Sarina Wiegman gave a profoundly wise response when asked a while back if England’s winning a tournament was a measure of their success in the country.
“You can’t say in advance, ‘We’re going to win,'” she replied. “If you’re playing the best you can play, it’s fine. It could be a final that you win. You could lose too.”
Unmistakable echoes, there what sports psychiatrist Dr. Steve Peters narrated Liverpool squad desperate to win First League title when Brendan Rodgers recruited him in 2013: “When you start pushing yourself into the realm of the uncontrollable with a predefined goal, you start to stress. Let’s commit to the dream, but let’s not make it a goal.”
The Lionesses will likely never have a better shot at glory than this summer
Wiegman has inherited a team stuck in a deep rut after losing the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup, watching national teams like France and Spain accelerate ahead of them.
But the evidence of these past two weeks suggests that England may never have a better chance of winning a tournament than this European Championship – and whatever transformation of women’s football may follow. While England are on home soil and at their best, the Spanish side they meet in Brighton tonight have real weaknesses.
If the Lionesses can advance to the semi-finals in Sheffield next Tuesday, they are likely to face a Sweden side who have barely set their group on fire.
A home tournament with a quarter-final against a mediocre football giant provides the team with the perfect foundation to ensure success
And beyond that, there might be an old, familiar enemy. Germany, who played themselves down very well, can certainly reach the final.
Of course nobody within England dares to articulate all this. Wiegman exudes self-denial and, in her excellent English, repeatedly states that she doesn’t know the word for this or that. Yesterday it was “ice packs”.
But the most striking aspect of the many interviews with England’s players over the past month is her discussion of a particular kind of confidence she has given them – both as footballers and as women. Former England coaches Mark Sampson and Phil Neville were extremely motivating, although Wiegman seems to speak and connect with them in a very different way.
Goals fly in and players like Fran Kirby and Alessia Russo can finish off Spain
That’s because of a perspective that resonates with women well beyond the realm of football – a sense Wiegman conveyed in an interview with Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant after guiding the Netherlands to the last World Cup final.
“Women are valued differently and that’s why they often lack self-esteem,” she told Dutch writer Anna Enquist, who interviewed her.
“I get more and more admiration for how my parents did things. Do not judge. Always think about what you want to say. Give trust.
“It’s good for a child. I think that’s how a girl develops a healthy way to maintain self-esteem. Then she doesn’t have to be liked by everyone and always seek applause.’
But it’s not all soft focus with her. The desire to win and be recognized for it comes from feeling like a second-class citizen in football for too long.
Sarina Wiegman has dismissed talk of national expectation – saying they only talk about football in the English camp
When Louis van Gaal presented her with a ceremonial bowl a few years ago to recognize her contribution to the Netherlands national team, she wore an orange shirt that was a few sizes too big for her. She’s unabashedly tough, as her players all attest.
And that is why, despite a diplomatic assessment by Spain via Zoom yesterday, she will know that failure will be a great opportunity that will be lost.
Spain attack the flanks but, as BBC co-commentator Lucy Ward has pointed out, there is a lack of strikers with the power of the ball or attacking the box. Lucia Garcia, her greatest attacking mate, will need the game of her life tonight.
They’re a team vulnerable to Keira Walsh’s probing passes and centre-back Millie Bright’s 40-yard diagonals.
Given the way Germany’s Klara Buhl has edged past Spain right-back Ona Batlle in the groups, it’s hard to imagine Wiegman won’t encourage Lauren Hemp to attack her with her pace.
Germany was too much for Spain and England had the courage to cause them similar problems on Wednesday
“We have a little more space because they play so offensively,” said Wiegman on Tuesday.
The Germans are a topic of conversation for another day, although from here they look like the biggest obstacle to England and glory.
Their striker Alexandra Popp and central defender Marina Hegering were certainly too much for Spain. And Germany isn’t under the pressure that comes with hosting.
Wiegman, who is “very hopeful” of attending Wednesday night’s game after shaking off Covid, dismissed talk of national expectations.
“They (the media) talk about pressure all the time,” she said. “We’re talking about football under pressure against the best in Europe.
“So we try to just play football. Doing our best and trying to use our strengths and exploit the opponents’ weaknesses.”
Another wise response that reinforces the sense that we are witnessing a confluence of extremely favorable factors here.
Three games. Twelve days. This England team sees the chance of a lifetime.