The girls done good – now for the final test
England's women have taken the European Championship by storm. Will they make history against Germany tonight?
Thursday 10 September 2009
Hope Powell was a teenage rookie the first time England ladies reached a European final. After playing in England's defeat, on penalties at Luton's Kenilworth Road after a two-leg final against Sweden, she will have consoled herself with the thought that another opportunity would soon come along.
It has been a long, long wait, a quarter of a century. Powell is now coach of the England women's team and the competition has grown to a 12-team tournament with all the trimmings Uefa can provide. There are, in essence, two reasons why England are in tonight's Helsinki final. One is that the Football Association, belatedly making up for the decades in which the female game was banned, has spent significantly on player development. The other is that England avoided Germany in the draw. Until now, that is.
The Germans are the best team in Europe by a distance, and in the world by a slimmer margin. England are ranked ninth in the latter category. An indication of the scale of England's task tonight is that Germany are bidding for a fifth successive European crown. They also won the last two World Cups. They are unbeaten in 46 matches in European competition winning the last 34, and have won 16 and drawn two of 18 matches against England.
Is there any hope for England? The only competitive match Germany have not won this century was against England, in the group stages of the 2007 World Cup. Indeed, two of England's last three matches with Germany have been goalless.
However, England's strength this tournament has been their attack. The defence is yet to keep a clean sheet in five games. Injuries and suspension have been a factor but there has been some sloppy defending. Today Powell hopes to restore Faye White to the back four, which should provide leadership, but it will be a risk. The Arsenal and England captain fractured her cheekbone in the quarter-final and has since been to England for an operation. If passed fit she will wear a specially moulded face mask.
The spectre of injury also hangs over Kelly Smith, England's one true world-class player and their most likely source of inspiration. Smith has been ravaged by knee injuries for three years and required a cortisone injection before the tournament, and local anaesthetic subsequently, to play. Not that she is the only potential matchwinner. The wingplay of Karen Carney, another US-based player, and the shooting of Everton's Fara Williams, might trouble a German team without injured defensive linchpin Ariane Hingst. So might the power and pace of Eniola Aluko, who has scored three of England's 10 goals this tournament.
But it is the defence, and goalkeeper Rachel Brown – brave and in-form but vulnerable from distance – on whom the main responsibility lies, and their midfield shield, Williams and the tough-tackling Katie Chapman. White, in particular, will need to repeat the marking job she did at the World Cup on the legendary Birgit Prinz, scorer of 38 goals in 49 European ties.
If the challenge is daunting the rewards are huge. On an individual level there is glory, a level of fame – not, they may discover, an entirely welcome development, and professional contracts in the US to play for. Collectively Powell's team can put women's football on the map in England. Victory would make the delayed professional summer league all but certain to start in 2011, possibly with a TV deal attached. It would also provide a further boost to a game which has expanded enormously in the last decade. The Government, keen to encourage girls to play more sport as part of their anti-obesity campaign, is watching on with interest.
The German team is so good in part because long-term investment and success means they have one million registered players to choose from. Silke Rottenberg, the former German international, said: "When we won the World Cup suddenly we weren't merely tolerated, we were adored."
With the BBC, which originally provided minimal coverage due to Uefa demanding high fees, broadcasting the match live on BBC2 the opportunity is there to make an impact. The problem is that if England are well beaten that impact will be muted. There is not just a trophy to play for tonight.
Games since Germany were last beaten in European competition.
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