It was a celebration of football. The first time a women’s international had been played at the new Wembley; the first time a women’s international friendly was televised live in the UK; a new record attendance – all coalesced at the national stadium.
It was a celebration also of tenacity – first, that the women’s game has clung on in England despite years of historic neglect. Women’s football in England is a fascinating tale. There’s the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies who attracted tens of thousands of spectators in the early part of the century. There’s the FA’s hasty and petulant ban on women playing on affiliated pitches (ostensibly for fear that kicking a ball around would damage their fertility; in reality for fear that the men’s teams would never be able to reclaim their fans when the League started up again after the first World War).
There’s the Women’s FA, who organised and ran the game in England for decades while some of its top talent opted to eschew the chance of representing their country in favour of a move abroad and the chance to play professionally. There’s the eventual decision from the FA to incorporate the women’s game into its structures (albeit many years after FIFA had instructed its member organisations that they ought to be taking responsibility for the participation of half the world’s population).
And there was the tenacity of the people who were there. Ticket sales for the event were capped after 55,000 had been sold due to engineering work on public transport; then rain of near-Biblical proportions flooded parts of north-west London, making a quick jaunt across the city a significant trek.
Perhaps that was appropriately symbolic.
The home side included Fara Williams, the most capped England player ever and coach for the Homeless FA, who began her footballing career as a teenager living in hostels.
Lianne Sanderson led the line; she has returned to the international fold since the change of regime, and next season she’ll also return to Arsenal, the club where her career began at the age of nine.
Karen Carney led England out on to the Wembley turf – not the captain, but given the honour on the day that she picked up her 100th cap.
On the touchline, advising head coach Mark Sampson, there was Marieanne Spacey, a fabulous forward in her time, with a glorious 17-year international career and a place in the Hall of Fame.
Sceptics and chauvinists often scorn anything to do with women’s football, asking the apparently rhetorical question, “Who cares?” It’s perhaps one of the most ignorant comments that can possibly be made. Thousands of people at Wembley care, as do the thousands more watching the match live on television, as do the thousands who are regularly watching the FA Women’s Super League. Thousands of girls and women across the country are playing football.
And then there are the hundreds of thousands of people who have played, coached and watched the game for more than a century, all in the face of a footballing establishment that wanted to pretend they didn’t exist and did their level best to make that happen. Wembley as a stage for women’s football demonstrates just how significant the game is becoming in England.
After all that, the game, really, was almost secondary. Germany – managed by Silvia Neid, herself a fine player with 111 caps during her career – gave England their first real test for some months, and demonstrated just what is required to be in with a chance of winning tournaments. Jordan Nobbs hit the bar in the first few seconds, and that was probably England’s best chance as Celia Sasic inspired the visitors to a comfortable 3-0 win.
Neid, gracious as ever, reflected after the game that England were one of the best teams in the world, and any one of nine or ten teams have a chance for the World Cup in Canada next summer. She may well be correct. A good showing there would maintain the game’s newly raised profile – and guarantee more exciting, inspiring showpiece events like Sunday’s.