Hearts and minds: how the Lionesses won more than a tournament

Thursday, 4th August — By Catherine Etoe

England v Germany - UEFA Womens Euro 2022 Final - Wembley Stadium

The England players celebrate at Wembley after beating Germany 2-1 after extra-time in the Euros final. Photo: Daniela Porcelli/SPP

ALMOST four weeks had passed since England kicked off Euro 2022 with a 1-0 win over Austria at Old Trafford in front of a record-breaking 68,871 fans.

That was a raucous night of celebration for the women’s game, but it was nothing compared to the last day of the tournament and England’s history-making victory at Wembley.

It had taken extra-time, goals from young substitutes Ella Toone and Chloe Kelly and a physical battle to overcome feisty, eight-time European champions Germany.

But when the final whistle went, a new name was swiftly carved into the trophy and Kelly’s iconic shirt-twirling winning goal celebration was etched into the memory of every England fan.

“Everybody that was here today will remember that for the rest of their lives,” said Arsenal defender and England captain Leah Williamson after the 2-1 victory.

More than 17.4 million had tuned into the BBC, rapt from their sofas, making it the most-watched programme of the year so far, with 5.9 million viewing the tie online.

And on the day after the night before, England would take their bow, dancing and singing in front of thousands of fans in Trafalgar Square.

Yet a squad that had not seen their families for six weeks as they remained in a bubble to avoid Covid infections, had already won hearts and minds before Sunday’s final.

Record numbers of fans had watched as boss Sarina Wiegman made all the right calls on her way to becoming the first coach to win consecutive Euros with two different nations.

And supporters had loved the way her players sashayed to emphatic victories over Norway and Sweden.

Manchester United forward Alessia Russo’s neat back-heel goal thrilled, as did midfielder Georgia Stanway’s wonder strike in the extra-time win over Spain.

Arsenal’s contingent shone, too – 25-year-old Williamson wearing the captain’s armband with the confidence of an old stager, while Nikita Parris and Lotte Wubben-Moy did their bit as vital squad members.

But it was Gunner Beth Mead’s sparkling form that turned most heads, the 27-year-old crowned player of the tournament and golden boot winner for her six goals and five assists.

Asked afterwards what she would do with her new-found fame, she said: “Do what I can to help the game. I’m here to play, I love doing what I’m doing and if I can help a per cent to get the women’s game out there and up there more, I’ll do that.”

The sport was certainly up there during this home tournament. New attendance records were achieved throughout, but the 87,192 at Wembley surpassed the record for a final set in 1964 when Spain’s men faced the Soviet Union in front of 79,115 fans in Madrid.

And skipper Williamson again reiterated her hope that the tournament and England’s success would have a knock-on for girls across the country in time.

“Think about the pool of players that’s going to widen,” she said. “The room for development is incredible; the room to diversify the women’s game.

“There’s no excuses for anybody. Everybody should be putting everything in place to make sure we get as many young kids that are talented into an England shirt as we can.”

Arsenal defender and lifelong Gooner Wubben-Moy, who overcame Covid during the Euros, was just as enthusiastic.

“We started this journey nine weeks ago, 10 years ago, some of us 30 years ago, and the culmination of all our hard work has resulted in something special,” she said.

“The women’s game is changing and I can’t wait to see what’s coming.”

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