Wembley Stadium dissolves, delirious. Words fail me. I turn to the two family members I’ve taken to the match, eight- and ten-year-old girls. Jumping up and down, they join in as “Three Lions” merges into “Sweet Caroline” and thousands of England fans collectively rethink their favourite song.
Last night, in front of the largest crowd for any European Championship match, England won the 2022 Women’s Euros. A scrappy goal from Chloe Kelly twenty minutes into extra time defeated Germany, the eight-time champions, winning the women’s team their first major trophy, and England’s first since 1966.
There were moments when it seemed the tournament might slip from our grasp and the momentum it has created behind the women’s game would fade. But hours before kick-off, it felt like we had already won. You could feel it in the flurry of texts from male friends asking for tickets; the group of lads en route to the stadium analysing the England forward Beth Mead’s strike rate; the faces of young children flooding Olympic Way. Women’s football had won the heart of the nation.
The victory didn’t come easily. According to the girls watching with me, the first half was “tummy-churning”. It was their first time at a football match, and they were already complaining about the referee handing out yellow cards like sweets. They were not alone. Two teenage boys and their dad, proudly waving German flags to our left, felt equally hard done by.
In the second half England fans could remember how to breathe as a sublime long ball landed perfectly for Ella Toone who coolly lobbed it over Merle Frohms, the German goalkeeper, and into the net. Our relief was fleeting: an equaliser from Lina Magull sent the final into extra time and fans back to their nail-biting.
As I explained to the eight-year-old that there would be another half an hour to go, and no time to queue for nachos, a mixture of excitement and exhaustion crossed her face. The teams switched sides for a second time, and then a third. We started to think this might be heading for an ugly echo of the penalty shootout heartbreak for England in the men’s competition last summer.
“I love penalties!” shouted the ten-year old.
A woman in front of us with a St George’s cross sprayed into her hair laughed. “No we don’t.”
And just as we had resigned ourselves to yet another near miss, Kelly brought it home. The team’s impassive manager, Sarina Wiegman, smiled for the first time. Never has time been wasted to such applause as in the next 14 minutes until the final whistle.
The two girls with me looked on as Leah Williamson, the England captain, lifted the trophy. This was their first experience of competitive sport and they were watching women at the height of their game. They stood in the largest sporting arena in the UK, and affordable tickets meant that it was sold out. They weren’t watching an obscure, niche game struggling for headline space. Nor were they the odd ones out in a crowd of men. This was their moment.
When the England men won the World Cup in 1966, women were still banned from playing competitive football. For 50 years, until 1971, women were prohibited from the beautiful game by the Football Association. The impact of this exclusion will last for generations. One summer can’t solve that, but we’re on our way.
On the tube home I asked the two girls if they wanted to be footballers one day. “No,” they replied bluntly, whacking their cardboard clappers to the tune of “Beth Mead’s on Fire”. Maybe not future England stars then, but very much fans of the Lionesses. Not every little girl watching last night will be imitating Alessia Russo’s brazen backheel or leaping like Mary Earps, the goalkeeper, in the playground, but they will know their names. And, unlike many generations before them, the choice to follow if they want to is theirs.
[See also: The irony of the Commonwealth Games going woke]