England head into tomorrow's Women's World Cup quarter-final against France in Leverkusen needing to beat Les Bleus for the first time since 1974 if they are to break historic new ground and reach the last four of the competition.
A victory would also help take Hope Powell's team, ranked two places below France at 10th in the world, back towards the top table of the women's game. England were recognised as the unofficial world champions when they won 12 of their first 14 matches in the three years following the team's 1972 formation.
That was, however, before the introduction of competitive international football. "Other nations started to bypass us, especially after the first World Cup in 1991," said the former striker Sue Lopez, scorer of the second goal in that 2-0 win against France in November 1974 and the first English semi-professional, though it was in the Italian League with Roma that she got paid.
"It was hinted that I would not be selected for England as a semi-pro," recalled Lopez, now an MBE and inducted into the Football Hall of Fame, "so I came back to the poverty of the women's game over here from the trappings of the Italian League. When we played for England we had to provide our own tracksuits and training gear, we met up only a day or two before a game and there was no real training regime. I've often regretted my decision, but it was great to play for my country and we had some fine players in those early years."
So fine that the ex-Coventry City manager Jimmy Hill, in a national newspaper following the France game, wrote: "Take a tip [Don] Revie [then England men's manager] – it's time to follow the girls." "Jimmy liked our short passing game and the fluidity of our 4-3-3 formation," said Lopez.
"We were one of the best teams in the world at the time, but eventually the Scandinavians, the Americans, the Chinese and Germans took over and we had a period of decline."
Lopez has been keenly following England's progress at the tournament in Germany and sees similarities in the contest with France to the one she helped win 37 years ago.
"France were a neat team but not as physically strong as us," she noted. "One reporter called them 'Bridget Bardot-esque'. The current French team also play some lovely football, but England are stronger and they showed in the 2-0 win against Japan that they can cope with those sort of opponents. I think that they'll not only beat France but that they can go all the way to the final."
Twelve months after the England men's shamefaced departure from the World Cup in South Africa, we should perhaps be echoing those 1974 comments of Jimmy Hill's: "Capello – it's time to follow the girls."Reuse content