When England look across to their opponents for the first game of their Women’s World Cup campaign on Tuesday it will be hard to prevent bad memories intruding. Not only are France among the competition favourites, they also put England out of the last two tournaments, Euro 2013 and World Cup 2011.
The European defeat was a humbling 3-0, but the World Cup loss left deeper scars. England were 1-0 up in Leverkusen, three minutes from their first semi-final appearance in a major tournament, when Elise Bussaglia equalised. With extra-time goalless, penalties ensued. Goalkeeper Karen Bardsley saved the first French penalty and England went 3-1 up when Casey Stoney converted her spot-kick.
But France scored their remaining three, and England missed their last two. “It was heartbreaking,” Stoney told The Independent on Sunday this week. “I thought, ‘we have a chance here’, then in a moment we missed two and we are going home.”
Even now, she says, when she watches a shoot-out at home, the memory returns. “When a team miss one I always say to Meg [partner Megan Harris], ‘they’ll win now’. Nine times out of 10 they do. But experiences like that you can’t buy. I know that the experience will stand me in good stead if I’m in that situation again.”
Stoney, now 33, is one of England’s veterans. Deposed as captain by Mark Sampson when he took over as manager, the Arsenal defender has played herself back into contention and, including the Olympics with Team GB, this is her seventh major tournament. Only once, at Euro 2007, have England gone past the last eight.
“I can’t beat around the bush: we have never been past the quarter-final in the World Cup, never even won a knock-out game. Whoever we are facing we need to be psychologically prepared to go further than we have ever been before and make sure when a game gets tough, when momentum is against us, we are really hard to beat.”
There is another psychological hurdle to conquer in this small east Canadian city on Tuesday. England have not beaten France since 1974 and, admits Stoney, they gave England “a bit of thumping” at Euro 2013: “We have not beaten them in all the years I have been playing and to even get a point would be a fantastic result. They are a fantastic side, to be honest I think they have underachieved and not reached the heights they should have.
“It will be tough. Mark will have a game plan to try to nullify their threats and make sure we use our strengths. But if we lose there are still six points to play for, and that gets you out of the group. Four points probably will, but we want to finish in the top two and the way the draw is I would take second.”
That, according to seeding, would mean avoiding Germany and United States until the final, although Stoney added that such calculations are never guaranteed.
A lot rides on England doing well in this tournament. Though attendances are slowly rising the FA Women’s Super League (WSL) could do with a real boost, which this tournament may provide.
There is a concern, however, from talking to players and watching last week’s disappointing warm-up against Canada, that this is weighing on their minds. Liverpool striker Natasha Dowie, who is emerging as a forthright and astute commentator having been omitted from the squad, said this week: “There is a lot of pressure on England. It is important we put in a good performance to show the standard in the English league, as we want the best players to want to come here. There was so much coverage of Euro 2013 but we had a poor tournament and it was quite deflating. If they don’t perform it is not great for the country or WSL.”
Stoney, who has torn herself away from seven-month-old twins for a last tilt at glory, believes England should embrace that challenge.
“There is pressure, but that is World Cups for you. You want to play under pressure. The best players thrive on it. We have to use it in a positive way. I think we have missed too many opportunities to accelerate the women’s game in our country because we fail at the quarter-final stage, but we want to right the wrongs this year.”
Nevertheless, England need a good start otherwise, as so often with the men, pressure will build.
England v France is live on BBC2 on Tuesday, kick-off 6pmReuse content