England’s brutish triumph is not how champions play. But it is how champions win




England’s brutish triumph is not how champions play. But it is how champions win

jumps for joy. Niamh Charles has a smile the width of Sydney Harbour. Jordan Nobbs wheels her arms around like a DJ.

The faces of their teammates bear subtly different expressions. The injured Rachel Daly lies on the turf, breathing deeply. Millie Bright solemnly applauds the crowd, spent and expressionless. Jess Carter blinks back tears of relief. Perhaps, in order to have truly enjoyed this World Cup quarter-final, it helps not to have played in it.

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For this was a nasty, brutish thing: 114 minutes of sport as war, a test not just of skill but of will, not just of ingenuity but the capacity for suffering. The joints will complain in the morning. The bruises will have been glowing purple in the showers. The pain of victory is still pain. And perhaps later there will be time to reflect and rejoice, to savour the sweet taste of triumph and warm to the challenge ahead. But right now, everything hurts.

These players have been kicked before. But scarcely will they have met an opponent so expert in the art of the grapple. They have played in front of big crowds before, but scarcely a crowd this overtly hostile, who jeered their every touch and made it clear they disdained their very presence. They have been made to fight before. But scarcely in a game of this magnitude and intensity, with a squad ransacked by injury and a World Cup on the line.

England gave as good as they received. Bright set the tone with a sizzling pair of early challenges on Mayra Ramírez. Lauren Hemp was probably lucky not to go into the book. Indeed, one of the more startling details of this game was the absence of any cards. Above all, it was a game for soldiers and spoilers, stout shoulders and sharp elbows, where space – the finding and making of it – was the most precious currency on the pitch. It was a game, in short, made for Georgia Stanway.

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Her most visible contribution to this game was the clever sliding pass she made for Alessia Russo’s winning goal. But perhaps her most emblematic contribution came later, in the second minute of second-half added time, with a Colombia attack breaking down and the ball rolling to her. Inside her own half with few options, Stanway played a gorgeous, perfectly weighted 70-yard pass up the pitch.

That there was no white shirt remotely near it was beside the point. The ball finally rolled to a halt a few yards from the corner flag, the goalkeeper, Natalia Giraldo, sliced it out of play and England bought two precious minutes.

England’s Georgia Stanway in the thick of the action against Colombia in the World Cup quarter-final. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Beauty and ugliness, elegance and cynicism, pure technique and pure cunning in the same bite-size package: this is Stanway in microcosm. Normally, the eye is drawn to the metronomic Keira Walsh, the skimming Hemp, the shuffling Lauren James. But what makes Stanway so effective in these matches is her ability to gain the dirty yards, to move the whole team a few strides up the pitch, to push the tempo, find the gap and barge her way through. If you want a surgical drone strike, Walsh is your woman. But if it’s trench warfare, you want Stanway in there with you.

Her battle with Leicy Santos was one of the more arresting subplots. All game they tussled and jostled, grabbed each other’s shirts, clipped each other’s heels. But somehow whenever a yard of space opened up in the right channel Stanway found it, with all the pomp and purpose of a Saturday night reveller pushing her way to the front of the queue at All Bar One. There is a stubborn relentlessness to her, the salty determination of a player who has had to scrap for everything she has.

And the girl can play. The assist for Russo’s goal owed a little to good fortune and bad defending, but it was also the product of sublime touch and quick thinking, Stanway taking down Alex Greenwood’s lofted pass with a cultured toe and releasing the ball first time. It was a goal born of persistence, of tenacity and focus and doing the simple things right. This has been the story of an imperfect and depleted squad willing their way to a World Cup semi-final simply by refusing to contemplate any alternative.

This is not how champions play. But it is how champions win. Where Germany, France, Japan and the United States fell short, England have endured, ridden the tough moments, made the most of their luck, traded tomorrow’s bruises for today’s triumphs.

The three days between this game and their showdown against Australia will be crucial for recuperation, recovery and reflection. Because the wars only get bloodier from here.


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