LONDON — It’s not often that a big game lives up to the moment. It’s even rarer when the moment calls for a game like today’s. After a harrowing week in women’s football, Friday night at Wembley Stadium hit the spot. Spectacle, catharsis, showcase, solidarity: Whatever the sport needed, the US women’s national team performed valiantly and England cruised to an entertaining 2-1 win.
When Sally Yates’ damning 319-page report into emotional and sexual abuse in the NWSL sent shockwaves through the sports world on Monday, the initial thought for Friday’s highly anticipated friendly in London was one of concern. Maybe the game was coming at the wrong time. Perhaps we needed more space before a game of this magnitude to reflect and heal and channel our perfectly justified anger into the appropriate channels.
And then you heard the resolute words of Megan Rapinoe on Thursday shouting to find joy in a dark time. And I saw Wembley Way buzzing with England fans heading to the stadium two hours before the game, wearing England-themed cowboy hats and belting out ‘Sweet Caroline’, the nation’s anthem on two magical European summer runs. And I remembered that a women’s friendly at the iconic Wembley Stadium sold out less than 24 hours after it was announced, a full two months before the actual game.
“It was hard to find joy all the time, but I think tonight was a perfect environment to play in,” said American star Crystal Dunn. “It’s the pinnacle of what we want women’s football to be. … For us, we are united in promoting this game.”
Yes, a night like this was needed, even if we didn’t know it, because it was essentially a celebration of all that is good about the sport. It was a reminder that joy is the fuel that drives the game. It was a call to action that the system clearly needs to be restructured with guardrails so that there are fewer moments of trauma and more moments of unbridled joy.
“It’s been an extremely difficult week for everyone, and I want to say that we’re proud of the players who were even on the field to play this game,” USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski said after the game. “It was not easy for someone who was in the environment to see and experience everything that happened.
“I salute their bravery and their fearless mentality and relentless demeanor. Once again they showed that nothing can stop them from playing the game they love. Very proud of them and I hope we never have to go through this again.”
Before the game, both teams rallied behind a banner that read, “Protect the Players” while wearing teal armbands to show solidarity with survivors of sexual abuse. It was a moment Antonovski said gave him “goosebumps” with the roar of a crowd of more than 76,000. It was a touching gesture from England who had their own monumental moment to meet.
Friday marked the Lionesses’ first game at Wembley since winning the country’s first European title — men’s or women’s — here in July. And after a summer of winning the nation’s hearts, the newly crowned European champions faced perhaps their toughest opponent in years in the back-to-back World Cup champions. In a year of record crowds for women’s football, from Barcelona to San Diego to Wembley in July, Friday’s game was a moment that opened the door to dozens of new fans looking to join an inspiring mission. And England achieved just that.
After being presented with the Euro trophy during an electrifying pregame ceremony, it took just 10 minutes for Wembley to erupt for the first time since Chloe Kelly’s extra-time winner in the memorable Euro final against Germany. Lauren Hemp capitalized on a defensive error by American Alana Cook to give England an early lead. Sophia Smith, the 22-year-old USWNT phenom, The equalizer followed in the 28th minutebut five minutes later, England’s Georgia Stanway scored what would end up being the winning penalty after a high boot from Hailie Mace.
VAR reviews contributed to three scoring chances on the night, denying the USA two potential equalizers either side of halftime. And with Ted Lasso’s Jason Sudeikis in attendance wearing a Rapinoe jersey, the “if God wanted games to end in a tie, he wouldn’t have invented numbers” lassoism served as a useful, if not ironic, explanation.
With the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand less than a year away, a win seemed bigger for an England team hoping to maintain momentum than a loss for a USA team trying to find its roster while stars Alex Morgan, Catarina Macario and Mallory Pugh were missing.
But for Rapinoe and the USWNT, Friday’s game may have been too important for what it represented.
“Whenever teams come together like that, whenever any team really takes a position, I think it galvanizes everybody,” Rapinoe said after the match. “Without players you have nothing – you have no game, you have no sport at all. So if we don’t protect ourselves in the right ways, then nothing else really matters. To come together and take a moment on a night like this, I think it’s very important and powerful.”
On Tuesday, the USA will face a Spanish team that is enduring its own moment of crisis. Just two weeks ago, 15 Spanish players—more than half the players—left the national team after they said being on the team significantly affected their emotional well-being. The Spanish federation took the news as a thinly veiled threat to sack coach Jorge Wilda, who the players publicly questioned, and said none of the striking players would be allowed to return until they “asked for forgiveness”.
Rapinoe was adamant that “everyone [U.S.] The player stands behind each of his players, 100%. How the USWNT shows solidarity with its rivals on Tuesday could very well be a watershed moment in itself for the landscape of women’s soccer in Spain.
From Spain to the USA, we must remember that these players are pioneering figures and courageous leaders, but also people who have been traumatized along the way. They will change the game for the better but at a personal cost because of the system and the people who failed to protect them. We cannot allow the beautiful moments at Wembley on Friday that make this game so special to distract from the human element of trauma. Instead, it should be used as a reminder of what needs protection.
We can’t forget that the stars who are cheered with an entire sport on their shoulders also carry a terrible burden on their hearts, weighed down by the very game they love. If nothing else, we must remember that Friday night at Wembley met the moment, Friday night at Wembley was a reminder of all that is worth defending.
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