CreditChristophe Simon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
NICE, France — Georgia Stanway was still wide-eyed with adrenaline, still trying to catch her breath from the game, still wearing her purple substitute’s bib. She had left the field only a few minutes earlier.
There had been no chance to parse England’s smooth 2-0 victory over Japan on Wednesday, much less its progress to the last 16 of this World Cup. Not that a little reflection would have changed anything for Stanway. England’s ambition remains the same as it has been for months.
“I don’t see why you would come to a major tournament not aiming to win it,” she said. “We’re not afraid to say that.”
It is easy, when examining the details of England’s preparations for this tournament, to be transfixed by the soft touches. Phil Neville, the coach, and the Football Association, which oversees the national team, share a focus on their players as people, not simply as professionals.
They have tried to foster a sense of belonging in the squad, to ensure their emotional needs are met, to create the impression — perhaps the necessary illusion — that a soccer team is a kind of family.
Photos of family members have been placed in the players’ rooms at their training base on the Côte d’Azur, to make them feel at home. Individualized cellphone cases have been handed out to squad members. Necklaces, too. Anniversaries of births and deaths are remembered in team talks.
All of that is important — unity for a cause is priceless — but it is not what really sets this team apart from previous iterations, what marks it as different from countless England teams, men’s and women’s, senior and junior, that have traveled to world championships through past decades. No, what marks this England out as different are not the soft touches, but the hard edge.
Like every other team here, Neville’s faces a twin pressure. The players are acutely aware of what, for want of a better term, might be called their social responsibility: the fact that they are standard-bearers for women’s soccer, for women’s sports, and role models for countless women and girls — and men and boys, for that matter — who are watching at home.
They are tasked with taking ownership of their sport in a way that is not asked of their male counterparts: not simply to be highly skilled practitioners of a craft, but to be ambassadors at large for it. It is a role they take seriously. It is a role that many — most, all — of them embrace.
But even though every World Cup brings a chance to assess the growth of the women’s game, and the impact the players are having, that is not why they are in France. That is not their primary task. Their primary task is to win the World Cup. In years past, at best, England traveled in hope of doing so.
This time around, there is a certain level of expectation. England is ranked third in the world; its domestic league is booming, flush with investment from the behemoths of the Premier League. Its teams are performing well in European club competitions, and a clutch of talented young players, Stanway and her Manchester City teammate Nikita Parris prime among them, is emerging. The team finished third in the 2015 World Cup. Back home, there is a belief that this time England can go at least one better.
There has been no attempt, though, to play down that pressure. England does not appear to be cowed by the status it has been assigned. Instead, the players have embraced this new role, too.
Stanway is perfectly happy to say that she hopes the other teams to have made it to the last 16 “fear” England. She would be delighted to think that none of them “want to play us.” There is no regret, not even a scintilla, that beating Japan on Wednesday night in Nice means that England — should it survive the last 16 and a quarterfinal — will find either the United States or France in its path in the semifinals. (Japan, inventive and bright without ever suggesting the presence of a cutting edge, finished second in Group D, and will now theoretically have an easier road to the final.) This is an England that believes in itself.
The group stage provides ample supporting evidence: England has won all three of its games, conceding just one goal. Neville has, like the United States coach, Jill Ellis, rotated heavily throughout, not only a way of saving legs ahead of the knockout rounds but flexing muscle, just a little, too. He seems spoiled for choices.
England saved its most impressive performance for last in the group stage, overcoming the gifted and experienced Japan team through a mixture of grit and guile. “Japan has the technical level, the tactical level, the physicality that they bring,” England’s Rachel Daly said. “All three games have been very different, but it’s good for us to have played such a high-quality team.”
In a way that the United States, certainly, has not yet experienced, England knows the level it will have to reach in the more exacting games that await in the coming weeks. Neville’s squad has the air of what the Germans call a “tournament team,” a unit that picks up speed as it climbs farther up the hill.
“We’ve grown and developed as a squad,” said Ellen White, who scored both England goals on Wednesday. “We are peaking for the knockout rounds.” It is not a bad trait to have.
That is not, though, the only interpretation. It would be possible to look back on England’s group stage and see a victory against Scotland that Neville himself said was “not good enough” to carry the team far in the tournament; a narrow, single-goal win against a spirited but limited Argentina; and an evenly balanced game against Japan in which England, for much of the second half, came under concerted pressure.
In one light, Neville’s options, what White called “headaches,” are broadly positive. In another, harsher view, he does not yet know quite what the team is that will carry England through the challenges that lie ahead.
At England’s training base, though, none of that will matter too much. Yes, the team has yet to produce a statement performance. Yes, the games will get tougher and the opposition better, and Neville must make difficult choices and hope he calls them right. But what is important is that England is winning, that it continues to win, that it finds a way. That is, after all, why it is here, and it is not afraid to say it.