Every World Cup-winning team has a breakout night, those hours that you can look back on in hindsight and reminisce about seeds being pushed into the soil from which glorious trees grew and flowered.
For the only senior World Cup winners in England’s history, that happened in Spain in December 1965. Alf Ramsey, under serious pressure after a run of five wins in 14 games, used a friendly to trial his “wingless wonders” system and the rest is well-trodden history.
This week, England Women hope to discover the same roots. The pleasure of Arnold Clark Cup victory was tempered slightly by the quality of the opponents, all ranked between 16th and 19th in the world – England are on a higher plane now. Win both games this week and the Lionesses will have beaten seven of the world’s top 10 since the start of 2022. Nobody else would be able to match that pedigree.
Tonight’s Finalissima is the perfect occasion for Sarina Wiegman, sitting as it does halfway between glamour friendly and competitive game.
Under Pia Sundhage, Brazil are aiming to blend stereotypical South American flair with stereotypical Scandi pragmatism. The improvement of Brazil’s domestic league, coupled with an overdue export of players to Europe and the US, is evidence that they can improve upon their last-16 place at each of the last two World Cups. After Brazil comes the familiarity of Australia and the task of stopping arguably the best striker in the game.
There are obvious micro questions that require answers. Rachel Daly and Alessia Russo will presumably each start a game as the line leader, with Laurens Hemp and James probably now first-choice wingers. Millie Bright’s injury absence may mean Alex Greenwood playing in central defence, or a swapping of roles.
Wiegman is a coach obsessed with flexibility; Jess Carter played in seven different roles for Chelsea last season. Everyone in the squad talks up the squad depth with the wide eyes of a child that has looked inside Disney World’s gates for the first time.
But beyond the personnel, there is a greater demand for this break. Let’s be blunt: England need a challenge. Wiegman’s side have trailed for 40 minutes in total in all matches since April 2021, and there were minutes during the quarter-final against Spain when you did wonder whether a shared mental block had set in, until this team did what this team always seems to do now. They are unbeaten in 28 matches, but there have been some recent signs of sloppiness against Italy in February and Norway last August.
On Tuesday, at St George’s Park, Hemp spoke eloquently about the intense preparation that ensures nothing will faze the Lionesses: “Whether we win some games or lose some games, the focus will be the same” is the mantra. Nobody wants to lose; that much is clear.
But if England were to concede first against Brazil at Wembley, we might get to see a new version of a team in evolution. We might cherish that come August 20 in Sydney.