The last time the United States lost a Women’s World Cup match, Donald Trump was a mere reality television personality, England had not voted to leave the European Union and VAR did not exist. On Tuesday night in Lyon, England came the closest of any team since 2011 to sinking the Americans. Close, but no cigar.
In television show The Wire, character Omar muses: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” England went toe to toe with the heavyweights of women’s football, only to misfire when it mattered. Coach Phil Neville described the match afterwards as “one of those boxing matches where no one was going to give up.” But only the Americans walked out of the ring with their arms aloft.
It would be harsh to suggest that England were at fault for losing this game. Lucy Bronze was arguably at fault for the USA opener, England’s passing lacked accuracy for a lengthy period, Millie Bright’s ill-discipline was unfortunate and yet another penalty miss for the Lionesses did not help.
Yet such criticisms should not overshadow the following two, equally true statement. England had a fantastic match on Tuesday – the performance probably would have seen them triumph over any other team. But the United States are just better. The gap might be closing. But team USA are still, by some margin, the best side in the world.
“I didn’t want to see tears,” said Neville in the post-match press conference. “I thought the way we lost was exactly the way we wanted to play.” When your team throws everything at your opponents and still comes away empty handed, it is hard to begrudge the opposition. “We have no regrets,” Neville added.
Proof of the Americans’ almost unfair advantage came early. Before the semi-final, all eyes (including mine) were on the all-conquering Megan Rapinoe. When the starting line-ups were announced, the winger was a surprising omission – it later came to light that she had a minor hamstring sprain. For almost any other team, commencing the biggest match of the tournament without such a significant player would be a crushing mental blow.
But Rapinoe’s replacement, Christen Press, would be a starting XI mainstay on any other team. She scored within the first 10 minutes, to underscore the supreme depth of the American squad. “I have multiple starters in multiple positions,” said coach Jill Ellis afterwards.
And so the American train rolls on, into their third consecutive Women’s World Cup final, where they will face the winner of Wednesday night’s clash between the Netherlands and Sweden. “We are here for one thing – that’s it: to win the trophy,” Ellis exclaimed. On the back of Tuesday’s superlative-defying performance in Lyon, they will be heavy favourites in the final.
England, meanwhile, must dust themselves off and head for Nice to contest the third-placed play-off, perhaps the most pointless match in football. Neville admitted that it will be hard to motivate his players. “We’ll have to allow 28-48 hours to let the disappointment sink in,” he said. “No words I can say to them tonight will make them feel better.” But the Manchester United product will do his best to fire them up, in the hope that the English women can go one better than their male counterparts – who lost the equivalent fixture to Belgium 12 months ago in Russia.
Beyond that, the Football Association must ask how the Lionesses can move closer to the USA at the pinnacle of women’s football. That will require grass roots reform, significant investment and individual dedication. The World Cup has shown what is possible for women’s football – but the road ahead is daunting. Average Women’s Super League attendances last season were less than 1,000, and it will take considerable effort to convert the World Cup boost into long-lasting momentum.
Neville was surprisingly chipper after the match, revealing that he had already been planning towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the 2021 European Championships. “The aim is for us to become the best, like America. We’ve still got a bit to go, but I won’t stop until we get there.
“We are knocking on the door now.”
On Tuesday, tried to barge down the door, but it held firm. The semi-final indicated that England have come a long way in closing the gap. But it also provided ample evidence of enduring American superiority in the women’s game. The USA haven’t lost at the World Cup since 17 July 2011, and they don’t look like slipping up anytime soon.