Four years ago in Edmonton, victory in the third-place playoff meant a first medal on the international stage for many of these England players. It was never likely to mean as much this time around in Nice, when hopes and expectations of winning a first World Cup were greater.
Deep down, there is unlikely to be much sorrow over this defeat to fellow beaten semi-finalists Sweden, who capitalised on some atrocious England defending and ran into an early two-goal lead. Fran Kirby, in her first truly impressive performance of the tournament, scored to reduce the arrears.
Instead, the disappointment is all Ellen White’s. England’s leading scorer at this tournament will not now win the Golden Boot. She remains level with Alex Morgan of the United States on six goals, but Morgan has three more assists and the opportunity to add to her tally in Sunday’s final.
It could have been quite different. White saw what she thought was her seventh goal of this World Cup ruled out by VAR. It was a correct though controversial decision, based on the new handball rules. White will feel particularly hard-done-by. Five goals have been overturned by technology at this tournament. Two of them have been her’s.
England were behind after only 11 minutes and in lamentable fashion when Alex Greenwood cleared Fridolina Rolfo’s cross all of five yards, straight into the feet of Kosovare Asllani. Carly Telford reached Asslani’s first-time attempt but there was no strength in her save. She could only push the ball against the post and in.
It was the fourth goal England have conceded at this tournament. This time last week, they had only let in one. But defensive frailties have been there for all to see throughout and were now coming home to roost. It was not long before they were breached for a fifth time at this World Cup.
Steph Houghton has normally been the one clearing up after the errors of her team-mates, but you had to question her decision-making on Sweden’s second. Rather than close down Jakobsson, Houghton stood stock still, waiting as the winger cut into the penalty area from the left, with time and space to bend the ball into the far corner.
England were all at sea, relying once again on attack to bail out defence. Kirby, brilliantly, got to work. Like Jakobsson before her, she collected possession out wide and cut inside towards goal, wrong-footing the covering defenders before firing low out of Hedvig Lindahl’s reach. Out of nothing, England were only one behind again.
Two minutes later, they briefly believed they were level. White’s magnificent show of strength against Linda Sembrant deserved to be rewarded with a goal, but the equaliser was ruled out on review. The ball had rolled up White’s body and back down her arm, moments before she slid it past Lindahl.
It was not so much an intentional or accidental handball as an unavoidable one. The ball was bouncing, Sembrant was tussling with White, who could not have her arm in any other position. Yet it was a clear breach of the new handball rules, which state a player who gains control of the ball after it has touches their arm has committed a foul.
White dropped to her knees in utter exasperation when the decision came. For the second time this week, she had been denied. She rose back to her feet with a steely look on her face, but with Jodie Taylor introduced centrally in the second half, she would not get a better chance to finish as top scorer.
England, in fact, had few chances to equalise at all. The best came in the last minute of regulation time when Lucy Bronze, their outstanding player of this World Cup, let loose after the breakdown of a corner. Her shot beat Lindahl but hit centre-half Nilla Fischer square in the head on the goal-line.
Other than that, the second half saw Karen Carney brought on for her final appearance. Though just 31-years-old, she announced her retirement from club and international football on Friday.
A veteran of four World Cups, she remembers not only the joy of that bronze medal in 2015, but a time when merely reaching the final week of a tournament was considered beyond England.
Carney leaves behind a team that will look back on this past month with fondness, but also with the nagging sense that it could and perhaps should have been better. Four years on from Edmonton, that, in a sense, is progress.
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