SHEFFIELD, England — If you want to seal a famous victory, it doesn’t really matter how you do it. The goal will speak for itself, whether it is a tap-in or a spectacular 30-yard strike.
But there is also another level entirely, and Alessia Russo delivered Euro 22’s viral moment with a goal straight out of the Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo textbook to confirm England’s 4-0 win against Sweden and send the Lionesses to the Euro 22 final.
This result was huge on so many levels for the host nation. It ended a run of three successive defeats in major tournament semifinals — Euro 2017, and the World Cups in 2015 and 2019 — and put Sarina Wiegman’s team within one win (against Germany or France in Sunday’s final) of securing a first-ever major trophy for the English women’s national team.
But while this tournament as a whole has given the women’s game a huge boost across Europe, and cemented the England team into the country’s congested sporting landscape, moments of magic as delivered by Manchester United forward Russo are the kind that go beyond the sport itself.
Georgia Stanway‘s spectacular long-range shot, which sealed a 2-1 quarterfinal win against Spain in Brighton last week, was a “wow” moment that captured the public’s imagination and enabled Wiegman’s squad to cut through to a non-football audience.
Russo’s goal on 68 minutes in Tuesday’s semifinal, which made it 3-0 to England and banished any prospect of a Sweden fightback, was different, though, because it was so unexpected and audacious.
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The 23-year-old, who replaced Ellen White just 11 minutes earlier, had initially seen a shot blocked by Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, but she collected the rebound, resisted a heavy nudge from a defender and appeared to be taking the ball away from goal until she stunned everyone inside Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane ground by back-heeling the ball into the net from six yards.
Russo had her back to goal and her chance looked to have gone, but she produced the moment of the tournament by not only sending the ball into the net, but also putting it through Lindahl’s legs at the same time.
Kids in playgrounds and playing fields — girls and boys — will wake up tomorrow morning and spend hours attempting to copy Russo’s goal, just as they would had it been scored by Ronaldo, Messi or any of football’s male superstars.
Manchester United teammates Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof were both at Bramall Lane to watch their respective nations — and you can also bet that Russo’s goal will be the talk of the Old Trafford changing room in the morning too.
Tournaments are all about unearthing new stars, producing unforgettable moments, and Euro 22 has been dominated by England in that respect. Russo’s moment will claim airtime in places where football doesn’t usually reach, though, so its value to the game cannot be overstated.
But from England’s perspective, it will mean little if Wiegman’s team is unable to win at Wembley on Sunday.
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The investment in the women’s game in England in recent years has made the Lionesses the emerging power in the sport, but the country needs more than semifinal near misses to justify that billing.
Wiegman’s appointment as coach in 2021 was another signal of the English Football Association’s determination to go that extra step and win something, with the 52-year-old having delivered Euro success for the Netherlands in 2017, and she has been a revelation as Phil Neville’s successor.
This was her 20th game in charge and there have been 18 wins and 2 draws. A home final, in front of 85,000 at Wembley on Sunday, is a golden chance for England to finally win a major honour.
But England are a seriously impressive team. Sweden, second in the FIFA world rankings, were blown away in this game having initially dominated the opening half hour.
England keeper Mary Earps had to save from Sofia Jakobsson in just the first 20 seconds, and Sweden twice went close again in the opening 10 minutes. But England held their nerve and gradually gained a foothold thanks to the calm composure of captain Leah Williamson and determination in midfield of Fran Kirby.
The opening goal was key, however, and it came on 34 minutes when tournament top scorer Beth Mead received Lucy Bronze‘s cross before turning and shooting into the net. Mead then returned the favour three minutes into the second half by crossing for Barcelona defender Bronze to head in England’s second.
Sweden by then looked drained of energy and belief, and England poured forward in waves, with Lauren Hemp hitting the crossbar on 57 minutes. Earps then made a crucial save to tip over a Stina Blackstenius header on 65 minutes. Had that gone in and made it 2-1, the final stages could have been tense for England, but the Earps save was followed three minutes later by Russo’s goal and that ended the game as a contest.
But there was still more to come with Kirby making it 4-0 with a lob from 20 yards on 77 minutes as England booked their place in the final with a ruthless display of finishing.
All that remains now is 90 minutes at Wembley for the Euro 2022 trophy. Whether England face Germany or France, they will take some beating.