political climate there can be a tendency for social media to light up in a competition of who can make the stupidest or most witless comment in the build-up to such a match.

Meeting in the finals of a major tournament, however, is almost unprecedented. Even the men have only managed it the once, in 1996, and they’ve had almost a century and a half. The England-Scotland rivalry remains healthy, in the women’s game. And it doesn’t really feel as though that has anything to do with the gap between the two teams. England are one step below the very best in the world. Scotland are making their debut in the World Cup finals, after having made their debut in the European Championship finals two years ago. The gap is closing, and few expect this match to be anything other than hyper-competitive.

Yet despite the much vaunted gap between the two sides, England could only edge their way to a two-one win with the assistance of yet another handball call that called into question whether the laws of the game in their current iteration are fit for purpose. Fran Kirby’s cross definitely caught Nicola Docherty on the arm, but there was no indication of any intent on the Scotland defender’s part. She was looking away from the ball at the moment it struck and it seems unlikely that there would have been any way in which she could have moved it out of the way, such was the closeness of the range from which it hit her.

The video assistant immediately got the blame for all of this, but the fault in this case seems to rest in the laws of the game itself. A degree of intent has been important to the laws of the game for many, many years, but in their attempts to find an interpretation of the concept of handball that pleases everyone, the IFAB, who decide these rules in the first place, seem to be pleasing no-one at all. Nikita Parris converted the kick, but all conjecture (rightly) focused on what had taken place in order to get the game to that point in the first place.

None of this means that England didn’t warrant the win, though, and a convincing first half performance was wrapped up five minutes from half-time when Ellen White curled the ball into the corner of the goal to double their lead at half-time. They did, however, start to wilt a little in the second half and Scotland’s determination not to let the game slip out of their view resulted in a nervy last twelve minutes when Claire Emslie lifted the ball into the roof of the England goal with eleven minutes left to play.

The goal was the wake-up call that the closing stages of the match needed. The tussle in the goal to get the ball back to halfway to restart was a useful reminder of a century and a half old enmity, and it also set up a nervous last ten minutes for England, as a Scotland team now firing on the adrenaline of the possibility of being able to peg their rivals kicked in. That said, though, this was also the point at which English professionalism really kicked in. The midfield contracted into a more preservative shape, denying Scotland the room to be able to fashion very much in the way of chances to grab an equalising goal. England did enough. They held on without breaking into too much of a sweat.

But these rebellious Scots were far from crushed, and the narrowness of the result gives Scotland a decent shout of being able to achieve something significant should they be able to build upon their encouraging performance yesterday in their forthcoming matches against Argentina and Japan. Four points, one suspects, will be enough to secure a place in the last sixteen of the competition, so if Scotland can take something from their game against Japan on Friday a win against a beatable Argentina would likely see them achieve something that the Scotland men’s team have failed to do across ten attempts in the World Cup finals and European Championship finals, to qualify from the group stages of a major tournament.

England, meanwhile, got the three points and can reasonably expect to qualify from the group, though Japan are a clear threat in their next group match at the end of this week. It was also clear that England will need to improve if they are to have much of a chance of negotiating their way through the latter stages of the tournament, though they have plenty of space into which they can improve and a group of players who are clearly capable of doing so. At this stage of the competition, though, the result is all-important, and they will be happy enough just to have claimed all three points from such an emotive opening match, even if it required football’s current inclination to call everything is sees as either handball or offside to get over the line in Nice, yesterday afternoon.