England have been singing the lament about football coming home for an age – but after the barren years of misery, it finally came through the door into the welcoming arms of an exultant Wembley as the Lionesses were crowned European champions.
It was 7.51pm in the evening Wembley sunshine when the outstanding captain, Leah Williamson, lifted that precious piece of silverware above her head and it all actually felt, looked and sounded real.
England’s magnificent Lionesses were Euro 2022 champions and had secured their place in history. England’s women had won their first major trophy. An England senior football team had won its first major trophy in 56 years.
On a day when 87,192 packed Wembley, an all-time Uefa tournament record, coach Sarina Wiegman and her players made themselves legends.
England’s women were centre stage. Winners. No-one can ever take this away from them.
The years of disappointment were over. England’s football had a success story – a winning story – to tell at last, and no-one deserved it more than a coach and squad that have quite simply changed the face of women’s football in this country throughout a flawless, superbly managed Euro 2022 campaign over the past month.
For those of us used to witnessing the years of hurt following England men’s team, five European Championships and five World Cups in this particular case – a journey that has taken in Japan, Portugal, Germany, South Africa, Poland and Ukraine, Brazil, France, Russia and last summer’s Euro 2020 – the misery was ended by the Lionesses on their own doorstep at Wembley.
This was what watching an England team winning a trophy felt like and how the Lionesses deserved it, how they had the right to milk every second of Wembley’s ecstasy, Wiegman’s squad and support team taking a lap of honour, staring out at a sea of thousands of smiling, celebrating faces.
‘Couldn’t be further from last year’s final’
It was a little more than a year ago when the England men’s team came closest to ending the curse, only to lose on penalties to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, another hard-luck story to follow on from losing the World Cup semi-final to Croatia in Moscow three years earlier.
The occasion was one of abject misery and shame from first to last, a day defaced by disgraceful crowd behaviour, a lack of organisation and racial abuse of the England players who missed penalties in the shootout that left the crushing loss as simply another item on a thoroughly grim agenda.
This day could not have been further away as an experience – joyful, peaceful, but still containing all the requisite jeopardy and tension that accompanies a major final. This was wonderfully civilised and friendly, but the atmosphere lost nothing for that. This still felt like a big occasion, but devoid of the slightest hint of toxicity. It could catch on.
The game was not a classic when measured in quality but it was fiercely fought, at times brutal, and came up with the storyline England football fans have craved for so long.
England found a way to prevail, as they have before in this tournament when times have been tough, and 31 July 2022 will now be marked down as the game-changer for women’s football. The sky is the limit now with this team capturing the hearts and minds of a nation, surely ushering in a new era.
Victory also brought more iconic moments to add to Alessia Russo’s brilliant backheel in the semi-final against Sweden, with match-winner Chloe Kelly the central figure.
England led though Ella Toone’s superb lofted finish from Keira Walsh’s perfect pass just after the hour, but the dangerous Germans, cruelly robbed of top scorer and talisman Alexandra Popp after she was injured in the warm-up, deservedly struck back when the dangerous Lina Magull clipped in the equaliser at the near post with 11 minutes left.
Into extra time they went, and with the prospect of penalties looming – and we all know how painfully that usually ends for England – Kelly emerged from a scramble at a corner to bundle home the winner.
What followed will be etched on the memory forever. It was England’s Brandi Chastain moment.
Chastain famously celebrated scoring the winning penalty for the United States in the 1999 World Cup by ripping off her shirt. Kelly followed suit as she raced around Wembley almost in disbelief. Her shirt-swirling jubilation will provide an image for the ages.
Kelly had been introduced in one of those masterful changes Wiegman has implemented throughout Euro 2022, usually impeccably timed and having maximum impact.
England were ten minutes from history, Wembley was knee-deep in chewed fingernails, but they survived with barely an anxious moment thanks to a masterpiece of game management that kept the ball in the corner and consequently Germany at arm’s length.
Wembley erupted when Ukrainian referee Kateryna Monzul sounded the final whistle, Kelly breaking off from her post-match interview by running away singing Sweet Caroline into the microphone. Lucy Bronze launched herself head first into layers of silver tickertape that exploded behind England as they lifted the trophy.
The smiling figure of Wiegman, reserved and calculating in the technical area, joined in the celebrations with gusto after delivering what the Football Association hired her for after winning the trophy with the Netherlands in a home tournament five years ago.
Wiegman was brought in to make England winners after losing three semi-finals. Job done.
She has given off a cool air of calm and authority throughout. Wiegman stuck with the same team for six games, and for all the arguments about whether Alessia Russo should have started ahead of Ellen White, Wiegman can point towards a large silver trophy as her answer to that.
As for England’s Lionesses, this was the crowning glory of an unforgettable Euro 2022. Women’s football – in the very best of ways – will never be the same again.
In the words of Wiegman as she left the scene of England’s triumph: “We changed society.”