The positives were to be found 10,000 miles from here, in the streets of London, Leeds and Manchester, where bunting was strung from building to building. Around the parks and squares where people gathered in the knowledge that they might just be watching history-makers.
This England team has given the nation something quite wonderful these past weeks — not just a journey to the foothills of the top of the world, but players to be utterly invested in. Mary Earps, blowing her cheeks out, as ebullient and vivid a presence on a field as you will ever see. Alex Greenwood, the utterly resolute Liverpudlian defender who seems to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, even when she has won. Lauren Hemp, the game-changer, red-faced with the effort of driving the team on.
But in this stadium on the other side of the world, it was a very different story on Sunday night and — not for the first time these past few weeks — Lucy Bronze, mainstay and bastion of this team, was the emblem of how it all turned out.
When the England team had gathered in their huddle and all was said and done, Bronze just knelt there on the turf, alone with her devastation. She was picked up by Rachel Daly, who has shared with Bronze so much of England’s journey from gallant triers to serious contenders and then handed on to Sarina Wiegman, who stood with Bronze as she waited to trudge up for the medal she didn’t really want. Wiegman seemed to try to engage Bronze in conversation but it fizzled out. There really were no words.
To lose in a World Cup final is one thing. To do so when your performance is so far below the required level that you will want to shut it out of your mind for all time, is something else. That’s what Bronze will be waking up to on Monday morning, along with the stone-cold realisation that this may be her last chance at football’s ultimate prize.
Lucy Bronze slumped in England’s huddle after their 1-0 loss to Spain in the World Cup final
Bronze may wake up to the realisation this may have been her last chance to win the World Cup
Olga Carmona’s winning goal came after Bronze lost the ball when she was out of position
Once upon a time, when the pool of international talent was shallower and competition in the women’s game less fierce, Bronze might have got away with being dispossessed 40 yards out of position and only having the energy to jog back. Or simply not having the power to drive away from the sea of red shirts. But this tournament has revealed the brutal consequences of being way off the pace, as Bronze and — it has to be said — England really were.
The blunt and uncomfortable truth is that Wiegman’s tactical plan did not work when the big moment came. She detailed her wing-backs to operate high up the field to press Spain, but that merely left exploitable space for a team who fizzed passes through a swamped England midfield. What Sir Alex Ferguson once described as akin to being stuck on an airport luggage carousel.
It was a challenge that, in hindsight, called for the player who stands on a different physical and technical level than anyone else in England, but by the time that player, Lauren James, appeared at the start of the second half, Spain had the game by the throat.
The Spanish were the ones who decided the occasion merited a call for their brightest star, Salma Paralluelo. You shuddered as she ran at the England rearguard, revealing all of the lightning speed which once made her Spanish junior 400m record holder.
When Wiegman’s team played the same nation in the golden glow of the home Euros a year ago, the English self-confidence put them in a different world to this.
‘Maybe some teams need to relinquish a little bit of their ego when they play Spain,’ Beth Mead said after the 2-1 win. ‘We were comfortable in our own strengths. We knew what we were good at.’
It was hard to find anything that England found comfortable. They were not quite the fearful, hesitant team we witnessed against Nigeria in the last 16, two weeks ago, but they were not good enough. They were poor.
Their swings from memorable to mediocre and worse at this tournament have made them painfully hard to assess, in a side of the draw which opened up favourably for them. Australia, in the semi-finals, were the only top-10 nation they played.
Sarina Wiegman’s tactical plan did not work with her team exposed by Spain during the final
Spain’s extraordinary talents won the tournament despite their loathed manager Jorge Vilda
They were without two stellar talents in the final third, the injured Mead and Fran Kirby, and in the final reckoning, against the first strong team they played, the lack of a goal threat was painful to behold. The Spanish obsession with this sport fosters extraordinary talents, male and female. It was manifest. They won despite their pompous, self-important little manager Jorge Vilda, so loathed that a quartet of Barcelona players refused to play.
The locals in this country will be taking great delight in the result today. ‘Spain reigns. Football’s still not coming home,’ the Australian newspaper crowed in its Monday edition.
But a broader battle is being waged and slowly won within our own shores, despite the outcome. The girls in those London streets and Manchester parks will not take the tactical failings of the final away from these past weeks, but the memory of what the players represented for them.
Earps does not only leave these shores as the World Cup’s best goalkeeper, recipient of the tournament’s Golden Glove. She is the individual who spoke out to ask why Nike, gorging on the profits of the kits and boots it has sold through the tournament, was so semi-detached that it did not even make replicas of the shirt she wears available.
England’s silver medals can still help to provide momentum to women’s football back home
Millie Bright was second best to Australia’s Sam Kerr in the semi-final, five days ago, yet no sooner had her struggle seen England fall behind, she was setting up the goal which sent them ahead again. It’s not just an England women’s team which girls and young women are seeing reflected back at them, but a team that strives, fails, struggles in the arena and still travels a long way, if not to the ultimate end point. Winning the World Cup would have delivered huge momentum to the efforts to give girls the same chance to play football as boys.
But the silver medals, which FIFA bizarrely forced the team to pose with on the podium, can still add momentum to the drive to give girls the same access to football as boys. That is not easy. It is still proving hard to convince secondary school headteachers to introduce football to the girls’ PE curriculum.
Bronze wore the look of a haunted player as she walked out of this stadium, though she is not one of those who only stops to talk after a victory. ‘We showed resilience to carry on and keep going in the tournament,’ she said. ‘I think we showed that, against adversity. We showed up.’
She may eventually reconcile herself to that fact, though in the here and now, she seemed to be putting a brave face on things. Could she actually take pride in a silver medal, she was asked. ‘No,’ Bronze replied. ‘I only like gold medals.’