The 2019 Women’s World Cup: Schrodingers Match
Oftentimes, the third-fourth place play-off match can be a surprisingly entertaining match. With the pressure largely off but a potentially large audience still likely for the match, the penultimate game of the tournament is an opportunity to let off steam and show off some chops in a match which sits roughly halfway between being a competitive match and a post-season friendly. Neither England nor Sweden had a great deal to prove this afternoon. These are two teams who’d achieved enough in these finals to silence most critics but had ultimately come up wanting against the two best teams in the tournament. England had pushed the USA far harder than most had expected them to before their match on Tuesday night. Sweden had run out of legs in extra-time against the Netherlands after matching them ball for ball throughout the ninety minutes of regular time. The real match of the weekend obviously takes place tomorrow evening in Lyon, but these were, nevertheless, two teams with a point to prove.
Within thirty minutes of the start of this afternoons match, though, the point that England had proved was pretty emphatically not the one that they would have wanted to make. Phil Neville had not changed the team from the semi-final as much as many might have expected him to, but this didn’t stop the England players – and in particular the defence – playing as they’d only been introduced to each other in the tunnel before the match. After eleven minutes had been played, Kosovare Asllani drilled the ball into the bottom corner after England failed to clear a cross from Fridolina Rolfo with Steph Houghton on the touchline, furious at not having been allowed onto the pitch after having gone off to receive some treatment for a head injury. She wouldn’t – couldn’t, really – have made a worse job of clearing Rolfo’s cross than her temporary stand-in, Alex Greenwood, did. Midway through the half, England’s day went from bad to worse when Sofia Jakobsson curled an unstoppable shot around Carly Telford from the left hand side of the penalty area. It’s the thinnest of gruel in terms of consolations, but at least there was nothing that England could have done about that one.
This England team, however, has character, and after thirty-one minutes they finally hauled their way back into the match when a beautiful pass from Jill Scott fed Fran Kirby, who cut in from the right and shot in to pull England back into the game. With their tails now up, it only took them seconds to think that they’d drawn themselves level when Ellen White collected a long ball from Beth Mead and rolled the ball in, but for the second match in a row White was to end up disappointed after the video assistant called out that the ball had bounced off her chest and onto her arm first. There’s no point going into a lengthy diatribe about how this intersection of the current laws of the game and the VAR are strangling the life out of football yet again, so we won’t bother. Suffice to say that something needs to change. It’s difficult to imagine the people who thought the current interpretation of the laws of the game to be a good idea coming up with a better set of rules, though, and that’s a fact that says more about those people than it does the current interpretation of said rules.
Despite being on the front foot for the majority of the second half, England couldn’t find a route back onto level terms. Sweden had got as far as they did in this tournament off the back of their defensive obduracy, and as both teams tired it seemed to suit Sweden more to sit back and let a faltering England come at them. There were chances at both ends, but the highlight of the second half was probably the introduction of Karen Carney, who announced her retirement just last week, with fifteen minutes to play. Carney, who replaced the largely ineffectual Nikita Parris, injected a little more urgency into an England team that had been looking just about out on their feet in the afternoon sun and heat, but there were chances at both ends before the final whistle, at which Sweden could celebrate a well-deserved third place finish while England were – and this is phrase that has done its fair amount of work over the years with regard to England International football teams – left to rue what might have been at the end of two very narrow defeats.
The 2019 Women’s World Cup finals can probably best be described as a curate’s egg of a tournament for England. Doughy in the group stages, they came to life in the knockout stages and had the two most convincing wins of any of the four semi-finalists before coming up against a USA team that was always going to look like an Everest of a mountain to climb. They’ve provided one of the tournament’s leading goalscorers in Ellen White and one of its most memorable goals in Lucy Bronze’s thunderclap of a shot in the quarter-finals against Norway. Had their late penalty kick against the USA hit the net rather than being tamely stroked into the hands of the opposing goalkeeper, England might well have gone on to win, which would inevitably have led to something approaching a state of hysteria right now at the prospect of an English team in an actual World Cup final.
But it didn’t – and the fact that they missed three penalties throughout the tournament wouldn’t have boded well for any shootout in this one, so at least we’ve been spared the deluge of piping hot takes that such an eventuality would inevitably inspired – and as such we have to confront England, where they are right now. It’s worth remembering that this is the second most invested in women’s international team on the planet after the American team that beat them on Thursday night, and that the sum result of this investment is stasis on the international stage if we don’t consider this afternoon’s match as particularly important, whilst they’ve taken a tiny step backwards if we do. Phil Neville will probably keep his job – self-awareness doesn’t appear to exist within his vocabulary – and, with the Premier League now likely to take over the running of the women’s game, even the short-term future of the women’s game in England feels a little uncertain.
It seems highly unlikely that the Premier League would prioritise the wellbeing of the national team in the same way that the FA would, and it’s entirely possible that this tournament could mark the end of one chapter in the history of women’s football in England and the start of another. Time will tell, what that ends up looking like. Perhaps this was as close as England were ever capable of getting. All that we can say for certain is this feels a little like an opportunity spurned by England, and that the long-term attitude towards of the general public towards this team will likely be shaped more by what happens next than by what has already happened. Perhaps it’s fitting that the match that was simultaneously so important and unimportant should have ended with such a feeling of uncertainty.