From a World Cup watched alone in my bedroom in 2015 to the next attended as a journalists, both delivered an unexpected sucker punch. Two British teams served up misery four years apart, naivety the undoing for both in their quest for history. This is my personal story of heartache.
It started with a kick, how did it end up like this
The 2015 World Cup had been my introduction to women’s football, and just like previous men’s tournaments, it had my undivided attention over the muggy summer nights. Eyes wide, trying to take in every inch of action on Canada’s plastic pitches, team after team of unknown players became familiar. Styles presented themselves, referees became enemies and my infatuation with the game was swift and enduring.
My personal relationship with the English national team is a complicated one but as I sat and watched, bright eyed and bushy tailed, the politics melted away and the sense of pride and scant ebbs of patriotism began to bloom. Each match the Lionesses played was a struggle; the endless 2-1 victories and largely unattractive style would have been a chore to me today. But back then, I was but an English person watching England.
By the time Mark Sampson’s squad reached the semi-finals in Edmonton, I was a devotee of both the sport and the team. I sat at the edge of my bed, eyes glued to the screen and watched, as I had so many other matches, and looked on aghast. The ball flicked up off of Laura Bassett’s toe and arched against the apex of the woodwork. As it crossed the line, I fell backwards onto the mattress. The goal had caught me under the chin, a haymaker threw me back, the bell ringing as my body landed on the bed as if it were the canvas in a boxing ring, the knockout blow delivered.
The goal hadn’t sparked my interest in women’s football, nor was it what propelled me to travel around the country watching the top two tiers before branching out into mainland Europe. My addiction was a matter of fact but the own goal had left a feeling I carried for a long time before it was finally, fully washed away by the persistent crashing waves of my own cynicism.
I had covered the 2017 European Championships in their entirety, pouring yet more money into the black hole of women’s football, self-funding my way around the Netherlands. The match reports, features and interviews were likely only read by a handful of people, the work unpaid, the hours unsocial yet I did it all with a shrug of the shoulders.
A touch of professionalism
By the time I landed at Charles de Gaulle in June 2019, things were different. I still ran at a loss but there was the illusion of reaching a wider audience. I had spent months unsure of whether or not I’d even reach the tournament, whether I could afford to, of what my coverage might look like. But four years on from watching a Women’s World Cup from my bedroom, I was at one - I’d come full circle. The tournament was given a touch more luster as I had even been given the nod to cover Scotland for the Guardian.
I had tried to be a neutral in my coverage, not just that summer, but since I had started writing. But in that heady World Cup atmosphere, my brain soon began to turn blue and white. Scotland were a likeable team; the players talented, the manager respected and still clearly the underdogs. A bruising loss to England in their maiden Euros match two years prior had sent them on a downward spiral in the Netherlands. Drawn against their southern neighbours for their World Cup debut, my stomach knotted for them. Some matches will always leave scars and for each of the six goals conceded by the debutantes in Utrecht, there was an invisible mark, a blemish, a reminder.
In the uncomfortable afternoon humidity in Nice, England had been favourites but still required implementation of the new rules – coupled with a VAR check – to take the lead after the ball had grazed Nicola Docherty’s arm. Nikita Parris’ one successful spot kick that summer was taken then, the penalty picture perfect to beat Lee Alexander and give the Lionesses a lead to play with. The Scotland team had been set up over-cautiously and it was individual errors in the defence – just as it was two years previously – that cost Scotland, first in Nice then Rennes and finally Paris.
Claire Emslie’s late goal had been more than a conciliation; it had ignited hope and shown a degree of fight in the sunburnt side. By Rennes, my neutrality had dissipated and I was ready to stand in the press box and shout at the referee about her not being able to take my freedom.
Mana Iwabuchi’s goal had been a peach. Yes, Jennifer Beattie should have tried to jump and block it rather than pirouetting to turn her back on it, but the officiating had played its part too. It was Scotland who were on the attack, Scotland who had a clear and obvious incorrect offside call against them that lead to the ball being sent down the other end for Iwabuchi. Rachel Corsie’s hand had landed on Yuika Sugasawa’s shoulder but the touch seemed fainter and fainter with every viewing – the penalty for Japan still stood. Yet when the ball rolled down Risa Shimizu’s arm (a penalty by the new rules) there was silence for the referee and VARs; I fumed in the press box. Lana Clelland’s goal, another late strike, had lifted the spirits but I couldn’t keep the bias from my first ever printed on the whistle report.
Scotland had one chance left, but it required beating the surprise package of the tournament in Carlos Borrello’s defensively resolute Argentina. La Albiceleste had been well organised and had it not been for a mistake against England, would have gone into the match with two points already banked and therefore just needing a draw. Yet that error against the Lionesses meant that both teams needed to find a win to progress – a draw would only be enough for Argentina if other results went their way (spoiler alert: they didn’t).
It was clear, first two performances aside, that La Albiceleste, like their male counterparts, weren’t a defensive team. They were South Americans and had been brought up watching Maradona and Leo Messi; they wanted to attack and attack they did, looking much the better side for the opening 15 minutes.
Neutrality out the window
My heart sank. Scotland had been second best against the teams ranked third and seventh in the world and would surely be going home empty-handed after their do-or-die match against the team ranked 37th. But, suddenly Erin Cuthbert burst into life, drawing a save from Vanina Correa before pulling back for Kim Little to tuck home in the melee… surely they couldn’t…?
The halftime lead was a slender one but it was a lead. Scotland were ahead for the first ever time at a Women’s World Cup but with 45 minutes left to be played, one goal could never be enough. Caroline Weir’s ball whipped in from the right landed on Beattie’s head for the stocky centre back to nod in and utter delirium… Scotland were… could it even be said? It was three! It could be said: Scotland were going to progress! For the first time in the country’s history, Scotland were heading to the knock out stages of a World Cup: pandemonium, madness, Erin Cuthbert sensational.
Report written and sent, Shelley Kerr’s team make history, women’s football soothing the decades of hurt on the men’s side… oh wait, Argentina had one back through substitute Milagros Menéndez. But it was fine, it was just one, Scotland were two goals to the good and only had to see out 15 minutes, they were even allowed another mistake, not that they’d be that foolish… and there it was, four minutes later, Florencia Bonsegundo’s long range punt clipping off of the bar and bouncing in off of the back of Alexander’s glove.
Hands began to shake, copy sent, rewritten and sent again, 11 minutes, that was all Scotland had left of regular time, just 11 minutes to hold on. Watch, write, watch, write, watch… watch… watch. Scotland were coming apart at the seams – I knew the feeling – panic and sloppy fouls combined to open the door for Argentina. Subs, subs... Scotland were making changes, four minutes left… Sophie Howard was coming on, so too Fiona Brown but wait… a free kick mid-substitution, Scotland with just ten players on the pitch, Howard lunging in, too much to keep track of at once.
VAR, oh no, not again, not to this team. Seconds, minutes, who knew how long things were taking or how long there was left. Into the 89th minute: penalty to Argentina. Mouth dry, stomach knotted, hands still over keyboard keys, all eyes on Lee Alexander, “please, please, please…” the Spanish and South American reporters either side of me in the press box as nervous, muttering their own silent stream of, “por favor, por favor, por favor…”
Alexander saved. ALEXANDER SAVED. It was a shit penalty, holy shit it was a fucking shit penalty but Alexander had saved and the ball had been cleared out… heart still racing, another whistle. Another VAR review. What? WHAT?!
Four minutes of stoppage time. But over and over Ri Hyang-ok watched the review. We squinted at the monitors on our press desks, looking for the infraction; one blade of grass, maybe two between the back of Alexander’s boot and the line as Bonsegundo delivered the ball. Again, the referee viewed the penalty, time dragged on, minute after minute before she jogged back onto the pitch and showed Alexander a yellow – the official record showing the booking in the 93rd minute. Everything had taken so long, there would have to be stoppage time added to the stoppage time but first… the ball back on the spot.
Again Bonsegundo pulled her leg back, again her delivery was poor, the ball fired into the same spot yet this time Alexander couldn’t move, her heels glued, studs stuck into the goal line. The save would have been an easy one to make, yet the goalkeeper had taken up residence in her own head.
Fingers hammered at keys around me as the Argentine contingent in the stadium burst into song. This time I had no bed to fall back onto, I wasn’t a fan; I had a job to do and a runner to rewrite (somehow). But the whistle... More confusion, was that… full time, already? But the goal and then… haze, muzz, confusion, the stoppages had been ignored, the match was over and the tears fell on the pitch.
Scotland had made their bed. A neutral would have been able to see it: the panic, the mistakes, but in that moment I only saw injustice. I was angry, aggrieved and deflated, the air had left my lungs, ripped out, arms and legs leaden, chest compressed.
The reporter next to me was in my ear: Bonsegundo, how apt, it means good second. A charming anecdote for any other day… glasses off, laptop packed away, feet already moving towards to the press conference room but all on autopilot.
In the press conference room video played of Cuthbert receiving her player of the match trophy, the 20-year-old managing to smile for the cameras for a second before the tears began to slip from her eyes. It all felt so merciless. And in the presser, the questions asked of her were unnecessary and pointless: journalists asking just to hear themselves talk. She looked like she needed a hug. We all did.