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Day 16: England keep the party going as pressure turns to purpose
How on earth do you reflect on a night like that? For 30 minutes of last night’s match, it felt like the Euros had slipped out of England’s grasp. There was a sense of the futility of this sport where you can spend 270 minutes playing exhaustive, dominating, exciting football only to be dumped out by one goal in a quarter-final. It was like watching a runaway train suddenly careen off the tracks.
Of course in the end, it was Spain who this game slipped away from. They had a hypnotic quality to them for much of the ninety minutes, the passing having a seemingly soporific effect on an England team who had benefited from being able to dictate all three of their previous matches. Aitana Bonmati twisted and turned her body out of the tightest of spaces, somehow always coming away with the ball superglued to her foot. Ona Batlle placed Lauren Hemp under lock and key, finally putting her foot down over a season of being glided past by her Manchester rival. Mariona Caldentey put aside her exhaustion to pop up everywhere on the pitch.
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It seemed like a game where perhaps no one would score until of course Spain did. Athenea del Castillo brought the kind of directness that Spain have lacked, a dagger to remind the whole world that Rachel Daly is not in fact a fullback, cutting back the ball to allow Esther Gonzalez to score. From there it felt like England were running through treacle, unable to figure out exactly what was happening to them.
But if England could not figure it out on the pitch, Wiegman was ruthless enough to do it herself. There was no room for sentimentality with current tournament top scorer Beth Mead being hooked before the hour mark as the England manager brought on her now familiar rotation of substitutions in Ella Toone, Alessia Russo and Chloe Kelly. Now England were playing a front four who were all in their debut tournament, with only Lauren Hemp having started any of the games. There were 30 minutes, which became an hour, for them to haul England out of the black hole they were staring into.
It is extremely unfair on this football team to make their performances be about more than the sport or more than national pride, but in truth, they are. The fear of going out so early in the competition was also a fear of seeing the slowly building momentum behind this team disappearing as soon as it had begun to build. As happens with most major tournaments, even in men’s sport, as time goes on more people turn on their televisions. It would be willfully perverse to suggest that England doing well in this competition does not matter for the increasing popularity of women’s football in this country.
Yet maybe that pressure takes on a little bit of a different tinge for the players who did haul England through. 23 year old Georgia Stanway, 23 year old Alessia Russo and 22 year old Ella Toone have all had very different experiences to some of their compatriots in this squad. They are part of a first generation of players who have begun their careers not with second jobs or sleeping on sofas, but instead nutritionists and strength and conditioning coaches. Their memories are of playing matches on the pitches they watched their heroes on when they were children, of tens of thousands of people singing your name, of rising to the top of the game with your best friends alongside you.
Stanway’s goal was obviously spectacular. There might be no better way to progress in a tournament than via an absolute screamer in extra-time when you have been 1-0 down. It felt so un-English; the kind of thing that happens to our teams rather than for them. But maybe that is because for these younger players, the pressure adds up to something like purpose. It is not a fear of it all falling away, it is a desire and belief that it will get even bigger. Because more people will tune in, and the party will carry on going. Because at Brighton last night by the final whistle, the party was certainly going.