England’s Last Step Will Be The Hardest
11:05 AM EDT on July 4, 2023
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The Brits like to remind us of their special place in football history as the people who invented the damned game, but their international history has always promised more than its eventual delivery, at least since 1966, when the men's team—before there was a women's team, to be fair—beat West Germany. But it wasn't until recently that the Lionesses have become properly catalogued as a world power, finishing third in the 2015 World Cup and fourth in 2019. They have earned the national platform they finally achieved and are riding the momentum of last year's European Championship victory over Germany before a national record crowd of 87,192.
So they're golden here, right? Well, no, not if you believe in the detrimental effects of tattered knee bits. They enter this tournament as contenders but not favorites because A) they are playing halfway around the world, which is never as much fun as it seems for tourists, and B) they will do without team captain Leah Williamson, without star forward Beth Mead, and without dynamic midfielder Fran Kirby. Williamson and Mead were members of last year's FIFA FIFPRO World XI, and Kirby is a two-time FA Player of the Year. This is all football jargon meaning, "their absence will be an ongoing problem."
In addition, veterans Ellen White and Jill Scott both retired after the Euros, which means that Sarina Wiegman's side is going to look and presumably play differently than the ones that have emerged internationally, just when expectations are being ratcheted up to almost American levels, which is never a good thing in that it implies all defeats are a disaster and all victories will be measured against a sliding scale than humans cannot reasonably reach. It isn't that the Lionesses can't win, but that this is going to be harder than one would think of a team that has been years in the coalescing.
What they still have is more than merely worthy, starting with goalkeeper Mary Earps and a well-established back four of Lucy Bronze, Millie Bright, Alex Greenwood, and Jess Carter. Bronze and Bright would be stars based solely on their names (Lucia Roberta Tough Bronze is standalone brilliant, and Bright's full name is just good old Millie Bright, a name as unadorned and pointed as an elbow to the thorax), and with Greenwood they have won 244 caps, which means they have played enough together to be legally related. Oh, and Bright is coming off a knee injury as well, so yeah, fun.
Losing Mead, Williamson and Kirby, though, make the other two-thirds of the ground less settled for a team whose biggest advantage has been its international continuity. They easily handled the transition from former coach Phil Neville, who left for Inter Miami, to Wiegman, and don't have any of the where's-our-money issues the Canadians (and many other women's sides) have. England likes its team, and would just like it to be less bandaged.
Who Is Their Star?
The redoubtable Bronze, working at right back and weighed down by the 104 caps she has won. She is intrepid in attack but stout in the back, and has watched as this team has coalesced around her. Besides, who doesn't think having a middle name of Tough is a burden only the strongest can carry? She is patently unfair at distance:
And difficult to outmaneuver:
Tell Me About A Cool Youngster
And Alessia Russo:
Both attackers have been at this long enough to not really be youngsters per se, what with 52 caps between them at ages 23 and 24, but they are worthy of the watch when England goes forward. Toone is the more accomplished scorer (70 goals in 173 appearances for club and country), but Russo, who did a spell in the U.S. for North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is equally troublesome. You don't really have to choose as much as you have to decide what constitutes "young," and that is between you and the other voices in your head.
Who Is Their Enemy?
They had an empire for hundreds of years so take your pick, but the Germans are still a safe pick, what with those troublesome wars and the country's self-defeating stance on Brexit. In football terms, though, it's the Americans, because the U.S. has been the capo di tutti capi in this particular dodge for most of the last three decades, and winning the Euros alone isn't enough to fully "bring football home." If the Brits truly want to reclaim the game, they'll have to take it from the USWNT. Plus, everyone agrees on the same tavern curse words in case they meet, which they got to try out on each other in an October friendly at Wembley won by the Brits, 2-1.
National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool
Gary Lineker, the former star and presenter who forced the BBC to eat a barrel of past-due fish after he ripped the British government for its retrograde stand on immigrants. He has been the lead face of Match Of The Day for years, which is sort like being their Ernie Johnson, only Ernie tends to keep his politics more buttoned up.
Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition
Sorry, no culinary snobbery here, not with the processed plastic we eat. But the choice is an easy one anyway, and best of all, you get to pick your favorite, thanks to the original and still pre-eminent Twitter feed that inspired this section.
May the galactic pixies save what passes for a soul in you.
What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?
Winning the damned thing, to be honest, injuries or no injuries. The window isn't going to be open for this group much longer, if you believe in windows rather than, as often is the case, a machine that can replenish itself indefinitely. If they need an omen, maybe they find some crunch-time minutes for veteran Spurs striker Bethany England. After all, the Yanks don't have anyone named Rose America.