England Strolls to Wembley With Three Goals and One Stunner

SHEFFIELD, England — The crowd at Bramall Lane required three viewings before it could settle on the appropriate response. The first, in real time, prompted a jubilant, triumphal roar. The second, on the giant screen in a corner of the stadium as England’s players celebrated below, drew a gasp of appreciation.

It was only when almost 30,000 people had the chance to watch the close-up replay, though, that they could see what, exactly, had happened. Alessia Russo, the substitute striker, had not only scored for England with a backheel. She had not only scored with a backheel with a defender on her back, or while also nutmegging Hedvig Lindahl, Sweden’s goalkeeper.

What she had done, in fact, was all of the above, and she had done it in the semifinals of a major international tournament, and certainly the biggest game of her life so far.

It was only then, armed with a full suite of information, that the crowd could determine the correct reaction. Bramall Lane, in unison, laughed. Not cruelly, not derisively, but in delight and wonder and disbelief.

England does not, as a rule, expect to win games of this magnitude. It certainly does not expect to have fun while doing it.

Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters
Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters
Russo’s backheel caught goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl by surprise, the ball passing right between her legs. By the time she realized what had happened, Russo and the stadium were celebrating.Credit…Molly Darlington/Reuters

That can be attributed to the general undercurrent of fatalism that infuses the country’s sporting psyche at all times, of course, but this team has its own bespoke ghosts, too. England’s women had, after all, made it to the semifinals of their last three major tournaments. They met Japan in the 2015 World Cup, and lost. They met the Netherlands in the 2017 European Championship, and lost. They met the United States in the 2019 World Cup, and by then a pattern was emerging.

By the time Euro 2022 got underway, England’s players were aware that the pressure to end that streak was considerable. The tournament was on their home soil. The Football Association had appointed Sarina Wiegman, the coach of the Dutch team that had broken English hearts in 2017, as manager, at no little expense. The vast majority of the squad was corralled from elite teams competing in England’s booming Women’s Super League.

As if that was not exacting enough, England’s imperious sweep through the group phase — scoring five goals against Northern Ireland and a dizzying eight against Norway — served to swell hopes and lift expectations.

The players have, in keeping with bizarre tradition, started to receive curious questions at news conferences about whether their success might soothe, in some ill-defined and deeply improbable way, the country’s very real concerns about the price of fuel and the soaring cost of basic amenities and a government in self-inflicted disarray.

That confluence of circumstances might have been expected to inhibit England as the prospect of the final, of glory, hovered ever closer on the horizon. Wiegman’s team had struggled in its quarterfinal against a depleted Spain team. Sweden threatened to pose a sterner test still. It is not yet a year since the Swedes had competed in the Olympic final. Its team is regarded, by no less an authority than the FIFA rankings, as the finest side in Europe.

England’s Ellen White. She and her teammates have outscored their Euros opponents by 20-1.Credit…John Sibley/Reuters
Sweden, the world’s second-ranked team, endured its heaviest defeat ever in a European Championship.Credit…Matthew Childs/Reuters

And for a while, in Sheffield, it seemed as if this might be another calvary. Sweden carved open a glaring opportunity with its first attack of the game. Inside the first 15 minutes, England had required three fine saves from its goalkeeper, Mary Earps, and the intervention of the crossbar to retain any hope at all.

But while the individual talent at Wiegman’s disposal is, perhaps, only rivaled in this tournament by the French, the collective she has crafted is marked by its composure, its serenity, its abiding self-belief. England did not wilt as Sweden battered at its door and pummeled at its defenses. It did not allow itself to be overawed, or intimidated, or fretful.

Instead, it waited for its opportunity, taking the lead through Beth Mead, the tournament’s leading scorer, a little after half an hour. That might, for a different team, have been the cue to sit back, to hunch its shoulders and grit its teeth. But that is not Wiegman’s way, and so it is not England’s, either.

At halftime, the stadium announcer declared that, “as things stand, England is going to the final.” It felt just a little hubristic, the sort of thing that might come to be seen as a source of regret, though not for long. Within four minutes of the start of the second half, Lucy Bronze had doubled the lead, her header drifting achingly slowly past Lindahl’s dive.

That goal would, in hindsight, have been enough, but at the time it was not, not enough to be sure. Only with Russo’s improvisational, instinctive brilliance could the crowd — could the players — relax. A few minutes later, Fran Kirby, England’s creative heartbeat, ran through on goal. She, too, was in one of the biggest games of her career. She, too, knew this was serious.

But still she chose the indulgent option, lofting a delicate, arcing chip just beyond Lindahl’s grasp. It was the sort of thing a player tries when they are, despite the situation in which they find themselves, having fun.

Sarina Wiegman, who led the Netherlands to the Euros title on home soil in 2017, is one win from doing the same for England.Credit…Molly Darlington/Reuters

After the final whistle, the players lingered on the field. They took the applause from all four corners of the stadium. They listened as all of soccer’s great standards — Dua Lipa and Dana International and the White Stripes — crackled from the speakers.

Ellen White, the striker, led the crowd in a chorus of “Sweet Caroline,” her eyes wide and her smile almost baffled. Wiegman, regarded even by her squad as an austere, demanding presence, bounced and jumped and danced with them. England had been in the semifinals of a major international tournament, and not only had it won, but it had enjoyed itself, and nobody wanted to let that feeling go.

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