Sarina Wiegman said her players had reached a point where they “don’t fear anyone”, before England’s showdown with Germany in the final of the Euros.
“When you reach the final then you are one of the best teams in the tournament,” the manager said. “I think we have a very good team. We don’t fear anyone.
“We’ve had lots of tests. We did pretty well. The group stage was relatively easy – it looks easy but it’s never easy. The Spain game was tight and close; Sweden looked a little easier, but we had hard moments and moments when we dominated, and here we are now.”
It has taken a long time for England to reach a major tournament final. The Lionesses last reached a Euros final in 2009, losing 6-2 to Germany. That was the seventh of Germany’s eight European titles and England had some serious catching up to do. Thirteen years later, England go into a final against Germany with a realistic chance of ending their opponents’ 100% record in Euro finals.
The pace of change stepped up a gear in 2017, when the Football Association’s director of women’s football, Sue Campbell, and the then chief executive, Martin Glenn, stood in the Bobby Moore Room at Wembley and unveiled an ambitious plan for the development of women’s football. For the first time since the close to 50-year ban on women’s football from all association-affiliated grounds, the FA apologised for how it had wronged the women’s game.
Yes, the ban was lifted in 1970 and yes, the FA took control of running women’s football from the independent Women’s FA in 1993, but support had been limited, incremental.
The success of Team GB at the 2012 Olympics and England’s surprise run to the 2015 World Cup semi-finals helped those asking for a few more crumbs from the table to get a small slice of the pie.
Five years ago, the FA was committing even more with ambitions to double participation in women’s football, double the audience for the game, improve the pathway for players and get England to a major tournament final.
The plan was clear: the Lionesses would be competitive by the 2021 Euros (which was postponed to this year because of Covid) and the 2023 World Cup. The semi-final exit from the 2019 World Cup was not a surprise; the infrastructure was not deemed to be developed enough in time for that tournament.
“This sort of sounds a bit jargony but to build a high-performance system takes time,” Campbell said. “We’ve got great players with enormous passion, enormous commitment, enormous endeavour, but really building a world-class support system means you have to get all the things like fitness or sport psychology or analysis in place and they have to be in place at the right level. It takes time to build those kinds of teams.”
The strategy is bearing fruit and then some. “So many of the things that we wanted to see and have articulated in that strategy we’ve now seen come to life,” said Campbell. A new plan has been drawn up and the FA is accelerating the game at pace.
It is impossible to describe the potential impact of winning a home Euros, but in reaching the final in the swaggering way the team have done, win or lose they have changed the status of the game, themselves as well as attitudes towards women and their involvement in sport more generally. England’s captain, Leah Williamson, highlighted that on Saturday when she said the tournament had not only provided “a change for women’s football but for society in general”.
The Lionesses’ journey to this final has been long.
In 2009, 17 players were handed the first central contracts, with a further five playing as full-time professionals in the US. The central contracts were worth £16,000 each a year for four years.
On Sunday, the Lionesses are each in line for £55,000 bonuses should they triumph. Their faces stare out from billboards and adverts across the country. In 2009, only the semi-final and final were broadcast; this time the tournament has been given the full BBC treatment, with every game shown.
If England win on Sunday it will not only be a triumph of the players and coaching staff, it will be a triumph of investment and support.
In the likable Wiegman, though, they have “the final piece of the puzzle”, said Campbell. “The coaches before Sarina did a good job growing the game, growing the visibility of the women’s game, but she is unquestionably one of the most outstanding coaches I’ve ever worked around and she has definitely brought a very different level of collaboration, teamwork, tactical awareness, calmness and a clarity of purpose.
“She is without question, the final piece of the jigsaw. When you’re building a high-performance system, it’s like putting a jigsaw together. It doesn’t all happen at once – you have to do it piece by piece. She’s the final piece for me and her presence has pulled it all together in a way that perhaps we didn’t understand until we had it.”
Wiegman has pulled things together on the pitch as much as off it. The audaciousness of Alessia Russo’s backheel goal against Sweden was symptomatic of an environment that has the team playing for fun, for each other and without fear. That is exhilarating to watch.
For Williamson, enjoying the moment will be as important as trying to block it out and focus on the game. “There’s been times in my career where even when I’ve won, I’ve felt like I’ve lost because I haven’t enjoyed that moment,” she said. “The environment we’ve created has allowed us to enjoy it and soak it all in with the fans.
“I’ve always said: ‘Why shouldn’t we enjoy it?’ We’ve worked so hard, but there’s that focus and composure which is more necessary before a final.”