LONDON — The full-time whistle on England’s 2-1 Women’s Euro 2022 final win against Germany was still being blown Sunday when “Three Lions” — aka “Football’s Coming Home” — began to ring out from Wembley Stadium’s sound system. The song has been something of a curse for English football since being released in the buildup to Euro ’96, but finally, after so many heartbreaking near misses for the nation’s men and women, England has a team of winners to celebrate in Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses.
Captain Leah Williamson, tournament Golden Boot winner Beth Mead and other star performers — including Ella Toone, Chloe Kelly and Alessia Russo — have, with their performances over the past month, taken the women’s game to a whole new level, and their success will ensure a future without limits in England.
For the men, the wait to add to their solitary World Cup win in 1966 goes on — Gareth Southgate’s team might just do that at Qatar 2022 later this year — but the women have ended their own lengthy years of hurt. Two losing semifinals in the World Cup, in 2015 and 2019, and losses in the European Championship finals of 1984 and 2009 had been England women’s tale of woe in major tournaments, but goals from substitutes Toone and Kelly, either side of Lina Magull‘s 79th-minute equaliser for Germany, sealed this team’s place in English football history.
The collective success of the team is one thing, and its importance cannot be overstated for a country as powerful, but traditionally underperforming, as England. Yet the Lionesses have done more than simply end the country’s lengthy wait for glory. They haven’t just brought football home; they have enabled the game to rediscover its soul, on and off the pitch.
It is perhaps unfair to draw too many comparisons between the men and women’s game, but with both reaching a Euro final Wembley within 12 months, it is inevitable that both occasions will be measured against each other. A year ago, the men’s final was marred by disgraceful scenes of fan violence outside the stadium, with ticketless supporters rushing the turnstiles and physically intimidating children in order to illegally enter the ground. An inquiry has since confirmed excessive alcohol and drug consumption during a day of carnage before and after England’s biggest game since 1966.
But for the women’s final, the atmosphere was completely different. It was welcoming and inclusive, as young families were able to mingle without fear of being attacked or verbally abused. There were no abusive chants, and no booing of national anthems from a crowd of 87,192 — a record for both the men’s and women’s European championships, surpassing the men’s 1964 final, in which 79,115 watched Spain play the Soviet Union in Madrid. (Also, the overall tournament attendance finished with 574,875 across the past three weeks, more than double the previous record of 240,055 in 2017.) It was a day when football showed that it can still take place in an atmosphere of civility.
The louts that attach themselves to the men’s game have shown no interest in Euro 2022, for which we can be eternally grateful. As Emma Hayes, the Chelsea women’s coach, said on ESPN, “The fans have been immense. It’s not been hostile.”
Of course, there are many fixtures in the men’s game that pass without incident and many clubs are a welcoming environment for families, but that has not been the case with the England national team for too long. The English FA must now find a way to make the men’s game as welcoming and as friendly as the women’s for what is clearly a huge audience wanting to build on their experience of Euro 2022.
This tournament, and the final, gave us all a reminder as to why we fell in love with football in the first place. There was no nonsense or aggravation off the pitch. While on it, the game was played without the anger and ego that has become a regular sideshow in the men’s game. That is not to say that the final wasn’t fiercely contested. Both sets of players threw themselves into challenges, forcing Ukrainian referee Kateryna Monzul to issue five yellow cards for over-physical tackles and fouls. But there was a refreshing honesty to it all, as well as an acceptance that the officials were in charge and had the last word, rather than a succession of players waiting to argue with or berate them.
None of the above would really matter, though, if the spectacle on the pitch failed to measure up. There has to be top-level quality and determination to excel and win, but both England and Germany displayed world-class technical ability during 120 minutes, as did Sweden, France, Spain and the Netherlands in the earlier rounds.
In all, Euro 2022 has shown that there is a depth to the women’s game that deserves the biggest possible stage. Who will forget Russo’s stunning back-heel goal in the semifinal against Sweden, or Georgia Stanway‘s long-range winner against Spain? How about Alex Popp‘s double strike in Germany’s 2-1 semifinal win against France?
The muscular strain — suffered during the warm-up — that forced Popp to pull out of the final possibly cost Germany their chance of winning a record ninth Euro title. But this has been England’s tournament, and the manner of their victory will inspire a new generation.
Toone’s stunning opener — a cool lob over Merle Frohms from Keira Walsh‘s pinpoint long pass — was a magical moment, but the honour of scoring the winner fell to Kelly, who turned the ball in from close range in the 110th minute before racing away with a Brandi Chastain-style celebration, taking off her top and waving it above her head. (The USWNT legend certainly noticed, tweeting, “I see you Chloe, well done!”) It earned her a yellow card, the sixth of the game, but she had also just sealed England’s Euro 2022 final victory, so it was probably worth it.
The next challenge is the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2023. Who knows whether the men’s team will beat them to becoming world champions later this year. Regardless of whether or not Harry Kane & Co. do it, it’s the women who have shown them how to win.