The announcement of a new sponsor for the FA Women’s Cup, in a rumoured seven-figure deal, provided the perfect pre-match boost to the England team as they begin their fourth World Cup campaign on Canada’s Atlantic seaboard on Tuesday night.
Energy company SSE has signed on for four years, encouraged by the competition’s upgrade to a Wembley final, and the growing stature of the women’s game. The next step is a title sponsor for the FA Women’s Super League, the absence of which is a reminder that the sport still has some way to go.
A good performance in this World Cup would significantly speed progress, something the team are acutely aware of, though the England manager, Mark Sampson, concerned that this might inhibit them, is trying to ensure they focus on the matches, not the consequences.
Sceptics switching on the BBC’s coverage will see a top-class team full of technically gifted players possessing power and flair. Unfortunately for Sampson, that side is France, England’s opponents and the No 3 team in the world. England last beat France in 1974, failing in 12 encounters since, and have gone out of the last two tournaments at Gallic feet. As with Germany, a mental block appears to have developed.
England need to play the match, not the opposition, and have been working with a sports psychologist to that end. “France are a top team but it is all about us,” said the captain, Steph Houghton, yesterday. “We are a new team under new management. We have prepared fully, worked hard, trust the game plan the manager has given us and have players of world-class ability.”
England may, or may not, be selecting from a full squad. Leaks from within the camp suggest Fara Williams and Jordan Nobbs have suffered muscle injuries in training, while Karen Carney and Jodie Taylor are behind in their rehab after injury. Sampson claims everyone is fit but a couple of unnamed players have incurred upset stomachs adapting to the diet. Given England have travelled with their own chef, this is somewhat surprising. That England did not even train during yesterday’s session at the stadium, merely walking on the pitch, fuelled conspiracy theories.
Coaches, of course, routinely give out false information about players’ fitness. One of the big stories over here concerns a mystery injury suffered by the Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop in the seven-match Stanley Cup final series. According to the Lightning coach, Jon Cooper, Bishop was replaced by a rookie in game two against the Chicago Blackhawks “because I wanted to give everybody a game”.
No one believes that, but everyone accepts it is par for the course. So it is with Sampson’s fitness updates. However, given England do not need to win this match – indeed, may be better off not winning, as that might mean meeting Germany in the next round – but must take at least four points from the remaining group games against Mexico and Ecuador, it would be foolish to risk unfit players.
Thus Katie Chapman may line up with Jill Scott in midfield, with Williams rested, while Lianne Sanderson and Eniola Aluko seek to hit France on the counter. In England’s favour – because they may find themselves chasing the ball – it should be a cool day.
Unusually for a tournament the match is about performance as much as result. England need to come away from the game having proved to themselves they can compete with teams like France, and convinced viewers back home that they are a team worth following.