Sheffield has already experienced the fan walk, the colourful pageant that has preceded fixtures during the Women’s European Championship this summer. First Dutch supporters caused gridlock with a sea of flags and cutouts spelling “Oranje”. Then Sweden followed up, a wave of blue and yellow belting out Abba. Tuesday night is likely to feature a parade of a different order altogether, however, as fans of the Lionesses make their way to Bramall Lane for a defining semi-final.
England are one game away from making their mark on the international stage. Reaching a final would be a signal of improvement for a side that has tended to fall short at the business end of tournaments. But it would also put the cap on a sporting event that has bubbled up in the popular consciousness as it has gone on, its highlight – so far – a raucous 2-1 comeback victory against Spain last week.
Expectations are high, as they always are for England. But the hopes are also grounded in reality, after watching the hosts overcome the challenge of a technically superior Spain with bravery, determination and footballing intelligence. Players such as Alessia Russo and Ella Toone made their mark as game-changing substitutes. But it was the tactical interventions – and post-match delight – of the head coach, Sarina Wiegman, that really kindled belief.
Wiegman’s calm, and not unsteely, charisma has cut through with the public, to the extent that her trademark dark trouser suit – like Gareth Southgate’s waistcoat before it – has become something of a fashion statement. Made by Marks and Spencer, one of the Lionesses’ sponsors, it is not yet available for sale, though stranger things have happened in retail.
Now an expected crowd of 32,000 awaits Wiegman and her team as they take on the Swedes, with kick-off at 8pm. Sweden also came through their quarter-final by a one-goal margin, but the team ranked second in the world somewhat underwhelmed. Disrupted by Covid, they lacked their usual proficiency in front of goal and underdogs Belgium held on until added time before Linda Sembrant scored the winner.
Familiarity between the two sides – a number of Swedes are in the Women’s Super League – may change the dynamic, but the goalkeeper Mary Earps said the Lionesses were keeping their cool. “The focus has very much been on ramping up and preparing in the right way,” she said. “We’re having fun and we’re making memories. That’s something we stand by: we want to work hard but we also want to enjoy it along the way.”
England have been based at the Lensbury Resort in south-west London but left for South Yorkshire on Monday afternoon. Earps said the players had been caught out by how passionate the atmosphere has been at their matches, with big crowds matched by a big noise. “The atmosphere has been nothing short of unreal. I knew there was going to be very high numbers but I didn’t know how electric it was going to be. It’s really helped us get through tough moments in games. Spain was a really tough game and the crowd spurred us on.”
There will no doubt be more tough moments to come and perhaps tears of disappointment, too. Yet the Lionesses will not only be backed by a sell-out Bramall Lane serenading Sweet Caroline but also an ever-growing audience at home. The BBC reported a combined TV and streaming viewership of more than 9 million people for the Spain game, double that which watched the hosts’ opening match of the tournament, a 1-0 victory against Austria.
The record audience for women’s football in the UK is 11.5 million, achieved during the Lionesses’ World Cup semi-final against the USA three years ago. That total could be exceeded on Tuesday night, and would almost certainly be beaten in the event of the team reaching the final at Wembley on Sunday. But first there is the small matter of the highest-ranked team in the competition and their Abba-singing hordes. Will this be England’s Waterloo? By the threads of Wiegman’s trousersuit, they will hope not.