England women prepare for World Cup date with destiny
Coach and players will have to be at their best if England are to overcome Japan in the World Cup semi-final
The England women's football team face the biggest match in their history tonight as they take on Japan in the semi-final of the World Cup in Canada, only the third time an English team of either sex has made it to the last four of the tournament.
The women's game has never had a higher profile thanks to the Lionesses' run to the semi-finals, and the team's Welsh coach Mark Sampson has urged the country to "stay with the team" ahead of the clash in Edmonton tonight.
The game does not kick off until midnight BST, and Sampson has lent his support, and signature, to a letter calling on bosses to persuade bosses to give their employees a late start on Thursday so they can stay up and watch the match, reports the BBC.
The tournament has been described as a "game-changer" for women's football in England and the UK. "A month ago only the committed knew the women were playing in a World Cup and fewer had heard of Fran Kirby, Jodie Taylor and Lucy Bronze," writes Glenn Moore in The Independent. "Now they are the talk of social media and on the front pages of newspapers that three weeks ago seemed unaware women even played football.
"England’s women have filled the void left by the men, serial failures for a generation," he adds. "Admiration for England's male footballers is qualified by resentment at occasional boorish behaviour and colossal salaries... [while] the women are impeccably behaved and, relatively poorly paid."
Many of the team, like Fara Williams, who spent some her youth homeless, have inspiring stories to tell and the team's success could have a lasting impact on society. "If girls, their parents, brothers and schoolmates, start to accept females playing football is 'normal' there could be a huge rise in sports participation," says Moore, far more so than that precipitated by success in other sports like rugby, hockey and cricket.
Yet it is hard to escape the fact that in many respects women's football is a very different ball game from that played by the men.
"Unlike their male counterparts, whose vast salaries mean that money is no object when it comes to flying out friends and family, many of the players' loved ones will have to watch the match on television," notes The Times. "The midfielder Katie Chapman’s husband and children surprised her on her 33rd birthday during the group stages, but they are now back in the UK because they could afford only one trip."
Whether relatives will be left scrabbling around to pay for tickets to the final remains to be seen. Japan are the reigning champions and play dazzling passing football that England cannot match. But coach Sampson has proved himself an excellent tactician during the tournament.
"There is clearly a strong dynamic, a real chemistry, between the 32-year-old and his players," says The Guardian. But what can Sampson draw from his players? "A coach unswerving in his admiration of Roberto Martinez, whom he once worked under at Swansea, [Sampson] would ideally prefer to pass Japan off the pitch but accepts that, at this stage of the English game's evolution, pragmatism offers the only hope of progress."