England and Germany meet again for Euros final but goalposts have moved

The most striking difference is the feeling of space. Space in the stands and space on the pitch. As England and Germany step out for the final of the 2009 European Championship, the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki is less than half full: the rows of black plastic seats creating their own shade, the noise simply evaporating like steam. In large part this is attributable to the fact that the final – for some mystifying reason – is being played on a Thursday evening in September. Some of the English newspapers haven’t even bothered to send anybody.

The crowd of just over 15,000 is treated to a ragged rout: Germany running out 6-2 winners, forcing England’s loose assemblage of mostly semi-pro players to chase them to exhaustion. The level of commitment is unstinting. The level of technical ability is surprisingly good. What’s missing is the intensity: the tactical sophistication, the speed of thought and action, the physical conditioning that allows modern players to sprint and change direction and leap and slide with the same vigour in minute 90 as in minute one.

It feels like ancient history, and in a way it is, and in a way it isn’t. Some of the players involved in that game are still knocking around. The substitute goalkeeper Lisa Weiss is Merle Frohms’s understudy at Wolfsburg. The unsinkable Jill Scott, now 35, has featured for England at this year’s tournament. But the game they were playing then and the game they are playing now may as well be two different sports, existing in two different universes.

And so 13 years after Faye White and Birgit Prinz led England and Germany out into a half-empty stadium and a world indifferent to them, Leah Williamson and Alexandra Popp will feel the noise and the claustrophobia of a sold-out Wembley before they have even left the tunnel. These days they are fully-paid professionals and household names. They will sense the millions of eyes upon them, in pubs and living rooms and on phone screens all over the continent. They have both been on this crazy ride long enough to feel the vertigo, to appreciate the distance that has been travelled in such a short span of time.

Is it remotely possible to treat this like just another game of football? To know what it all means and to un-know it at the same time? Do you try to harness the emotion and sense of occasion or do you try to block it out? And this is before we even thrash out some of the finer details of this game: the battle between Keira Walsh and Lena Oberdorf for midfield supremacy, Popp’s and Beth Mead’s scrap for the Golden Boot, which team can best sustain the press and which team can best resist it.

All of which adds up to what is quite simply one of the most important games of football ever to have taken place in the British Isles. For years, even decades, we have been told that women’s football in England is on the threshold of something big, some indeterminate great leap forward that will propel it from a minor sport into a primetime preoccupation of millions. Nobody really knew what it would look like. But we swore we would all recognise it when we saw it.

England have been kind but merciless hosts: clinical in front of goal, unashamedly partisan in the stands, a team slowly coming to terms with how good they are. They have blown opposition sides apart (Norway, Northern Ireland, Sweden) when they have had the chance and ground them down (Austria, Spain) when they have not. Most of all they have played the sort of football of which their predecessors could only dream: well-drilled, robust, full of meme-able skill and millennial panache, enriched by the very highest available quality of coaching, logistics and sports science.

The danger is in taking a breath, in stopping to admire the view, in dwelling for even a second on the magnitude of what they might achieve. This is why Germany are the single most dangerous side they could possibly face. If there is any team better equipped to handle the occasion, it is the team that have been in eight previous finals and won the lot, whose culture and collective muscle memory is calibrated for games like this, who will not simply handle the pressure of this monumental away fixture but relish it, reflect it, turn it on their hosts like a mirror.

Germany have been ruthlessly efficient with their chances and ruthlessly competitive without the ball. They have absorbed pressure better than any team in the tournament. Frohms has been inspired. Popp, playing her first Euros at the age of 31 after missing the 2013 and 2017 tournaments through injury, has been a talismanic presence: brilliant in the air, brilliant at sniffing out chances in the penalty area and a wise, calming head in the dressing room. Germany have been on their own journey, and strengthened a little with every step.

If Germany are a team that seem to be shedding baggage as they go, then in a way England are the opposite. History-makers, trailblazers, heroes: the inevitable wave of adulation and recognition that would greet an England victory is its own inhibiting force. Playing Germany in a major championship final on home soil is hard enough without also shouldering the burden of leadership, of advocacy, of giving this addled country something to feel fleetingly proud about.

And yet if England’s players are best served ignoring the wider context, the rest of us can feel quietly moved at the sense of progress. That 2009 side under Hope Powell were playing on annual retainers worth about £16,000 a year. The Women’s Super League was still a concept that would not be made flesh until 2010. Women’s football was still a sport of volunteers and pioneers: players and coaches working for free, lending their own time and money and grimacing into freezing rain in the vain hope that one day their successors might find the going a little easier.

Perhaps in another 13 years we will look back on this team and gasp again at the speed of ascent. All the same, any talk of a lasting legacy should probably be taken with a pinch of salt. The sugar rush of emotion that England’s players have generated over the past few weeks is essentially separate to the slow work of real change, a process that is not enacted by a single game of football, but which requires patience and political will and above all strategy and investment. Meanwhile the sight of five all-white starting XIs gives the lie to the idea that these women are somehow representative of us as a nation. Much has been achieved. Much more still needs to be. Winning or losing against Germany does not change any of that.

And so this is a day for wondering not where this team might go next, but gazing in wonder at how far they have come. How admirably they have grown into their space. These women stand on the shoulders of those who went before them: Kelly Smith and Eni Aluko and Steph Houghton and Fara Williams and Casey Stoney and Gillian Coultard and Kerry Davis. And above all Powell, a woman who played for nothing and fought for everything, who managed this team for 15 years, who after getting thrashed 6-2 by Germany never lost sight of the broader picture. “It will make the girls stronger,” she said afterwards. “And one day, it will be our day.”