England failed at World Cup but at least they are not pretending otherwise

Lucy Bronze downbeat
The England players wanted harsh truths to be told, not cheerleaders, before the tournament. Credit: PA

Women’s football has never enjoyed a summer like this: the level of attention, the explosion of interest and millions of people gripped by the drama of England’s World Cup semi-final defeat by the United States. It has been a huge success, but we cannot hide from the fact the team failed.

To their credit, nobody has tried to argue otherwise. England travelled to France intending to win the tournament, not finish fourth. They were bold, brave and confident, but they fell short and as narrow – and, yes, unlucky – as their defeat by the US was, it has highlighted how difficult the final step will be.

They remain confident, but everything is defined by results and, contrary to what some seem to have convinced themselves, it is not “only a matter of time” until England win a major tournament.

“We pushed the world champions to the very end with 10 men,” said Lucy Bronze in the aftermath of the 2-1 defeat. “It was unbelievable. The way we got to the semi-finals – unreal. We had the most possession of any team, we completed the most passes of any team. We had the best shot [to goal] ratio of any team at the World Cup.

“We pushed the USA to the end and they had to foul our player [Ellen White] to stop us from equalising. But, ultimately, we didn’t put away the [Steph Houghton] penalty. That’s how desperate they got against us. Four years ago, we would have been happy with a bronze medal. Now we’re so disappointed we weren’t in the final.”

England lost to Sweden to finish fourth at the World Cup Credit: Rex

England have scaled a mountain, but to reach the summit they must traverse one final leap and they do not really look any better equipped to do so than they were two years ago when they were beaten by Holland in the European Championship. According to Bronze, comments like this are “just the English media wanting us to have the perfect game” but they wanted harsh truths to be told, not cheerleaders, before the tournament.

In losing to the US and then Sweden in their fourth-place play-off on Saturday, the brutal, honest view is this: they were not strong or flexible enough in the way they play to be world champions. They are good, but not brilliant. They have some world-class players but are not the world’s best team.

Some have enhanced their reputations. Bronze, Houghton, Jill Scott and White can all be proud of their consistency, but too many of the others failed to shine.

Nikita Parris, Fran Kirby and Toni Duggan disappointed, while a defence that tried to play out from the back because manager Phil Neville’s playing style is “non-negotiable” made far too many mistakes.

Nikita Parris was quiet at the World Cup Credit: Getty Images

When all the back-slapping and self-congratulation is over within the corridors of the Football Association for raising the profile of women’s football – and it has done remarkably well in that respect – it has to realise that England is not the only country taking women’s football seriously. We are not the only nation where the stigma preventing girls from playing the sport has been removed and we are not the only European power who believes we are going to improve ahead of the next World Cup.

This is the challenge Neville took on 18 months ago and, although England play a different style of football to the one adopted by former manager Mark Sampson, results have not markedly improved under his tenure. That should not be brushed aside.

Asked what Neville had said after the Sweden defeat, White subconsciously highlighted the problem he faces. “He just said we’ve given everything and couldn’t give anything more,” said a player denied the golden boot because she had two goals ruled out by VAR interventions. “Obviously we are disappointed to have not gotten to the final and not to have won this.

“We had so much belief. We’re just disappointed, but we gave absolutely everything and we really hope everyone has seen how much we love playing for our country.

“There’s an Olympics for Team GB, there’s a home Euros, and another World Cup to qualify for. So, we’ll come back stronger and we will win one of these.”

They might, but they might not. In the four years since England won the bronze in Canada, Holland have won the Euros and reached a World Cup final. They have been outperformed by continental rivals, as well as the Americans.

England will also not have any competitive qualifiers for Neville to experiment in ahead of the Euros they will host in 2021.

“I can only pick 18 players for the Olympics,” said Neville. “We have 23 in this squad, so I’d have to lose five from this squad before we can even think about the home nations. It’s a tough one. That Team GB squad is not going to be an England team, that’s for sure.

“We will take the best players who have the ability to play in 41-degree heat every two days. That’s with 18 players – we’re picking from a pool of around 45, I would think – and the selection process will start when the league starts.”

In other words, what happens in Tokyo will have little bearing on England’s chances of winning the Euros. Much works still needs to be done. By the standards they set themselves, they failed in France.