For the briefest moment on Friday night, the bigger, significant things in life encroached on a conversation about a football match and instinct told you Sarina Wiegman might struggle to find the words to discuss them.
As she sat in an anonymous room near her team’s training base, Three Lions decorative sheets draped over whitewashed brick walls behind her, the premature loss of her sister last summer cropped up in a question about the challenges the past year or so has brought.
The England manager peered through her owlish, gold-rimmed spectacles, eyes fixed on her questioner, replying ‘yes’ before the question had been fully put in the way she often does, and then answered with a directness extremely uncommon in sport.
‘When someone passes away who is really close to you, you don’t just say, “Oh it’s two months now, it’s gone”,’ she said. ‘Sometimes that’s still sad and it is challenging for me too.’
Her full answer ran to no more than 130 words, yet it conveyed more than we have grown accustomed to expect from a football manager on a matter of such personal significance.
Sarina Wiegman has shown what a world-class coach she is by leading England to the final
The England boss celebrates with her players after beating co-hosts Australia in the semis
England have already tasted European success after their Euro 2022 triumph last summer
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The response — concise, yet not cold; poignant, yet precise — told you why Wiegman, with her equanimity and obvious emotional intelligence, is such a good individual to have at the helm this weekend, as England stand on the edge of football history, facing Spain in a World Cup final.
The occasion, with all the inevitable evocations of 1966, sends angst and expectation swirling around our football-obsessed nation. The legend of that Wembley day, 57 years ago, has created a burden and weight of expectation which has finished off many an English manager.
Wiegman, the outsider, had a wholly different perspective. Just let it go, she suggested. Move on.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Just ask Lucy Bronze, the wing-back and evergreen member of this team who will be crawling up the walls in anticipation of the challenge tomorrow, having twice been within touching distance of a World Cup — losing in two semi-finals and haunted most of all by England’s defeat by Japan in 2015. ‘The one we should have won,’ as Bronze (below) put it earlier this week.
Tomorrow’s game is about a lot more than 1966 and all that, because there’s been a lot more than 57 years of hurt for the generations of women within our shores who have wanted to play football.
They had effectively been banned from playing by the FA for 45 years when Geoff Hurst and Co lifted the trophy in that golden summer. The women’s game flourished during the First World War but the blazers feared it, because they had no control over it, or its self- confident players, who raised money for charitable causes considered antithetical to the establishment.
Even when the triumph of Sir Alf Ramsey’s team played a significant part in helping the campaign for the ban to be lifted in 1970, there were setbacks.
The England women’s team who travelled to play in the second unofficial Women’s World Cup in Mexico, in 1971, found a tournament which was little more than a cabaret show. The players were asked to wear hot pants, the goalposts were painted pink, and the security staff wore pink. The New York Times ran a report on the event under the headline: ‘Soccer Goes Sexy South of the Border’.
Amid the misogyny, the mockery and the indignity, it was Hurst, an early advocate of the women’s game, who pointed out in 1970 that the ban was wrong. ‘Girls play tennis at Wimbledon, so why shouldn’t women’s soccer at Wembley be as big an attraction?’ he declared all those years ago.
Lucy Bronze had suffered World Cup heartbreak at previous World Cups with England
The Lionesses will hope to be celebrating again in Sydney after Sunday’s World Cup Final
But tomorrow is for all the women who have walked this path to recognition and celebration of a schoolgirl’s right to kick a football, down many, many years.
The game they championed has walked right out into the light. More than 70,000 will pack out Stadium Australia. Many more will flock to the sites in Britain where the game will be screened. Brazilian, Swedish and Dutch journalists filed into a packed media room to add their questions to striker Alessia Russo and defender Jess Carter yesterday about the match of their lives.
The journey is still very much ongoing. While a football infrastructure has always been there for boys to step straight into at any club or school, it still lags way behind for girls. On a wall behind Wiegman as she spoke yesterday was the hashtag ‘let girls play’ — the campaign, championed by this Lionesses team, to ensure girls have the same chances to enjoy and play the sport.
Schools are still failing girls, despite the promises made by a Government which jumped on the bandwagon after Beth Mead and Chloe Kelly took England to European glory last summer.
FIFA, who in the early 1970s begrudgingly proposed a women’s game with a lighter ball and smaller field, still lack credibility for many, too. Their president, Gianni Infantino, gave an excruciating speech yesterday in which he declared women must ‘convince’ men how their football system should be developed and ‘pick the right battles’.
The women’s game has never required buffoons like Infantino to tell them which ones to choose.
Win this weekend, against a Spanish team with technically gifted players — especially Alexia Putellas and Salma Paralluelo — and a manager, Jorge Vilda, whom many of the team’s players loathe, and the British women’s game can make new strides.
For some in Wiegman’s team, walking out at a World Cup is the fulfilment of a cherished childhood dream. Striker Russo described how ‘when I was a kid we used to play “World Cup” in the garden. We had to score to stay in it.’
Others had no such visions because their opportunity to play a good level of football came so late. Jess Carter started at the age of 16 — a mere nine years ago. Some journey for her.
England will need to watch Ballon d’Or holder and Barca star Alexia Putellas in the final
Spain have reached the final despite many of the squad not getting along with Jorge Vilda
Wiegman has helped England to a first Women’s World Cup final by instilling a very Dutch culture, in which direct speaking is not something to be offended by.
‘English people are very polite,’ she said. ‘But you don’t have to be rude to be direct. Just be direct.’
This doesn’t always work in practice. Wiegman’s compatriot Louis van Gaal, who she knows well, was unpopular at Manchester United precisely because of his bluntness. As the old Netherlands saying goes: ‘The English are too polite to be honest. The Dutch are too honest to be polite.’
But all the evidence suggests Wiegman has struck a balance. She ‘loves’ England, she said, and has been struck by the significance of football to its people ‘It’s so in the culture. That’s incredible to experience.’
Sticking to the processes and plans is not easy against such a febrile backdrop but Wiegman believes she can help.
She believes her players are ready to make history.