How Lionesses went from glory to Olympics heartbreak – and why it could benefit them

The Lionesses missed out on the chance to qualify for the Paris Olympics as part of Team GB – but players are not ‘robots’ and after two years of success, a free summer could be what England need

Jamie Braidwood
in Glasgow
Wednesday 06 December 2023 11:29 GMT
Sarina Wiegman stunned by Nations League finale

Sarina Wiegman was lost for words. After winning the Euros in 2022 and reaching the World Cup final in 2023, there will be no Nations League finals for the Lionesses in 2024, no Olympic Games for Team GB in Paris next summer. England’s remarkable win over Scotland was soon followed by glum faces on the Hampden pitch. Wiegman was directing right-back Lucy Bronze throughout the second half, updating the Lionesses on what they needed to top Group A1. They thought one more goal would be enough and Bronze found it with her late header - but then the news came through that the Netherlands had scored another.

It turned the Nations League group in a moment, denying England a place in the semi-finals and with it, Team GB of the chance to field a team in Paris. From the joy of the Euros and a successful World Cup campaign, the Lionesses were left in a huddle on the Hampden pitch contemplating a different sort of heartbreak: in terms of falling short of expectations, it is England’s first low point under Wiegman. But the dramatic conclusion to the Nations League finale and the contrasting emotions were difficult to process. “I said [to them] I actually don’t know what to say,” Wiegman revealed. “We delivered tonight, but it wasn’t enough.”

Yet the damage was done earlier. Had England’s Nations League results happened in reverse and their failure to qualify for February’s tournament finals would be easier to explain. The Lionesses found their rhythm eventually, signing off their year with a stunning comeback against the Netherlands at Wembley and then a ruthless thrashing of Scotland at Hampden. From trailing the Dutch, the Lionesses scored nine goals without reply; with the Olympics to chase and goal difference to overturn, it had been months since Wiegman’s side attacked so freely and were so devastating in front of goal.

That was not the case earlier in the campaign. After a brilliant run through to the final in August, there was a World Cup hangover in September and October. It was England’s defeats to the Netherlands and Belgium, in particular, that proved costly. If there was one criticism following the inaugural Nations League, it was that England did not show enough urgency until the final two rounds. But given what the Lionesses have achieved over the past two summers, and a lack of rest following the World Cup, perhaps a lack of sharpness was understandable when the stakes did not appear to be as high. “The players are not robots,” Wiegman suggested.

Alex Greenwood and Mary Earps in the moments after England’s win over Scotland

There is a sense, then, that having the summer off will benefit the Lionesses. Wiegman’s players were desperate to reach the Nations League finals and play at the Olympics, that much was clear as they pushed for more goals against Scotland and then in their heartbreak at full-time. For senior players such as Bronze, they are unlikely to get another chance to win a gold medal. “You want to go to every tournament,” Wiegman said. “Every player wants that.” Wiegman had targeted Paris, as well, after the hollow experience of leading the Dutch in the crowdless, Covid-impacted Tokyo Games.

But players also need rest. There are Lionesses who have not just played in major tournaments in each of the last two summers, but three following the delayed Tokyo Games. With Tokyo in 2021, the delayed Euros in 2022, the World Cup in 2023, Paris in 2024 and another Euros in 2025, there are Lionesses players such as Millie Bright, Keira Walsh, Lauren Hemp and Georgia Stanway who faced the prospect of five consecutive summers of major tournaments. After England’s World Cup was hit by injuries to Leah Williamson, Beth Mead and Fran Kirby, the workload was unsustainable and, perhaps, dangerous.

Now, instead of the Nations League finals, there will be friendlies in February, a chance for Wiegman to rotate ahead of a clear break in the summer. Then England’s focus will be on the defence of their Euros crown in Switzerland - another qualifying campaign, where England will be among the top seeds, is unlikely to test the Lionesses in the way the Nations League has done. Returning to the big stage, at full strength, will become the long-term goal. “We’ll keep going,” Wiegman said. “This will take a bit of time but we will be back. I’m convinced that we will keep growing.”

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