LONDON — Leah Williamson only took a moment to pull herself together. Prince William had already left, but Williamson, the captain of the England women’s football team, knew that, for once, royalty might have to wait. She took a breath. She stared absently at her ponytail. She looked at her teammates, the podium and the trophy, just a little in disbelief.
It wasn’t until she was absolutely sure she was ready that she started the walk: the one no one has done for over half a century and sometimes it seemed no one would do again. never. Now there she was, a 25-year-old from Milton Keynes, a town that has long been used as a synonym for bland, strolling to fame and down in history.
England’s wait for their national football team to lift a major trophy, which has now ended with a 2-1 victory over Germany on Sunday, has been long and painful. Over the years since his men’s team won the 1966 World Cup, his drought has been immortalized in song and has become something of a running joke, all meant as palliative balm for a national ill.
Never, however, was it more agonizing than in the final 10 minutes 42 seconds of the 2022 European Women’s Championship final, in that eternity between Chloe Kelly’s goal that gave England the lead against England. Germany and the beatific trill of the whistle that confirmed its meaning: that England was finally European champion; that football, as the song says, had finally come home.
The England players had spent that time draining every last drop of energy from their exhausted bodies, not to make things happen, but to make sure absolutely nothing moved. The 87,192 fans – that was the announced attendance – who had come to Wembley to see the end of the story whistled, sang, roared and moaned, talking about all the traveling activity they could think of to pass the time a little faster.
They were right to be nervous. England had imperiously swept this final, driven by the fierce partisanship of their home crowds, a sense of destiny gathering as every step was taken and every hurdle cleared. Eight-time champions Germany provided a daunting final test, but Sarina Wiegman’s side had built up such momentum that no hurdle seemed too steep.
It would hardly have been dispelled by the sight, as the teams lined up for the national anthem, of Alexandra Popp – Germany’s top scorer, its captain, its totem – standing not among the starters but desperate among the substitutes, the victim of a sustained ‘muscle problem’ during pre-match warm-ups. The odds have tipped a little more in the host’s favor with this twist, hope has now turned into expectation.
That will always be the question for Germany, of course – what would have happened if Popp had been fit, if they hadn’t had to reshuffle their roster at the last moment – but that doesn’t mean that she acquiesced to fate. Germany did not go quietly by any means.
The first half had been a stalemate. The second quickly went from tense to surly and something closer to punishment. He had the aura of a game that could be settled by a single moment of bright, blinding light, and England found it: Keira Walsh, finally allowed an air pocket, cutting the German defense in two ; Ella Toone had a sharp enough mind to throw the ball to Merle Frohms, the rushing goalkeeper.
The ball seemed to take forever to fall from the sky. Part of the crowd had considered her lost. And then he fell, into the net, and the stadium turned into a ruckus.
The euphoria proved to be temporary. Less than 15 minutes later, Germany were level, a deft and incisive move finished by the exceptional Lina Magull, drawing the song from England’s heart and the air from their lungs. Extra time was looming. Penalties too. Regardless of the gender of the participants, England has been conditioned for decades to know how this particular story ends.
This time, however, was different. Perhaps the most important victory had already been won, long before Germany struggled to clear their lines after Lauren Hemp’s corner: perhaps Euro 2022’s most enduring triumph will be its impact on women’s football in England in particular and in Europe in general.
Perhaps its true significance will, over time, be measured by the attendance records the tournament has attracted, the vast viewers who have tuned in to watch the games, the thousands who have bought shirts and the millions who engaged in heated discussions about the relative merits of Ellen White and Alessia Russo.
Zooming out, what matters most is how the country – and the continent – has been captivated by the competition. Even the queen can see it. “I hope you will be as proud of the impact you have had on your sport as you are of today’s result,” she said in a statement released by Buckingham Palace.
But that’s not really how elite sports work. These actors are aware, of course, of the need to inspire women and girls. They embrace their status as role models, their position at the forefront of an ongoing struggle. They are, however, athletes. They want, more than anything, to win. They don’t want to be an example in spite of something; they want to be an example because of something.
It’s what kept them going as their bodies got tired and their nerves tore. It was what allowed Hemp to race to take another turn, after she had sunk into the ground for 110 minutes. It was this that gave Kelly, as the ball ricocheted around the box, the quickest reaction, stabbing the ball through a thicket of German legs on his second kick. And that’s what, in the agony of the last 10 minutes 42 seconds, kept them going.
It was only then, and only when she was truly ready, that Williamson lifted the trophy, the first England captain to do so in two generations. She took it in her hands and tossed it into the air, as fireworks exploded behind her and cannons shot glitter into the sky. The wait, finally, was over. The pain finally stopped. A senior England football team are European champions. An England football team are champions of something.
Williamson was right to drag it out for a few more seconds. It was worth the wait.