Ahead of England’s women playing in the World Cup semi-final, we look back at their involvement in the tournament in 2007 in China. It would mark a welcome step forward for the English women’s game and see one player be in demand thanks to her goalscoring exploits…
We have previously recalled how England fared when they first qualified for the World Cup in 1995, in an era when the women’s game on these shores was vastly different to now but they managed to reach the quarter-finals. But, not helped by the tough qualifying groups they were drawn in, they failed to make it to the 1999 and 2003 finals.
Hope Powell would lead her side out of the wilderness. Although England would suffer group stage elimination as European Championship hosts in 2005, the tournament gave the women’s game a welcome increase in media coverage in Britain – albeit some way short of what it will be like when they host the Euros again in 2021. And the side followed it up by qualifying in style for the 2007 World Cup ahead of France and the Netherlands, being unbeaten in eight games.
That qualifying campaign saw Arsenal Ladies forward Kelly Smith in fine form, netting nine times including a hat-trick in the 13-0 away win over Hungary that underlined how far England’s women were ahead of some other European nations. Now the World Cup in China was their chance to show if they could compete with the best.
As in 1995, the England players had careers away from football. Goalkeeper Rachel Brown (now Brown-Finnis) said shortly before the tournament: “We’ve all got full-time jobs. And even though some of them are football-related, we still have to put in a day’s work and then train either with our club teams or on our own with the individual training programmes we’ve been given.” There remained a lot of catching up to do, but there was a sense that the English women’s game was at last moving forward.
Other than a small number of players who were youngsters back then – Karen Carney, Jill Scott and Carly Telford – the squad differed significantly from the current crop. But it was a group of players that would become more familiar to the footballing public than their predecessors, with the likes of Brown-Finnis, Alex Scott, Sue Smith and Casey Stoney finding themselves in demand as pundits today.
Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and captain Faye White were among the mainstays of the squad, while other players including Katie Chapman, Fara Williams and Eni Aluko would go on to feature during England’s run to the semi-finals in 2015. Powell had been a member of that 1995 squad, along with Mary Phillip who was the one player still involved 12 years later. It would be England’s second visit to China during the year, having competed in the China Cup and drawn with Germany and the USA. The formidable duo would soon be reappearing on their radar.
Increase in coverage
With only five places available for European sides in the 16-team World Cup, England’s achievement in qualifying was not to be sniffed at. And the media coverage would increase from 12 years earlier, with the side’s matches to be screened live on the BBC. Had it been in the men’s game, then the hype would have been immense if England were drawn in a group containing both Argentina and Germany. But in women’s football these two sides were at opposite ends of the spectrum.
The Germans were even more of a nemesis for England’s women than for the men, continually getting the better of them when they met. But Argentina were the female equivalent of whipping boys, having conceded 15 goals in three games at the 2003 World Cup. It became clear that things could get even worse for them out in China when they were thrashed 11-0 by Germany in their first game on September 10.
The following day saw England begin their campaign against Japan in Shanghai, in what was looking like a fight to decide who would join the Germans in reaching the last eight. “We’ve worked extremely hard to get here and we don’t intend wasting that work,” declared Powell.
The match would be a slow burner but end dramatically. Aya Miyama’s free-kick broke the deadlock for Japan on 55 minutes. They still held that lead going into the final 10 minutes, when Kelly Smith was to suddenly become known beyond just regular followers of the women’s game.
She firstly produced an excellent turn and shrugged off opponents to equalise, memorably producing her boot kissing celebration (earning her a telling off from Powell, who feared the celebration may be construed as arrogance by the Japanese). The boot had barely been placed back on her foot when Smith scored again, once more proving too strong for opposing defenders as she burst through and scored a rebound after her initial shot was parried.
England had gone from facing defeat to just needing to see out the closing seven minutes. The game was in the fifth minute of stoppage time when their hearts were broken, as Miyama again drove home a free-kick – which Powell believed should not have been awarded in the first place – out of Brown’s reach. It finished 2-2 and two players had made headlines with their goalscoring exploits.
England felt crushed about conceding so late, but pride over the display given. “It wasn’t to be but we can take a lot of heart from that performance and we have to move on now,” said Smith, as she found herself attracting far more interview requests than before.
Hope and glory
But now came a tough test against Germany, the World Cup holders as well as the European champions and a side that England had a traditionally weak record against. The significance of the match couldn’t be underestimated, Powell writing in her autobiography: “I’d never seen my players so nervous before a game. A couple of them were physically sick in the dressing room toilets, and there was an unusual silence, a lack of the customary banter.”
But when the game began the side would show belief and courage, England defending resolutely with White leading by example at the back. The 0-0 draw marked another step forward for England, who had confirmed they were not here just to make up the numbers. They now knew that a place in the last eight was in their sights provided they overcame Argentina.
The South Americans had responded to their thrashing by Germany by only losing to Japan in the dying seconds, so Powell (pictured) and England were not taking victory for granted. But after 10 minutes they could start to feel pretty confident of it, as an own goal was followed up by Jill Scott doubling the lead. Smith would further enhance her reputation in the second half by netting twice, either side of goals by Williams and substitute Vicky Exley (penalty) as England won 6-1.
They had earned their place in the knockout rounds in emphatic fashion, going through as runners-up behind Germany. Japan went home early, just four years before they were world champions. “It’s pleasing that we’ve created so many chances and to score six goals tonight was excellent,” said a delighted Powell.
Now attention turned to a showdown with the United States in the quarter-finals in Tianjin. It was one of the toughest tests England could have faced, with USA having been world champions in 1991 and 1999 and an eternal occupier of a top-two placing in the world rankings. As in the match against Germany, Powell was to adopt a more defensive system as she sought to stifle the attacking threat posed by the USA.
It was to be the battle of the Hopes, with Powell leading England into battle against USA who had Hope Solo in goal. Not for the last time, quotes attributed to Solo would create headlines. In praising Smith, Solo added that “I don’t recall the other names”. It was probably not intended as a dig, but some interpreted it as such.
Powell retorted: “They might not know us by name but they will certainly have watched us. Everybody knows Kelly, but this will be a great opportunity for other players to show what they can do.” One player who wouldn’t get that chance was Williams, who was suspended after receiving two cautions during the group stage. But Chapman returned after missing the Argentina game for the same reason.
The journey ends
England would once more frustrate one of the big guns, as those watching the game on a Saturday lunchtime in the UK saw Powell’s girls go in at half-time goalless. Captain White seemed to have taken a leaf out of Terry Butcher’s book when it came to playing through the pain barrier, as she stayed on the field with a broken nose. This looked a game where the first goal was going to be critical and England needed to get it if they were to cause an upset.
But it was to be the US who broke the deadlock and they would go on to win comfortably. Abby Wambach headed in a corner on 48 minutes, with the match effectively settled when Shannon Boxx’s drive proved too strong for Brown. England were still reeling from that when Brown misjudged a routine high ball and Kristine Lilly seized her opportunity to score.
In 15 minutes England had gone from dreaming of an upset to knowing the game was up, with the match duly ending 3-0. Brown’s mistake was an unfortunate one to make on such a big occasion, but England would almost certainly have lost regardless. The dream was over but Powell was full of pride over the progress made. “We’ve put on a good display throughout the tournament and we’ll learn a lot from it,” she insisted. On the same weekend Phil Neville was playing for Everton away to Aston Villa, little imagining that one day he too would manage England’s women at a World Cup.
A turning point
There was still some way to go in terms of improving media coverage. The Sunday Express would include just four paragraphs on the defeat to the USA the following day, shoving it away in the ‘in brief’ sport round-up rather than with the rest of the football news. But there had been some attempts by the media to promote the side’s achievements along the way and to put it into context. “Less than a decade ago the idea of cheering on a team of females was as laughable as an all-male knitting circle,” wrote Adam Edwards in the Daily Express on the morning of the quarter-final. “The change has been as sudden as it has been successful.”
As continues to be the case now, comparisons would be drawn between the men’s and women’s game. But FA representative Alex Stone said at the time: “Comparing the two is pointless – but the women’s game is skillful, exciting and is getting more and more popular.”
And this trend has continued. The 2007 World Cup undoubtedly helped and the imminent progression towards professionalism in the English women’s game would hasten the process. So too did England’s continued advancements in the world game. Not until they crashed out of Euro 2013 in the group stage would there be a feeling of regression, with that tournament marking the end of the road for Powell.
She isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but Powell gave England a lot of Hope during her reign and oversaw the side during a key period in the progression of the English women’s game. That 2007 tournament may have not seen England achieve much by the standards they now set – winning one game out of four and being well beaten in the quarter-finals – but at the time it was a clear step forward. They had matched eventual tournament winners Germany, come within seconds of defeating Japan, thrashed Argentina and kept the USA out until after half-time. England now took their place in the top 10 of the world’s rankings and much of the focus would be on one woman as they arrived home.
Kelly Smith was named in the tournament’s all star team, fitting recognition for a player who had played a key part in England’s success and represented a role model to young female players. She would soon appear as a guest on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross – gracing a primetime BBC chat show on the same bill as Take That would have been unimaginable for any women’s footballer previously. It was a measure of the strides being taken and the future would duly be brighter for the female game.
In the ensuing 12 years the team has increasingly become familiar, with the ‘Lionesses’ tag growing in popularity. There was increased interest in England at the 2011 World Cup; then again by a noticeable amount in 2015; and now it is higher than it has even been. Although naysayers remain, the number of viewers praising women’s football continues to rise each tournament.
England are back facing the USA again at a World Cup, but with a greater sense of being equals than existed 12 years ago and with tournament glory a more realistic aim. It looks set to be a night to remember…
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.