What a night of football in Brighton! England beat Spain 2-1 after extra time in a thrilling match I could have watched for hours. And what a party in the stadium! It’s loud at women’s football matches, the atmosphere is like a mixture of school trip and youth disco.
Five-year-old girls, three Lionesses on their shirts, sitting on their father’s shoulders, waving the St George’s cross flag. A bell-bright children’s choir sang “Football’s coming home”, grandfathers also joined in with Wonderwall. The last time I had been allowed to feel so English was four years ago when I visited my relatives and watched the Royal wedding on the South Pier in Blackpool, throwing a coin into the slot machine.
As a German reporter, I was in England up to and including the quarter-finals to cover the Euros. I have been watching football for more than four decades. I remember many battles against Italy, the Netherlands or Argentina. But we Germans have a favourite opponent and that is England.
So London is experiencing the perfect final on Sunday. Is it my imagination or do I hear a slight despair in English commentaries that the opponent is, of all things, Germany, the four-time men’s world champions and eight times the women’s European champions – who (almost) always win in the end?
For me and most people my age, England is more than a rival. We’ve won many times on the football pitch and it’s quite possible that it will happen again this time. But actually we want to be like the English. England is a place of longing for my generation, who grew up with music from London, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle and, perhaps, became a bit cosmopolitan.
Pop-culturally, England is in a league of its own – you don’t have to go to the penalty shootout. We don’t have Monty Python and James Bond, we don’t have the Beatles, the Stones, Joy Division, the Smiths, Depeche Mode, the Kinks, the Cure, Oasis, Queen … sorry, it’s football, we don’t have Wembley or Nick Hornby either. We were disappointed when England and the rest of the UK left us in 2016. But if England don’t want to be in our club any more, maybe we can join theirs? That’s what many of us think after the third pint at the latest.
“Attention, Surrender! For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 is over!” The headlines in the English tabloids gave us a bit of a fright back then. But no one has to explain to me, the grandson of a Nazi, how Germany’s image abroad comes about. Of course we liked winning in 1996, and in 1990, too. But we cried with Gazza and Gary Lineker is the coolest anyway. Admittedly, we laughed a bit at Gareth Southgate, but then so did he himself.
Now the women continue the tradition. Both teams represent what their footballing nations are known for. Germany went into the tournament as underdogs. They are a turniermannschaft – a tournament team. They can endure difficult phases of the game, like against Spain. They are hard to beat and know how to score a goal, even a cheap one. Magic is alien to us, our virtues are effectiveness and mentality.
Germany has a physical wonder in midfield – Lena Oberdorf cleans up there. In goal, it will come as no surprise, there is quality. Merle Frohms is petite, but jumps higher and further than other goalkeepers. Tip to England: you’d better have decided the final after 120 minutes at the latest.
The German team is represented by Alexandra Popp. The goalscorer was injured for a long time, thought about ending her career, was infected with Covid shortly before the tournament and was not in the starting XI in the first match. Then she became the first woman to score in five European Championship matches in a row. When she scored the header for the 2-1 win against France, she took a running jump into her opponent, but luckily only her pigtail hit her in the face. The aerial battles between Popp and Millie Bright could make a racket.
And England, as you can see in Germany, are having the time of their lives. The quality and variety of Beth Mead’s goals is probably unique in women’s football, and we have dedicated an entire podcast episode to her in our editorial department. Lucy Bronze defends as hard as Kyle Walker. In Munich, everyone is talking about Sadio Mané and Matthijs de Ligt, but perhaps Georgia Stanway is Bayern’s most spectacular transfer. Her fight with Oberdorf in the centre will matter in London.
Stanway’s winning goal against Spain was a highlight of the tournament. Like everyone at Brighton’s stadium, it raised me out of my seat. All the power in one shot. That is female empowerment, that is football as we love it. We English and Germans are kin in our ideas of the game, rooted in centuries past. We are closer than we are to France or Spain.
The day before the opening game I met my cousin who is English and grew up and lives near Warrington and who is descended from the same Nazi grandfather as me.
He told me about his love for women’s football. He rejects the men’s professional game, but watches the women’s games with enthusiasm. Many feel the same way. My impressions from the stadiums in Manchester, Brentford or Brighton: those who are there have become infected with the game, which for a long time was only for men. They recognise themselves in the players. In Germany, the TV ratings are high, the anticipation for Sunday’s final is enormous. If you want a seat at the fan zone in Berlin, you have to be there two hours in advance. This summer, the women are making both our nations proud and happy.
It has been marred by one sad piece of news. As I was on the London Underground on my way to Brentford’s stadium, I learned of Uwe Seeler’s death. The images of the 1966 West Germany captain creeping across the Wembley pitch with his head bowed or bowing to the Queen at the victory ceremony are iconic. He is for ever the tragic, upright loser. He, like Beckenbauer or Haller, Hurst or Charlton, will never be forgotten.
It can be a grand final on Sunday. This time women have the chance to write themselves into the history books. That they will still be talked about in England and Germany in half a century.
Oliver Fritsch is sports editor for Zeit Online, Berlin