England has produced some great sporting heroes in our time. Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill; Jonny Wilkinson; the guy who chases the wheel of cheese down the hill but is somehow above eating it; Gunnersaurus. As a nation, we’re probably guilty of idolising our sportsmen too much – we give them knighthoods, we let them host Homes Under the Hammer, we bestowed upon Mo Farah the grand tsar of Quorn, an honour previously only given to elder statesmen and war heroes. That said, there is one group of sportspeople who need to be celebrated and honoured as soon as possible: the England women’s football team.
And when I say honoured, I mean honoured. I want to go full diamond jubilee for these women. I want commemorative plates, I want commemorative mugs, I want a limited edition of Jordan Nobbs Toilet Duck, for getting your basin as clean as the volley she hit against Scotland. I want Steph Houghton’s face carved on to the white cliffs of Dover. Sorry, Mother Nature, but did you single-handedly keep France at bay in the quarter-finals? No? Didn’t think so.
“But this England team hasn’t won anything,” I hear you clamour. “In fact, they went out against the Netherlands in the semi-finals in a 3-0 defeat. I had invited people round to watch and it actually ended up a bit of a downer.” To those people I say: English football is not about great victories. It is not about the trophies. It’s not about playing “good” football. If it was, we would all have asked the German FA to take over many years ago. It is about those small seconds of glory where you think anything is possible, it’s about that little bit of hope before it’s dashed on the rocks by Daniëlle van de Donk.
And before last night, this England team provided those golden stories: Millie Bright and Houghton throwing themselves at the French harder than Neymar did; Fran Kirby ripping Spain apart so brutally it would make Michael Howard blush; and Jodie Taylor destroying Scotland so thoroughly she’s less welcome north of the border than Theresa May. And regardless of how badly England did on Thursday night, they’ve still reached their second semi-final in three years: if the men’s team were doing this well, they’d have changed the name of our currency to Raheem Sterling.
I hate to bring up the men’s team. That’s been a general policy since Monday 27 June 2016, especially when talking to Icelandic people. But think back to the last time you watched them and felt an actual affinity with them. For me, it was France 1998. I was nine years old, and I was convinced all football players were my best friends. I didn’t want to be Paul Scholes, I wanted to hang out with him – I wanted to play Crash Bandicoot with him, quote Simpsons episodes at him and ask whether the other players made fun of him for his ginger hair. As I grew up, I realised I couldn’t be best friends with Paul Scholes: for one, he earned in one week what my dad earned in a year, and second the age gap would have made getting into nightclubs really difficult and I didn’t want to cramp his style.
This England team is the first one I’ve watched since 1998 where I’ve felt that kind of excitement. I’m not saying I want to be best friends with all the England squad – although Mark Sampson, if that is an official role, I’m your man. I mean they just feel so much more real than any other team – the excitement, the pain, the sacrifice is all magnified by 10 because you know that, unlike many male players, they haven’t been in an academy since they were eight, given media training since they were 11 and promised multimillion-pound contracts before their 16th birthday.
Unlike many male players, the women's team haven’t been promised multimillion-pound contracts before their 16th birthday
There are some sobering stories that have come out of this and previous England teams – Casey Stoney coming out, Fara Williams being technically homeless while playing for England, Karen Carney speaking frankly about her battles with self-harm. That is not to say that they are all saints but they are open and more truthful than many of the male players are allowed to be, and it makes following their ride to stardom so much more exhilarating. If you want a real “heart-exploding-with-joy” moment, just watch Jill Scott, Eni Aluko and Carly Telford play as themselves for the first time on Fifa 16, and try not to feel Aluko’s excitement as she screams: “That is me!” or the giddiness Scott feels as she slide-tackles herself and gets sent off after eight minutes.
Yes, England lost the match – but what they’ve achieved is so much bigger. They’ve made us feel pride. Not an abstract “nationalistic” pride, in the way that we’re supposed to feel pride about the royal family or Benedict Cumberbatch or the weird red twisty thing next to the Olympic stadium, but an oddly personal one. We know how hard they have worked, and they are finally getting the recognition they so richly deserve. Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go and design some commemorative Karen Bardsley oven gloves and try to start a bidding war on eBay.
• Jack Bernhardt is a freelance comedy writer