Under an almost full moon, England poured a few more golden rays of sunshine. As homecomings go, this ticked most boxes: a celebratory atmosphere; the national stadium near enough full; the palpable sense of occasion as the tube station funnelled its public down on to Olympic Way. Then there was the rip-roaring spectacle delivered inside and the invigorating sense that, while the Lionesses’ summer heroics were its springboard, there is still no telling exactly where they will land.
The answer may be known by 20 August, when the World Cup’s two best teams will square off at Stadium Australia. It is hardly outrageous to suggest we were watching them here. England and USA served up a sometimes alarmingly open, consistently full-throttle affair that simultaneously meant nothing and everything. Even if no prizes were on offer, there in plain sight was the proof that England’s sights should be limitless: that, in delivering only their third win in 19 iterations of this fixture, they have set down a marker at a time of seemingly inexorable momentum.
It was an evening to bathe in the glow, but also one on which to understand the shadows. Before kick-off a dozen of the first-ever official England women’s team from 1972, led by their captain, Sheila Parker, were presented with caps in the home dressing room. Holding their new awards, given out 50 years too late, they formed a guard of honour for their modern-day successors and it was impossible to escape the poignancy. Every step forward taken by this team, by this sport, feels all the more necessary and loaded due to the neglect that came before.
How Parker and her contemporaries must have delighted in the speed and imagination of England’s front four, who ran an understrength USA defence into the ground and deserved the breaks that brought their goals. How they must have admired the class of Keira Walsh, star of the European Championship and now the world’s most expensive player, who drew cheers in the 24th minute when she picked Rose Lavelle’s pocket and broke the lines with yet another crisp pass to her attackers. And how they would have delighted in the moment if Lucy Bronze, blasting inches wide, had put a cherry on top after a counterattack that offered a showreel of this team’s strengths in 10 exhilarating seconds.
The visitors brought plenty of their own despite having darker clouds to navigate. Only Vlatko Andonovski’s players will know whether the Yates report, which cast a shocking light on abuse and sexual misconduct in their domestic game upon its release on Monday, affected their collective or individual performances on the night. Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn had been among those to acknowledge the emotional burden it had placed in the buildup and the surest conclusion is that, with or without the bleak context, they performed outstandingly too.
If Sophia Smith, the 22-year-old from Portland Thorns who led the line thrillingly, had converted an early chance they would have established the kind of early cushion they rarely give up. But Smith atoned for that with a precise equaliser and came close to repeating the trick after half-time with a shot that trickled wide. Amid stiff competition she was the best forward on the pitch and alongside the even younger Trinity Rodman, whose cruelly disallowed goal was wonderfully worked, stated overwhelmingly that no eras ended upon Riem Hussein’s full‑time whistle.
When that sounded, Walsh raised her arms aloft in triumph. It was important that England kept the wave rolling here and the sound when Lauren Hemp opened the scoring, at the end of a breathless first 10 minutes, bore respectable comparison to the din when Chloe Kelly wrote history against Germany back in July from similar range. The crowd of almost 77,000 were engaged throughout, whether gently goading the visiting fans’ chants or baying for yet another VAR decision to go their way, correctly as it happened.
The way to pack out huge stadiums is to play with quality, intent, a taste for drama and to win through all of those. Only 14,389 were present in Milton Keynes when the USA last visited England in February 2015: an awful lot has gone right since then.
Plenty more must continue to if past and lingering ills are to be banished for good. The teams stood behind a banner reading “Protect the players” after walking out, in pointed reference to the lack of safeguards identified in Sally Q Yates’s findings. It seems inevitable that this sport will conduct further reckonings with itself. The 90 minutes that followed offered a brief antidote: a celebration of the reason anyone takes it upon themselves to do this at all.
As Sarina Wiegman and her squad communed with their support one more time, it was easy to appreciate that anew. Whether or not this was an appetiser for the final of Australia and New Zealand 2023, that tournament will raise the bar yet further if it offers many spectacles of similar standard. This was a vibrant reprise of everything that saw England captivate an entire nation; it was also the timeliest reminder that football should offer wholesome, unfettered fun.