The Ladies in Red – ‘La Roja’ – of Spain are the women’s football world champions, beating England’s ‘Lionesses’ 1-0 in a tense final. Spain deserved their win. They suffocated England in midfield. Spain kept possession of the ball and on, the rare occasions when they lost it, pressed England into quickly giving it back.
Trailing to Olga Carmona’s 29th minute goal, at half-time the Lionesses changed players and system. Despite the encouragement of England’s Mary Earps, goalkeeper of the tournament, saving a penalty in the 69th minute and 13 minutes of added time for stoppages and injuries, the Lionesses could not break Spain’s strangle-hold on the game. And captain Ivana Andres lifted the World Cup for La Roja.
Women’s football is global
It really was a ‘world’ cup co-hosted and wonderfully supported by Australia and New Zealand. England played teams from every continent (except Antarctica) and the gap between countries is closing. Jamaica, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa all reached the last 16. Columbia reached the last eight beating Germany and scaring England on the way. Japan remain Asia’s strongest team and beat future world champions Spain 4-0 in the group stage. Australia was the only non-European team in the semi-finals.
Twice world champions the United States remain a powerful force despite losing on penalties to Sweden in the last 16, and the US could win Olympic gold in 2024.But there is a real sense that the power in women’s football is shifting from America to Europe. European teams are attracting the best players to play in national leagues and the European Champions League in front of bigger crowds and on television for more money.
European countries are also developing real talent. Five of the last eight and three of the last four teams in the World Cup were European. Spain had the player of the tournament – Aitana Bonmati and the young player of the tournament – Salma Paralluello and still won the World Cup despite12 players refusing to play for the national team because of a fierce dispute with team manager Jorge Vilda and the Spanish Football Association. England also had key players missing from the World Cup due to injury. Germany has a new generation of gifted players, while France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden all have strong competitive teams.
After this world cup, the women’s game has greater confidence and self-belief.
England, my England
Another football tournament and another heartbreak for England fans. Currently, in the UK, things are tough as people struggle with a cost-of-living crisis, unaffordable housing and rent, and disillusionment with Brexit (the UK’s departure from the European Union). For many in the UK, sport is the silver lining to the dark clouds. The Lionesses lifting the women’s World Cup would have also lifted the country. It may even have cheered, a little, those Scots, Welsh and Irish for whom sporting rivalry with England is very strong.
Eventually, however, the disappointment will give way to pride. After all, this was a final and England lost to a better team with honour intact. There will also be a sense of hope. The Lionesses are still European Champions and led by Sarina Wiegman, probably the best coach in the women’s game. Injured players will return, and in Lauren James, England have one of the brightest new stars in women’s football. England need to improve. To their defensive strength, pace and directness, they need to be technically better, able to keep the ball longer and to play through the sort of tight press used by Spain. Despite losing the final, the Lionesses will look forward to tournaments with optimism and a modest belief that they can beat anyone.
And what about me?
I really enjoyed the tournament, which proved unpredictable, dramatic, exciting and, in the end, for me, heart-breaking. I have become a big fan of women’s football. My disappointment at the Lionesses losing the final was on a par with that of the England men’s team going out of the World Cup last year. That surprised me.
To see thousands of people at stadiums and millions more on television watching women’s football was unimaginable 15 or perhaps just 10 years ago. As an ardent football fan, I am happy that football is no longer a male preserve and that more people participate in, enjoy and share the game.
As the father of four daughters (and a son), I also find it very reassuring to see young women able to fulfill their ambitions and live their dreams. I don’t think any of my daughters will, or even want, to become professional footballers. The point is that they could be, and that that choice would not be denied to them because they are women. In England, the Lionesses have helped to make that possible, and that counts for much more than winning the World Cup. Maybe next time though, as well, England could just…