LONDON — Lucy Bronze wasn’t sure what was next after this final. For her whole career, whenever a tournament finished with England, she’d pick through the disappointment, learn from it and try to ensure she wouldn’t feel the same again.
As a country, it’s been this case for 56 years.
Even after their remarkable win over Spain in the quarterfinals, while most of her team celebrated she stayed reserved, sitting on a ball near the tunnel just watching and thinking ahead. After their 4-0 semifinal win over Sweden she was at the back of the pack as they did their lap of honour.
For someone who lives game to game, minute to minute, in pursuit of that major England trophy, when those dreams were finally realised with a 2-1 Women’s European Championship final win over Germany at a packed Wembley Stadium, the reaction was impulsive. There was nothing pre-meditated or thought through with how she celebrated — just an outpouring of joy. When she saw Jill Scott running over to hug the now-retired Fara Williams on the touchline, she jumped on top of the embrace and brought the pile down. After they were presented the trophy, she was the first to try a dive through the glitter. And on their walk around the Wembley pitch as they went past the goal where Chloe Kelly scored the winner, she was the first to jump up to hang from the crossbar. Suddenly all those heart-breaking moments, and the pain she played through with her still recovering knee, was worth it to be there in that very moment.
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She was just one of the 23 players in the squad, representing the 187,604 women and girls who play football in the country, across the 11,509 female-only teams.
Every single one of the 87,192 crowd who packed into Wembley to watch this historical day had their own stories. Scott said on Friday that if England managed to beat Germany, there would be thousands of hands on the trophy. That sums up exactly what Sunday meant to the sport: It was a triumph for this group of players, the trailblazers who came before them and for those who will follow in their footsteps on the field one day. But above all it was four weeks where the Lionesses inspired countless young boys and girls to believe they could do the same, or at the least, try to emulate them.
The scenes at full-time were a mix of relief, exhaustion and sheer exultation. Ella Toone, who scored a magnificent chipped goal in the 62nd minute to give England the lead, summed it up perfectly when she said, “I’m buzzing my head off.”
Those celebrations contribute to the rich tapestry of defining moments from the Lionesses: from Georgia Stanway’s rocket of a winner against Spain, to Sarina Wiegman’s joy at the full-time whistle in that quarterfinal, to Alessia Russo’s backheel wonder goal against Sweden, to Toone’s chip, and then Kelly’s Brandi Chastain-esque celebration after the championship-securing goal in the final.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to do!” Kelly said postmatch. “But I think it was an amazing celebration, because what a tournament.”
Each box office moment was a snapshot amidst an incredible tournament, but those memories and images will transcend generations. But what’s so impressive about this group is their relatability. They are open with their emotions and have all overcome adversity.
Fran Kirby and Rachel Daly have both spoken about the grief of losing parents. Kirby has spoken about her struggles with depression and how she managed to get through heart disease and fatigue to make this tournament. Captain Leah Williamson has spoken about imposter syndrome. Beth Mead, on the eve of the final, talked about how football is her “safe space” to escape from her “difficulties off the pitch.” The Lionesses are a beacon for inclusivity, with some in the squad icons for the LGBTQ+ community.
Each will have their own story of adversity — like how Ellen White had to juggle jobs to manage to continue playing the sport she loves at a high level, how Bronze fitted her training around working in a pizza chain to make ends meet at the start of her career. Hannah Hampton grew up not knowing there were girls football clubs. That won’t be the case now.
Then there are the tales of life as a professional footballer, and persevering through bad patches while not losing sight of the dream. During the celebrations, Mary Earps took the Euro trophy to one of the goals and had a photograph there, just three years after she felt her international dream would never be realised as she stayed the perennial third-choice keeper. Kelly, who came back to score the winner after being out for 11 months with an ACL injury, said: “It was definitely the lowest of the lows, but it just goes to show you don’t know what’s around the corner.”
Wherever you look, there are relatable stories and there’s the hope their story and the last month will be society-shifting.
“We are here because there is a fundamental reason to be here,” Wiegman said. “During our preparation for the Euros we brought in some players who played in 1971. Those women are the trailblazers for the next generation. We should always remember the ones who went before us because they made a path for us. This team makes a path for the next generation.
“Never forget where you come from. We know it will change for the team from this moment, but never forget the generation before. There was building and building to develop the competition here.
“The whole country stood behind us in the stadiums, outside the stadiums, and we really made a change. I think this tournament has done so much for the game, but also women and girls in society. In England but also across the world too.”
So there’s the challenge for the powers that be. The players have talked about legacy throughout this tournament — and these Lionesses have now given the stakeholders the platform to build something truly remarkable off the back of their success, but now comes the chance and challenge to deliver.
The FA has already set out its aims from a functional perspective. They want 75% of schools in the U.K. to provide equal access for girls to play football in P.E. lessons by 2024, with 75% of all grassroots clubs having at least one girls’ team. These are bold aims, given just 44% of secondary schools (for those aged 11 to 18 years old) offer football in P.E. lessons, with the overall figure at 63% across all school ages.
“The key is what our lasting legacy is going to be, both in schools, in our leagues — the WSL,” Chelsea manager Emma Hayes told ESPN. “Give everybody access and opportunity, pay everybody better because we all want to grow the sport — keep us front and centre. You need to see it to be it, and I would like that to happen more. A little bit more diversity in our sport — that’s something I’m hoping where the foundations have a little bit more of an inner-city interest; I feel sometimes that’s missing within our sport.
“But it’s been unbelievable. It’s been a celebration of the work that’s gone on in our country over several years, by a number of people and organisations.”
Hayes was overcome with emotion at the full-time whistle. For those that have contributed so much to the sport, this was a moment of affirmation and celebration all in one. But sport rolls on and the WSL starts back up in early September, with Chelsea already moving their women’s home match against West Ham to Stamford Bridge for Sept. 11. Liverpool will host Everton at Anfield on Sept. 25, their first match there in three years. Hayes hopes to see more of this.
“Make sure we’re play in big stadiums every week, [with them all] sold out,” Hayes said.
The star power generated by Russo and Toone, for example, could surely sell out some of the country’s biggest stadiums. But the essential deliverable on all of this is continuing this incredible upward trend.
Back in 2009, the FA offered out 17 central contracts to the country’s best players. They were part of the first real full-time, professional group, who were paid in the region of £16,000 a year. By 2011, the women’s top flight was formed, and seven years on it went fully professional. So, from 2009 where England lost the Euro final 6-2 to Germany with a handful of professional players, to 13 years later where they sold out Wembley, beat Germany and shattered all sorts of records in the process is an unrivalled trajectory. But now they’ve secured this exposure and position, comes the urgency for improvement across the board.
“There’s not many teams that are fully on the level the men are at,” Bronze said. “If you look at Champions League winners in the men’s leagues and what their clubs give them, the facilities, the training, the backroom staff — there’s not any women’s team that really has that kind of backing. So I think we can lift the level a lot … every nation could do that, every nation could improve including ourselves. So there’s definitely still a little more of that mountain to climb.”
Next up for this group is the World Cup in 13 months time. They’ll look to utilise a similar formula: staying in the moment, trusting in Wiegman’s incredible managerial ability, judgement and her tactical switches and blocking out the noise as the hype around this group is only going to increase.
You felt Sunday was a match where generations mixed, not collided. Players come and go, just like those who came before like the 1971 pioneers, the likes of Casey Stoney, Rachel Yankey, Kelly Smith and others. Scott, in her eighth major tournament (in a run which included appearances at two Olympic Games) bridges the gap with the previous group of England greats who tried and fell short in 2009.
“I said before it’s for every player that’s ever worn an England shirt,” Scott said. “This is for me. Tonight I got to see Fara Williams, the most capped England player of all time, and I put [my medal] around her neck and said, ‘This is yours as much as mine.’ I didn’t want her to take it, she did give it back which I was happy about!”
For the great Scott, this may yet be the end point in her remarkable career — her next movements are unclear — but her key role in this tournament is testament to her durability and importance to this group.
“I don’t have to pretend my bronze is gold when I do talks at schools, I can actually show them my gold medal,” Scott said afterwards.
For others like Kirby and Bronze, it’s reward for all those heart-breaking moments which led to here.
“Everyone who knows me knows I have a process I like to get fixed on, and winning a Champions League and FA Cups and stuff has always been amazing but a goal of mine has always been to win with England,” Bronze said. “And I would’ve traded all those trophies previously for a night like tonight. So yeah, I’m so proud of the fact we finally got our hands on a trophy, but now we want to get our hands on a World Cup next year.”
And there are the next generation like Russo and Toone — those who Scott joked with that tournaments don’t always go like this — who have stuck an indelible stamp on this sport, but are still in the early stages of their careers.
The thousands of hands on the trophy, as Scott put it, have all contributed to this incredible moment in sporting history. The true impact will only be able to be judged in years to come, but from being there on Sunday, it felt like a moment of sporting and cultural enlightenment.
“We changed the society and that is what we want,” Wiegman said. “That is so much more than football.”
The next few days will be about celebrating. You sense it’ll take some time for this all to hit home. But if you want one uniting theme for this group, it’s the sheer love of what they do. That’s ultimately how they all got there on Sunday, along with the thousands they’ve inspired, as Player of the Tournament Mead perfectly put it.
“I’m just Beth Mead,” she said. “That’s me. I play football, which is what I love doing and it’s a dream come true.”