During the early hours of Sunday morning, Mark Sampson’s England produced their performance of the tournament to knock host nation Canada out of the Women’s World Cup. Goals from Jodie Taylor and Lucy Bronze gave Sampson’s side a lead that they would never surrender and England advanced to the semi-final stage of the competition for the first time in their history.
And 1.6m viewers stayed up to watch it.
We’ve become so preconditioned to accept failure in this country, that the excuses were being made for another quarter-final exit long before the game even kicked-off: the temperature would play into the Canadians’ hands, they were the more experienced side, they had the weight of a 50,000-strong crowd behind them.
This would be another noble English failure, the end point of a tournament that had produced neither glory nor disgrace – a nice set of memories, all with their own half-life.
But now, who knows?
On Wednesday night, Japan will present an entirely different challenge. The defending champions chiseled away at Australia for eighty-five minutes in Edmonton before eventually – and deservedly – finding a way through and their high-energy pressing and smart use of possession will stretch Sampson’s tactical mind and England’s legs and lungs right to their fullest extent.
Regardless, one year on from the men’s lifeless failure in Brazil and twelve months away from what is expected to be another uninspiring return in France, the women are providing not only great entertainment but also a much needed source of pride. They are not the most talented team in the competition and they may not be as technically gifted as the Japanese or the Germans, but they undeniably have heart – and that, for a British audience, is probably the easiest commodity to embrace.
Winning is important and fans will always gravitate towards successful sides. The takeaway detail from this competition, however, has been the irrelevance of gender. Yes, if you’ve looked hard enough you will have found evidence to the contrary and been exposed to the views of the narrow-minded few who still lumber about this modern world, but the response to this England team – and the competition as a whole – has been like a warm, reassuring breeze.
Gone, seemingly, are the days when a misogynist chorus would drown out the merits of a Women’s World Cup. Those who persist in reducing the players to their physical appearance are quickly and rightly shouted down, the physical differences between the men and women’s games are not endlessly – pointlessly – remarked upon and even that old, unintentionally patronising habit of reducing support to ‘go on girls, run around’ levels seems to have dissipated.
The watching public have got to know these players and the community as a whole have an interest which now goes beyond the superficial: there’s an attempt to dissect strengths and weaknesses and to become cognisant of the various tactical approaches at the tournament.
Women’s football has undeniably evolved over the past ten years, but the audience has also grown-up.
The 2015 England Women’s team should not have to shoulder the burden of the game’s growth in this country. Their progress in Canada and what they ultimately end up achieving should not immediately be quantified by its effect on participation rates and its ability to remedy archaic attitudes – they are fighting a sporting contest rather than a PR campaign, after all – but that this group of players have made themselves pertinent to those kind of discussions is to their enormous credit.