England may be out of the European Union but they are, at last, winners again in Europe. How incredible that a nation that held girls and women back for generations should now be so proud of winning only their second major tournament in a sport they helped give to the world – well, the male half of it – well over a century and a half ago.
The Lionesses enjoyed home pride, a mass coming-out that filled Wembley Stadium and Trafalgar Square and many other venues up and down the country on Sunday. But there was a notable absence of the violence fuelled by drink and testosterone when the men lost the Euros to Italy in London last summer.
It took a quiet revolution, overseen by Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman, to break the 56-year wait to bring football home. Early in her task after being appointed by the Football Association 10 months ago, Wiegman called in each squad player to tell them where she saw their roles.
Some, like the impressive captain Leah Williamson, would be permanent starters in every game. Others would be “impact players”, called off the bench to make a telling difference as Alessia Russo did so spectacularly, so cheekily with her back-heeled goal against Sweden in the semi-final in Sheffield.
And like Chloe Kelly, the Londoner born a bus ride away from Wembley, did to score the winning goal in extra time in a final watched by 87,192 fans in the stadium, and by 17.4million on BBC One, with another 5.9m watching on streaming services.
In Wiegman, I saw the female Alf Ramsey. All calm and quiet and tough to the point of cruelty in team selection and game-changing substitutions.
By chance, a few days before Sunday’s euphoria I happened to walk past the statue outside the London Olympic Stadium of Bobby Moore, Martin Peters and Sir Geoff Hurst, the three Hammers of the 1966 World Cup triumph.
All those years, that lifetime ago, England beat West Germany at the old Wembley. Since then there had been an evolution that passed the UK by, the acceptance around the world of the female sex. Germany had their turn as serial winners (and professional pioneers) in the women’s game, along with the Scandinavians, Chinese, Japanese and Americans. England, which likes to call itself football’s mother country, lagged half a century behind.
It had been 1955 when the DfB, Germany’s football association, prohibited women’s football. “This combative sport is fundamentally foreign to the nature of women,” the German authority declared. The female form “body and soul would inevitably suffer damage… the display of the body violates etiquette and decency.“
It took 30 years and a different male perception when Theo Zwanziger took over the German federation presidency to kick-start a change of heart that, from 1989 onwards, made Germany the power, almost in perpetuity, in the European feminine game.
England, their main rival on the men’s field, took another age, another lifetime even to begin emancipation. But no-one was so archaic, so prim when Chloe Kelly whipped off her shirt in celebration of her Wembley goal, replicating the celebration of Brandi Chastain, who celebrated that way after scoring America’s winning penalty against China in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final. No doubt Nike, the brand behind the sports bra, will show their gratitude.
And no doubt England, from the Queen down, are relieved and grateful and feeling thrillingly liberated to recapture that long-lost winning feeling. It is a footnote, no more, that Chloe Kelly learned her game playing “cage football” with boys in the inner city across London. Soon, no doubt, the big businesses that shunned the women’s game, will make offers that change the lives of English players who brought to this summer their more worldly experience of passion for the sport balanced by studies and working nights in cafes, creches and catering.
Leah Williamson, the England captain whose dream of being a marathon runner was inspired by growing up in London during the 2012 Olympic Games, is a trainee accountant whose ability to read and influence the play put her on coach Wiegman’s wavelength. The female impersonation of the calming influence that Moore became to Ramsey’s England in 1966.
On Sunday, fortune certainly favoured the home side. As Germany warmed up for the final, Alexandra Popp suffered a muscle injury that ruled her out of the biggest match of her life. Popp, Germany’s leader, was the influencer on a par with Williamson and a goalscoring match winner on a par with England’s star striker Beth Mead.
Popp, in a parallel life, is a trainee zoo keeper. She underwent knee cartilage surgery six months ago, and without her, as well as Lea Schuller, the leading Frauen-Bundesliga scorer who was ruled out after testing positive for coronavirus before the tournament began, the die was cast.
Real life has a habit of intruding on sporting desire. And sometimes the heroine is a student of the great Dutch minds of football, because Wiegman picked the brains of leading Dutch coaching masters Ronald Koeman, Dick Advocaat and Louis van Gaal as well as the academics at the University of North Carolina where she was immersed in the United States’ breakout into women’s soccer.
So it was that Wiegman coached Holland to beat Germany in the 2017 Euro final, and was then persuaded by the FA to take on the role for England too. Wiegman, a mother of two girls, married to the sport and to another Dutch coach Marten Glotzbach, brings a no-nonsense succinctness that was epitomised at her press conference before the final.
Asked about the English-German rivalry, she responded: “Netherlands and Germany has some rivalry too.”