When the full-time whistle blew in Sydney and the Lionesses fell to the ground, many in tears, it felt like their best chance of winning a Women’s World Cup had passed them by.
Optimism had preceded England – they were European champions and had lost just once in 38 matches under manager Sarina Wiegman, widely regarded as the best female coach in the world.
They had seen serious injuries and a two match suspension for Lauren James to make it to the finals, overcome obstacles, hone results and find ways to win when they weren’t at their best.
They just had to do it again.
But England’s luck had run out, Wiegman’s genius had been pushed to the limit and they just came up against a much better team that day.
Spain’s talent was beyond question even before they had kicked a ball. Their starting XI featured seven players who won Barcelona’s second Women’s Champions League title in June.
They had Ballon d’Or holder Alexia Putellas on the bench because she was not yet fully fit. But due to a dispute between 15 players and the Spanish Football Association, some stars were missing in Australia.
As a result, England went into the final knowing it would be a tough game, but confident – they had beaten Spain in the quarter-finals on their way to winning Euro 2022.
Defending champions the United States had been knocked out in the last 16 of the tournament, European giant Germany failed to even make it through the group stage and Sweden had beaten off Japan, who had impressed early on. Surely this was the year that England would go all out?
They arrived back in Sydney, where they had seen Colombia and fellow host Australia for the past eight days. Wiegman even called the same starting eleven and this time they had the majority of the 75,000 spectators.
Chants of “En-ger-land” and “It’s Coming Home” could be heard within five minutes of kick-off after Lauren Hemp got back on his feet after a cracking tackle from Irene Parades and forced an early save from goalkeeper Cata Coll.
Hemp hit an attempt off the crossbar – it seemed to go well.
Then Spain showed up. They had survived England’s intense start and quickly figured out where the spaces behind their press were.
One-touch passes, neat flicks, a few nutmeg and intelligent moves saw Spain give England so much trouble that by half time, with the Lionesses trailing 1-0, it felt like a bit of a letdown.
This was Wiegman’s moment to shine and she acted quickly. James and Chloe Kelly replaced Alessia Russo and Rachel Daly as she moved from a defensive back three to the familiar 4-3-3 that has seen so much success in her two-year tenure.
It was an improvement and England started to create chances. They were less vulnerable as their full-backs attacked, but a handball from midfielder Kiera Walsh in the penalty area gave Spain another chance.
England came from a goal behind in Euro 2022 against Spain, so when ever-reliable goalkeeper Mary Earps made a superb save for Jenni Hermoso’s penalty, it felt like that could be the catalyst for a momentum shift.
Wiegman said afterwards she was “confident” England would score, but something was missing this time, Spain looked comfortable and the Lionesses quickly ran out of ideas.
A final corner – 14 minutes into stoppage time – was saved by Spain’s goalkeeper Coll and the referee’s full-time whistle followed. England defender Lucy Bronze immediately fell to the ground with her face buried in the grass of the six-yard field.
Bronze, who gave the ball away in the run-up to the goal, was the most desperate to win of any England player. She has a trophy cabinet brimming with individual and club honours, but this was the one she wanted most: the biggest prize in football, the one that would cement her place in history… the World Cup.
At 31 years old, she may never get the chance to win it again and was heartbroken as she walked past the trophy to collect a second place medal, before seeing how much of her Barcelona teammates celebrated lifting him for her. moments later.
It was an image that will be remembered for a long time.
However, despite the result, the success of this particular Lionesses group will have a lasting impact on women’s football in England.
They have broken records, made history, challenged societal views on women’s sport, asked for more support from the British government and inspired a nation.
They were the team that had to go to the extreme and complete the fairy tale. They would be the names of the venerable men of the 1966 men’s team – the only English footballers to have won a senior World Cup.
The ingredients were there – it was a golden generation of female players in England, they had the world’s best manager and the odds were on their side.
But for all the joyous moments they’ve given supporters, this will always feel like a missed opportunity for a group of players who gave their all.