When it comes to deciding who should be crowned team of the year at this year’s SJA British Sports Awards, sponsored by The National Lottery, there should be no hesitation, writes CHRISTIAN RADNEDGE
Without exaggeration, one team this year has defied the odds, broken records and inspired the nation – hopefully for the long-term.
That team is the England women’s football team who finished third at the World Cup in Canada.
Before 2015, the weight of expectation on all England sides lay in whether they could emulate the World Cup winners of 1966, or even come close to matching the team of Lineker and Gascoigne that reached the semi-finals in 1990.
Now there are new heroes on the block.
Going into the tournament in Canada, the biggest edition of its kind with 24 teams competing, the Lionesses best showing at a World Cup had been a quarter-final appearance. But until June this year, they had never won a World Cup knock-out match.
They were not counted as one of the tournament’s favourites alongside the United States or defending champions Japan. Not even among the second-tier challengers, such as the hosts Canada or Marta-inspired Brazil.
But Mark Sampson’s side had blitzed its way through qualification without defeat, and they achieved expectations when they reached the knock-out phase. But when second-round opponents Norway scored an opening goal through Solveig Gulbrandsen, it seemed as if that elusive win would never come.
However, captain Steph Houghton equalised shortly after and one of the tournament’s stand-out players, Lucy Bronze, fired in a remarkable long-range winner.
A quarter-final against hosts Canada awaited.
A record crowd for an international soccer match in Canada filled Vancouver’s BC Place on June 27. But they were stunned within 11 minutes by a goal by Jodie Taylor. Just three minutes later and the crowd was well and truly silenced when Bronze scored England’s second.
Not even Christine Sinclair’s response could stop England reaching the semi-final. Sampson had produced a tactical masterclass which his players, a healthy mix of young talent and long-standing experience, carried out with aplomb.
With the scores locked at 1-1, England were within seconds of taking champions Japan to extra-time, matching their opponents all over the pitch. The Lionesses were not in the final four by fluke.
They were only denied by a cruel deflection off the boot of the unfortunate Laura Bassett which sent the ball past her own goalkeeper Karen Bardlsey.
The tears signified a familiar end to an England campaign – yet it was not the end.
Sampson rallied his players to perform more heroics in the third place match against Germany. Fara Williams, who had so much written about her back-story rather than her sublime footballing skills, scored the penalty that secured the Lionesses third place and a first victory over European champions Germany.
After the match, Sampson said: “These players will be remembered forever for what happened in this tournament. Whether it be a save, a goal, a block, a tackle or whatever it might be, I really hope 50 or 60 years this team is still talked about the special moments that this team has brought about in this tournament.
“I really hope the rest of the world and country marks them as legends of the country.”
The coverage following the match, the radio reports, the newspaper spreads, the television broadcasts, seemed to back up Sampson’s wish.
Attendances for the FA Women’s Super League rose in accordance with a new-found appreciation for the women’s game. Many point to the record crowd who saw Great Britain’s women defeat Brazil at Wembley in the London 2012 Olympics as a watershed moment for women’s sport in general.
Best ever finish from an England side since 1966 and all that, finishing the tournament as the top European nation. The men have a lot to live up to.
- Christian Radnedge is an SJA member and sports freelancer who covered the 2015 World Cup in Canada
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