SAfter six minutes of overtime, and for the first time of the evening, Georgia Stanway was able to breathe. It had been a tense and suffocating night, in many ways a horrible night, a night where the tension knots in the stomach like a tumor. But finally, a little after 10 p.m., the angst and doubt and the bad throws and the vagueness of the substitutions had increased in a single moment of clarity.
Throughout the game, Stanway had found his way blocked and thwarted by a forest of legs, by a barbed wire fence of redshirts. All game, Aitana Bonmatí in midfield had clung to her like a jumpsuit. A touch was a luxury. Two pretty much guaranteed you a bruised ankle. But now, as a Spanish move failed and the ball slid down her stride 40 yards from goal, there was nothing but clean air ahead of her.
Stanway removed his right leg, called on all the strength he had left, and left the rest to his upbringing: those long winter mornings in the Manchester gymnasium, the training sessions in front of a crowd of zero, the little flash of instinct that takes over the body of an athlete at the precise moment when he stops thinking and begins to dream.
The ball flew with a little backspin and a little curve, holding a little in the air. Worldwide, an audience of millions has latched onto these devastating little quirks of physics and geometry. Is it silly that so much happiness can rest on something so small and insignificant? One shot flies wide and another hits the net, and on those fates entire projects and careers are made and shattered. Those thumbs are nothing but the meaning we give them. And as Sandra Paños threw herself into a cause she already knew was lost, a nation slowly began to rise from its seats.
What happened next ? England substitutes and coaches crowded the touchline like a human bonfire. Noise seemed to swallow the stadium from all sides: not the guttural rattle of 30,000 men but polyphony, gasping and screaming and roaring and moaning all at once. The score was England 2 Spain 1, and everything else, really, was ballast: the blank reels of a film of which only the final scene had value.
So yeah, everything else can wait now. Rachel Daly’s shocking night at left-back. Lauren Hemp’s identity crisis. Curious inability of English football to produce technical midfielders. The way every time England received the ball, they somehow seemed to be facing their own goal, as if under the spell of powerful repelling magnets. What to do with Ellen White in general. Because England are two games away from becoming European champions, and if there was ever a moment to put introspection aside, this is it.
Spain came with a goal, a plan and maybe even a grudge. That would certainly explain the dismissive taste with which they slipped out into midfield, followed and gripped the English front three, mowed down their counter-attacks. For an hour, Spain affirmed its status and its intentions. Ona Batlle laid hemp on the floor. Olga Carmona barely let go of Beth Mead’s shirt all night. Bonmatí rushed into midfield, making Stanway and Keira Walsh feel the hot breath on his neck.
And when Spain got the ball back, they passed it. And spent it a little more. Against Germany and Denmark in the group stage, those simple little triangles and semi-circles had so often felt aimless and sterilized. Here, overtaking was in many ways the goal: a show of supremacy, the equivalent of walking into the main room of England and putting their muddy boots on the coffee table. Bonmatí and Mariona Caldentey were brilliant. Mapi León and Irene Paredes saw the expected aerial barrage and deserved better than the bruises and scars they will wake up with on Thursday morning.
Spain scored, an attack from Athenea del Castillo and a fine finish from Esther González. They ran down the clock. After 70 minutes of play, the fourth referee’s panel was lifted. Teresa Abelleira began running from the field, only to have her teammates on the bench jump to their feet, yelling at her to slow down. The unfortunate Daly was replaced and threw a bib over her face, as if hoping that when she took it off, she would be transported to an alternate reality.
The funny thing? It worked. Ella Toone’s equalizer was seedy but the natural product of a Spanish side who had stopped attacking: defending with six, digging a trench around their 18-yard penalty area. Extra time has arrived, fraught with danger but also fraught with possibilities: the limbs are getting tired, the spaces are opening up, the crowd is growing in volume.
And as England frolicked on a sweat-soaked Brighton pitch, it was simultaneously possible to see all the other realities that might have unfolded instead: the paths not taken, the disasters averted. But the path to salvation was still there. It just took a player of Stanway’s vision and composure to find it.