You can hear her before you see; the sounds of Skinner & Baddiel echoes off the walls below Wembley stadium.
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Chloe Kelly then skips jauntily through the double doors, swinging the crystal swirl of the Euros trophy through the air as though the thing isn’t of considerable value and heft. She bounces from one end of the mixed zone — the corridor in which players speak to journalists after a match — to the other. Then, she leaves just as fast as she came. You wonder if, like the previous 24 hours, it was all a trick.
Kelly is a person that no one can really understand. I’m sure you felt the same as Kelly since the last whistle blew. Wembley was hanging in angst as though on the edge a landslip and Wembley careered into the kind celebrations that left confetti literally falling from Rachel Daly while she walked.
I suspect that Kelly got lost, took a wrong turn — it’s a big old ground! — and crashed the wrong press room, because then there are more voices and Lucy Bronze and Mary Earps dancing on a table with the abandon of a new singleton at a party and Sarina Wiegman’s head occasionally popping into view amid a tangle of arms and legs.
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It was a moment of irreverence, either way; the quality of this England team that, even beyond their supreme organisation, has made the public’s hearts soar and souls sing over a month that will define the sporting landscape for the rest of the year.
Alessia Russo’s backheel through Hedvig Lindahl’s legs in the semi-final against Sweden? The courage. The cheek. The disregard for convention. Those are not the rules we play by — not, at least, for a substitute with fewer than 20 caps playing in her first major tournament — but who cares?
Ditto thumping the world’s major footballing powers as a matter of routine. The assured joy of the 4-0 win against the Swedes. A player, Leah Williamson, who featured for only six minutes at their previous tournament, the 2019 World Cup, captaining an England team to the nation’s first major trophy win since 1966 at the next one. Beth Mead, a player, was left out of the Great Britain Olympic team last summer. She proved to be just as dangerous as she appeared. JoJo Siwa with a hot glue gun and a packet of rhinestones.
England teams are, in general, not as polished, gleeful, and fun as they should be. But who says they must be? Who’s laughing now?
This disbelief rings still true as I write. The truth is beyond my comprehension. I grasp at it but can’t grasp it.
Jill Scott informs the crowd of thousands in Trafalgar Square that she has pulled an overnighter. As if she didn’t spend enough time wondering if she is hallucinating, Scott claims. But to say so is a discredit to this team, lumping England with a sense of impostor syndrome that they have never — not even for a moment — looked riddled with. They were the tournament’s champions right from the beginning. They didn’t look out of place for a beat.
They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t rebels, dreamers, walking in rebellion against everything and everyone towards a dream that was impossible to achieve.
One of the team’s scorers in the final, Ella Toone, left Manchester United as a youth player because, in 2016 — by which point the Women’s FA Cup final was regularly being staged at Wembley — they had no senior women’s team. Georgia Stanway’s school careers advisor told her that she would never be a footballer. Williamson’s father only ever hoped that his daughter would earn a wage.
How sad for those on the wrong side, who didn’t see the world like these women and their families.
It was never about closure or redemption. However, each person understood it differently.
Lucy Bronze, one of England’s longest-serving players, took Scott to one side and the pair sat alone on a deserted podium as the ground emptied. Bronze, one of the most decorated footballers of all-time, admitted after the match that she would trade all of her other medals for an England trophy.
Keira Walsh, age 22, considered retiring after that World Cup three-years ago due to the extent of social media abuse she had experienced. “Great decision to not, after tonight,”She laughed and held the player of match trophy.
In 2007, Kelly Smith appeared on Jonathan Ross’ UK TV chat show after the England side she was part of made the last eight of that year’s World Cup.
Smith wrote in her autobiography she asked Ross, while in the make up chair, to help her. “not make fun of women’s football”. He replied that he wouldn’t, telling her he had requested personally that she come on as a guest — and then, when the cameras were rolling, asked a question about swapping shirts and made a joke about masturbation.
Last night, Kelly, match-winner, raced across Wembley turf wearing a sports bra and shirt, Brandi Chastain’s ghost echoing over 22 years 5,421 miles.
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This is not Ross’s moment. It is not for Ross-like people.
Kelly was here, and her moment was much more than a riposte at all the jibes about female soccer players swapping shirts. She was proud of her own power, something that no one could steal. Who would dare?
After recovering from an ACL injury that kept she out of action for almost one year, she scored the winning goal in England’s European Championship final at Wembley. And you think you can hurt them with a joke about switching shirts? Pur-lease. It is like expecting to injure Batman with a £1 water pistol.
Women’s football has never needed the endorsement of men to earn legitimacy — you could argue that if you’re still posting tweets about ironing then they were never doing this for you anyway — and it is often hard to know how to talk about these moments, given how constraining the demand to inspire a generation can so often feel.
It is not a duty, many have argued, that England’s male sides would be burdened with, but it is impossible to grasp the gravity of all this, as a sporting achievement, without understanding the lived reality, laced often with danger and always discrimination, of being a woman in football.
As if to prove the point, a woman who had played in a World Cup and a Euros for England sat anonymously in Wembley’s middle tier. Julie Fletcher won close to 50 England caps in her career, but she has lived with anonymity that Williamson will never see again.
“There are no words to describe it,”Fletcher, now 47, shared his story The Athletic. “It’s quite overwhelming. When we were walking down Wembley Way to see all the crowds — it was surreal to see how many were here. The most I played in front of was 50,000.”
Many girls and women will feel emancipated after the past four weeks. The stakes were never higher for any of these players. And there are always stakes. Williamson, who was not a footballer, was a representative of all women involved in football from the moment she touched a ball 20 years ago.
“Those players living out their dreams is amazing,”Iris, a England fan, says so. “Watching them run, screaming, celebrating… Five years ago, I said to myself there was no point ever being ambitious in football because (people) only ever watched men. That was all I could access. I was like, ‘What’s the point?’. Now, I’m so happy people have this.”
There’s no need to justify or prove anything anymore. Those days are dead.
Is this the new normal. That was the elephant in the room during this tournament: the existential reckoning, which has defied all attempts of living in the present moment. It has been like Marley & Me being aware (SPOILER ALERT!) the dog won’t make it to the end of the movie.
Previously, tournaments with England’s women have been lived in a curious liminal space, caught between anticipation of what will follow and the knowledge that it will never be as good as this; that the days in the sun are numbered, the sand already draining from the hourglass.
What happens next? What’s next?IsNormal, after this?
The English domestic league’s highest average attendance is 3,072, from the 2019-20 season — a number bolstered by holding matches in men’s teams’ stadia. Yesterday’s crowd at Wembley was some 20 times bigger than the record WSL attendance in one of its regular grounds. WSL attendances are down since the pandemic but have stagnated in the last few years.
As Kelly wheeled away, shirtless and unapologetic, it felt mildly ludicrous that the game’s two futures hinged on that flick of her boot at full stretch. There have been so many moments like This, so many times when we have anticipated a new frontier only to see women’s football return to the background.
So many moments like this — but never like this.
The past four months have broken a window into that alternate reality where women’s football is not banned for decades or ostracised for years after. Never before have England fans drunkenly poured out of pubs to celebrate England Women. Never have teenaged boys, testing the parameters of newly-broken voices, sent Sweet Caroline bouncing off the walls of Wembley Park tube station in celebrating what England’s women did. Fans have never sent buckets of popcorn soaring through Wembley skies to celebrate, or tickets sold out within 10 minutes, later selling for thousands on eBay.
As the clock was ticking down, I glanced around the stadium to see palms pressing to my faces with enough force that they could cleave trenches. Do not tell These are them that nobody cares about women’s football.
“It’s a highlight of my entire life,”Jasmine was another fan. “It’s taken quite a long time to get here. We’re finally getting the recognition, the visibility. I feel very emotional. There are lots of kids here. The excitement and energy has grown across the whole nation — you hear builders talking about it. I was at the airport when the semi-final was on and there were men watching on iPads. I wanted to join them, and that’s never happened before.”
“I cried as soon as the final whistle went,”Beth, a fellow supporter, agrees. “Thirty years of hurt (as the lyrics of the original version of Three Lions had it when Baddiel and Skinner released it for Euro 96) — and it’s the girls who bring it home.”
A fan named Chloe, a grassroots footballer, brings up Barcelona Women’s record attendances (91,553 were at Camp Nou in late March — 15,000 more than the men’s team drew four days later).
Of all the moments on Sunday — those first waves of motion sickness as Georgia Stanway and Lena Oberdorf left each other horizontal, of Alexandra Popp’s body betraying her again in the warm-up, of the taunting loop and dip of Toone’s clipped finish — it was hearing that which left me glassy-eyed and temporarily winded.
You spend so long, as a women’s football reporter, explaining to everyone else the significance of things they have never heard about. Chloe was able to see her namesake score and celebrate; now everyone will. “For us to do that here, at our home ground, and win it — it’s just mad.”
Then, her thoughts turn towards what this means to amateur players like herself. “I want more areas that we can actually play — a lot of time when we got on pitches, the men are stood on the sidelines trying to whistle us off before we finish.”
Sunday evening’s 87,000 gathered at Wembley to celebrate their victory. They didn’t want to trade places. What a wonderful achievement this has been, and how worthwhile — how long, how overdue — every step of the journey.
All this was worth it itself, of course — this is a team truly greater than the sum of its parts, and they have had the best summer of their lives as a result — but this also feels like a quickening, the first flutters and pangs of something greater still.
How can things ever return to how they were?
Things cannot go back to how they were.
These players and this team deserve better than to be seen only once every two seasons.
Sophie Penney interviews fans
(Top photo by Thor Wegner/DeFodi Images via Getty Images