O:n Sunday, Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium will feel several dimensions away. It was there that, in 2009, England and Germany first met in a Women’s European Championship final. On paper it might have appeared a clash of the titans but England were not quite there yet. Germany began as overwhelming favorites and duly beat Hope Powell’s side 6-2, reasserting themselves as continental heavyweights. Birgit Prinz and company put on a masterclass, but only 15,000 people were present in the storied venue to witness it.
When this year’s England crop beat a weakened German side 3-1 at Molineux in February, it was only the second time this fixture had fallen the Lionesses’ way. That tells nothing of how the gap has closed. What reveals rather more is the fact that, however often the 2022 final is played in the head, it feels impossible to pick a clear winner. The outcome may well be on a knife edge and, with an audience up to six times higher than the crowd that rattled around in Finland, the atmosphere should ensure things feel that way immediately.
“A once-in-a-lifetime experience” was how the excellent Germany goalkeeper, Merle Frohms, referred to the prospect of Sunday. “You couldn’t have dreamed of a better final, to be facing the host nation in their own stadium.” The organizers will be pinching themselves too. There is no other way of putting it. this is a classic final, an event whose history needs no explaining but is perfectly capable of standing on its own feet when measured on skill, bravery and sheer sporting excellence too.
Another four-goal margin of victory for either side seems unthinkable although both have made light of similar predictions in the past three weeks. England were expected to face trouble against Norway but cruised home with bemusing ease and emphasis; they then overwhelmed Sweden despite riding their luck in the first half.
Germany, having done their best to cast themselves as dark horses before the tournament, showed up at Brentford and promptly demolished the much-fancied Denmark 4-0. That is what these teams can do. they can outwit, outplay and eventually overwhelm. When they face each other, all bets will be off.
“Determined, modest, successful” was how the German newspaper Zeit described Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s team after the win over France. Those words are apt. there is a humility about Germany’s work, an ability to balance flair with fastidiousness, perhaps best exemplified by the perfectly reasonable argument that their best player in these championships has been the 20-year-old holding midfielder Lena Oberdorf.
Like England, they have been kept honest for all their rampaging forward play. While the hosts came within minutes of crashing out in the quarter-finals before salvaging what had been a listless performance against Spain, Die Nationalelf rode their luck at times when they met Austria in the last eight and could have come unstuck against France on Wednesday before Alexandra Popp’s supremely taken winner. Both finalists have known what it is to purr through games and take delight in one another’s talents, but both have reason to feel battle-hardened too.
If anything should make the Germans feel particularly ill at ease, it is England’s capacity to grow stronger as the minutes tick on, spurred by the wealth of options Sarina Wiegman can call upon from the bench. France and Austria faded in the latter stages of their knockout ties, even if the former kept aiming balls into Frohm’s box until the end; England are less likely to go away and the sharpness of an Alessia Russo or Ella Toone from the bench is something Germany have not been required to contend with so far.
On the flipside Popp, who would be many onlookers’ player of the tournament both for her potency and the sheer romance of her return from career-threatening injury, started the group stage among the substitutes and might have struggled for as much game time as had Lea Schüller did not test positive for Covid-19 after the Denmark game.
Likewise, Germany did not miss the similarly indisposed Klara Bühl, the best winger of a pleasing number this summer, too much against France even though her absence also caused Svenja Huth to switch positions. Schüller and Bühl may be ready to play a part in the final. The point is that depth and flexibility are as important to both England and Germany as what happens from the start. it would not be outlandish to suggest that the most significant events at Wembley will be shaped by decisions made after the interval.
“We’re happy with what we achieved, but not satisfied with what we achieved,” said Powell after the defeat 13 years ago had sunk in. “It will make them stronger next time and one day it will be our day.”
That looks a safe assertion now, and England’s task is to make sure the moment comes on an evening that will showcase their sport like never before. Pubs will do brisk business, big screens will be set up, squares may even fill. If England and Germany produce anything like the spectacle both have promised, the progress women’s football and this competition have made since Helsinki will hardly have been clearer.