England have had to get used to waiting. It’s been 1,311 days since they were named Euros hosts and 364 days since the tournament was supposed to begin. After all that, the minute spent waiting for a VAR check to confirm the legitimacy of Beth Mead’s clever opener felt like an hour to them.
The Arsenal forward dinked a tidy finish over Manuela Zinsberger in the 16th minute, after Fran Kirby lofted a bouncing ball into the Austrian box, quelling the anxiety that gripped England in the opening exchanges. Once everyone was sure it had crossed the line, that is.
As she turned away, more certain than anyone that the ball was in, Mead span and pumped up the tournament record-breaking crowd of 68,871, whose first chorus of ‘England’ had come at the start of the passage of play that led to the goal.
They responded with Mexican waves, mobile phone torch displays and a gentle buzz of excitement that ebbed and flowed with the play. Touches became surer, passes crisper, movement sharper, the weight of the wait had been lifted.
But not yet removed. Sarina Wiegman’s side probed through Kirby, whose nous and class offered her more space than most, and down the flanks. But, short of an Ellen White header that flashed past the post, England struggled to turn dominance of possession and territory into real opportunities. And while Austria failed to test England keeper Mary Earps until late on, Bundesliga pair Nicole Billa (Hoffenheim) and Sarah Zadrazil (Bayern Munich) threatened sporadically from the margins of the game.
Just after the hour mark, England’s Dutch coach had seen enough, making a triple substitution. Senior figures Kirby, Mead and White were replaced by members of the younger generation as another weight, this one comprised of expectation and history, made its presence felt again.
Wiegman, who won the tournament with the Netherlands in 2017 and replaced Phil Neville last year, told DW ahead of the tournament that England would need their fans to “help us through hard times.” They’d done it after the difficult opening and as the last quarter of the match approached, flurries of volume increased as England won corners in quick succession and penned the Austrians in.
“That’s the standard the fans have set,” said player of the match Georigia Stanway in the postmatch press conference. “We need that at every game. Bring the noise and it can rattle oppositions.”
But this time, the noise fizzled out along with England’s brief surge of momentum following the changes. They soon needed Earps to bail them out after Barbara Dunst arrowed Austria’s first shot on target towards the corner with just over ten minutes remaining.
Job done, just
As the PA announcer told those in attendance that they’d made history as the largest Euros crowd ever, Wiegman barely seemed to notice. She first assessed the scene silently, then called Rachel Daly over for a vital briefing. It surely won’t be the last she’ll deliver in the coming days.
“This start is so important. It gives such a boost to the team and the crowd,” she said afterwards, before striking a mix of caution and optimism. “We had also some hard moments in the game and we got through, and this is really good I think.”
If Wiegman is to repeat the trick and win a first major trophy for England, there will doubtless be even tougher times ahead, perhaps as soon as on Monday against Norway in Brighton. Regardless of how it came, a win over the 2017 semifinalists gives the hosts, and accordingly the tournament, the start they, and it, badly needed.
Though tickets sales have been brisk across the board, there’s a sense that — just as in 2017 — the hosts need to deliver in order for the tournament to really capture public attention. England may not have convinced, but neither did the Netherlands in their 1-0 win to open Euro 2017. As Stanway had it in the postmatch press conference, England “got the ball over the line”, both literally and metaphorically.
Another England win in front of another record-breaking crowd at Wembley on July 31 feels a long way off. For now England must improve, analyze and, of course, wait.
Edited by: Dave Braneck