England out but not down
© Foto-net

It was a campaign that promised so much, delivered so much, but ultimately ended at the hands of a USA side now unbeaten in 51 games. There is no doubt that England can return home with their heads held high.

When they do, Hope Powell and her charges will discover just how far they have gone towards popularising women's football in a country where focus on the sport has long been monopolised by their male counterparts. Media coverage of their campaign was comprehensive and for the first time, BBC1 screened an England match at the FIFA Women's World Cup - with USA-England becoming the most high-profile women's football match ever broadcast on the corporation's main channel.

Among those passionately following the endeavours of the 'Three Lionesses' were a selection of leading figures from the men's game. England goalkeeper David James revealed that, when Steve McClaren's squad assembled at the dinner table ahead of their crucial UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier against Russia, one subject dominated the conversation: the women's team's 2-2 draw with Japan the previous day.

McClaren himself was very impressed by their performances. "I know Hope and the team will be gutted to lose today, but they should all be very proud of their performances in China," he said after their 3-0 defeat by USA. "There have been some excellent team and individual performances by England and they have certainly generated a huge level of interest. We should all congratulate them on their efforts."

Brian Barwick, chief executive of the English Football Association, was in agreement. "Hope, the players and all of the backroom staff should take immense pride in their performances in China. The England team have been fantastic ambassadors for the country - on and off the pitch - and have made a massive contribution to raising the profile of women's football in England," he said.

Powell will now be left to accentuate the positives and of those there are plenty. A draw with the reigning champions Germany; progression to the knockout stage unbeaten; an exciting style which charmed the neutrals; and impressive performances both collectively and individually. Even in defeat by the Americans, England could take pride. Indeed, the first half was an even affair and in spite of unanswered second-half goals from Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx and Kristine Lilly, the Europeans continued to push forward and finished the game with 52 per cent possession.

"I think England's a great team and they've played a great World Cup," said USA captain Lilly, praising their efforts. "It's great to see all the support they've been getting out here and at the attention they've had back home in England. They've played some good soccer and it's good for their fans and for the league over there."

A number of England players can reflect on particularly impressive showings on Chinese soil. Faye White underlined her reputation as one of the world's finest defenders, Katie Chapman's tireless work in midfield did not go unnoticed and Karen Carney made a positive impression against USA. For her part, the hugely talented Kelly Smith certainly lived up to the hype and will return home having scored four goals and picked up two Player of the Match awards. The fact that USA coach Greg Ryan altered his tactics to keep the England No10 in check, employing Leslie Osborne to follow her every move, spoke volumes.

Praise for Smith
Smith also earned high praise from the great Chinese player Sun Wen, who even enthused about the Arsenal playmaker in her blog. And the joint-FIFA Women's Player of the Century was not the only Chinese who took to Smith and England. In fact, the 'Three Lionesses' became something of a 'second team' to their hosts, whose support was described as "fantastic" by Powell.

Naturally, the 40-year-old tactician - who was part of the last England squad to reach the quarter-finals in 1995 - felt her players did their country proud. "I think we put on a good display, throughout the tournament and today," she said after their quarter-final exit. "The fact that we lost 3-0, we have to learn from that. The USA are an immense side but we held our own at times. We'll build on it. It's been a great day and a great occasion for us.

"We've had a vast amount of support and I think we've played attractive football," she added. "The players can feel proud. We've played the teams who are ranked one and two in the world and this experience in itself will hold us in good stead for the future."