It was rampant, it was dominant, it was refined and frankly – to anyone remotely conversant in the argot of English football – it was just a little bit weird. England, the host nation, have swept into the final of Euro 2022, schooling and subduing the world’s No 2-ranked nation Sweden in a 4-0 rout at Bramall Lane. No angst, no stage fright, no bitter heartache. Just fluid, expressive one-touch football and the sort of goals you score in your dreams. Quick, check their passports.
England expects: for so long this inflated expectation has felt like a lead weight on this team, freighting their every step with meaning, setting them up for inevitable failure. England’s women have never won a major tournament in their history. On Sunday evening, at a sold-out Wembley Stadium, against either Germany or France, they will get the chance to turn old vices into new virtues.
And here, in front of a fervid and fevered Sheffield crowd, England expected: unassailably and irrefutably so. They expected to compete, despite a jittery opening in which Sweden might easily have stolen an early lead. They expected to score, even in a tight first half with no clear supremacy established. And in a glorious, riotous second half they expected to put on a show, scoring three more goals to complete the biggest ever win in any European Championship semi-final, female or male.
The moment that everyone will remember came 68 minutes in, when Fran Kirby crossed the ball into the path of Alessia Russo. The Manchester United striker shot first time and shot poorly: straight at the Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, the ball dribbling harmlessly away to the side. Russo gathered it up again. Now she was facing away from goal, the angle narrowing, two Swedish defenders attending her every step. This was the point at which most functional human beings would find a teammate and play a safe backward pass.
But Russo has always had a certain taste for the theatrical. And above all, despite not starting a single game in this tournament, she had absorbed the team’s governing ethos: express yourself. Take the risk. Make the difficult decision. Or, in Russo’s case, play an outrageous back-heel through the legs of an astonished Swedish goalkeeper in the semi-finals of a European Championship. This, perhaps, was the moment at which a simple game of football began to take a phantastic, anarchistic, almost orgiastic feel, in which the primary objective was not to win – at 3-0 up, England were already assured of that – but to generate pleasure.
And so for the last 20 minutes, England simply amused themselves. They pinged the ball around Sweden’s players in disdainful triangles. They paused on the ball, stepped over it, toyed with it. There was a fourth goal, the marvellous Kirby chipping the ball over Lindahl, who by this point had clearly established that this was not her night. England were performing their lap of honour with more than 10 minutes left.
Lest anyone doubt the worth of England’s opponents: Sweden were tipped by many learned observers as the favourites for this tournament, with an established and well-organised core and an impeccable tournament pedigree.
Third place at the last World Cup in 2019. Silver at each of the last two Olympic Games. And yet in this tournament they had bored their way to the semi-final, in more senses than one: digging out attritional, hard-fought victories that were about as appealing to play against as they were to watch.
One of football’s more curious adages is that great teams are able to win when they are playing badly. The logical response is that great teams don’t play badly in the first place. England settled after a tepid opening. They patiently bided their time, snuffed out Sweden’s quick counterattacks, waited for the chance to emerge. It fell to Arsenal’s Beth Mead, the tournament’s top scorer, brilliantly controlling Lucy Bronze’s stinging cross and lashing it past Lindahl through a forest of legs.
That opening goal after 33 minutes seemed to relax England immensely, reminding them of who they were and why they were here. Bronze headed home a second two minutes into the second half. In goal, Mary Earps underlined her status as one of the goalkeepers of the tournament with two outstanding saves. Then came Russo and Kirby to apply the finish, the gratuitous ending that merely underlined the gulf in quality.
At full-time, England didn’t really know how to react. Ellen White sobbed into her shirt. Rachel Daly leapt onto the back of Millie Bright, who carried her dutifully around the pitch like a parachute. The players joined the crowd in a rendition of Sweet Caroline, a song about love that’s endured and grown old and somehow remains stronger than ever.
The final on Sunday will be the biggest single moment of their lives, an occasion with the potential to be a before-and-after moment not just for this team or these players, but for women’s sport in this country. In the coming days England’s success will be gleefully piggy-backed by brands and businesses, PR agencies and politicians. And yet the significance of 85,000 fans at a women’s football fixture, watching England, watching this England, cannot be overstated.
There are still arguments to be won, battles to be fought. But in retrospect perhaps this was the week when women’s football stopped being that thing over there, and marched to the top table to assume its rightful place.