England’s Progress

Natasha Chahal

Gianni Infantino, the current president of FIFA, said in 2022: ‘I feel Qatari, I feel Arab, I feel African, I feel gay, I feel disabled’ – in a sorry attempt to justify hosting the men’s World Cup in Qatar despite serious criticism of the decision. Instead of letting his tone-deaf speech lie, Infantino summoned its ghost on his arrival in Auckland last month for the Women’s World Cup. ‘For those of you who are waiting to hear how I feel today,’ he said, ‘today I feel tired because I have just landed. But I feel very happy.’ No wonder: the women’s tournament has expanded from 24 teams to 32 and the prize money has doubled.

It sometimes seems as if the success and growth of the women’s game in England depends largely and perhaps unfairly on the achievements of the national team. The players aren’t unaware of this. The Lionesses’ captain, Leah Williamson (out of the World Cup with a knee injury), said in a press conference last year: ‘I think for every success that we make, and for every change of judgment or perception, or opening the eyes of somebody who views women as somebody with the potential to be equal to her male counterpart, I think that makes change in society.’

Expectations are high, as England entered the World Cup having won both the Euros and the inaugural Women’s Finalissima. There are still spheres where the women aren’t regarded as the men’s equals, however. Mary Earps is an exceptional goalkeeper, recognised as the best in the women’s game: her skill alone should silence one of the tired complaints most often levelled at women’s football, that women can’t keep goal. But fans wanting to buy an official Earps shirt have been disappointed: no one makes them. Understandably dismayed, Earps offered to fund production herself.

England’s opening opponents Haiti, playing in their first World Cup, surpassed expectations. They didn’t manage to put any goals past Earps but conceded only one themselves, when England were awarded a penalty for a handball. Kerly Théus saved Georgia Stanway’s first strike but the Haitian keeper was off her line and Stanway got a second chance: this time she scored.

It briefly looked as if England should have been awarded another penalty earlier, when Chloe Kelly was fouled in the box, but a VAR review showed that Alessia Russo had committed a foul a few moments earlier, so Haiti got the free kick. VAR was tried out in the women’s game (during the 2019 World Cup) before being introduced to the men’s. Under a new variant, being trialled in this tournament, the referees have to announce VAR decisions to the crowd. Alex Scott (formerly Arsenal and England, now a pundit) compared it to The Hunger Games, but it makes sense to explain decisions to fans who may not always (to put it mildly) agree with them. Capitalising on crowd participation, the innovation has generally been well received.

England finished top of their group after beating both Denmark (1-0) and China (6-1). Their first knockout game, on Monday, was against Nigeria. It was a match rampant with uncomfortable theatre.

The BBC coverage began with a children’s choir singing a song from Roald Dahl’s Matilda: The Musical over a montage of the players then and now. Now I know that these women playing for the national team used to be teeny tiny girls with big big dreams and I am delighted they keep inspiring a generation but there’s no need to keep infantilising them. When Chloe Kelly sat down for an interview on Good Morning Britain after winning the Euros in 2022, Richard Madeley insisted on calling her ‘Coco’ because ‘that’s what I call my daughter Chloe’. He asked Alessia Russo: ‘How are you feeling? It’s three days on now. If I was your dad and asked you that – “how are you feeling love” – what would you say?’ As far as I know, though, he isn’t her dad.

After a goalless half hour there was extensive VAR discussion over a possible penalty for England that in the end wasn’t awarded. The Nigeria manager, Randy Waldrum, breathed a visible sigh of relief.

In the 85th minute – the score still 0-0 – Lauren James was sent off for an entirely avoidable press of her studs into Michelle Alozie’s behind when Alozie was on the ground. People were quick to make comparisons with famous moments of petulant behaviour by David Beckham and Wayne Rooney. Like them, James – who’s 21 – has been freighted with perhaps too much expectation at the beginning of her national career. Alozie’s response was generous, though. ‘We are playing on the world’s stage,’ she said after the match. ‘This game is one of passion, insurmountable emotions, and moments. All respect for Lauren James.’

After six minutes of stoppage time the whistle blew on a goalless draw. The England manager, Sarina Wiegman, simmered on the sideline. In extra time, Lucy Bronze was visibly hungry for a goal. She’s a stylish player and the most capped of the current squad. But she was playing a risky game, as an individual, as if her team weren’t on a knife edge. Leah Williamson’s absence was all too apparent as England struggled to regain their composure. Only Rachel Daly looked in control: quiet, unassuming, technically assured, she’s an unsung hero of this squad.

Leicester City’s Ashleigh Plumptre, a former England youth international, joined the Nigerian national squad in 2021 (her grandfather is from Lagos). ‘I’m tired of people just saying that African teams are just strong and they’re just fast and count us out as being technical or tactical,’ she has said. Of the four African teams in the tournament – Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia – three made it through to the knockout stages playing technical, tactical football. The Morocco defender Nouhaila Benzina also challenged stereotypes by becoming the first player to wear an Islamic headscarf at professional level.

Extra time faded out and the game went to penalties. When her turn came, Kelly hopped up to the ball and blasted home a 70mph strike, more powerful than any Premier League goal last season. Nigeria had played better but England won 4-2 on penalties and are through to the quarter-finals, facing Colombia on Saturday. Sarina Wiegman is the only female manager remaining in the tournament of the twelve who began it.