The German women's national team claimed the UEFA Women's EURO on Sunday. Same old, same old, you might be tempted to think, because the 1-0 victory over Norway in front of a 41,301 crowd in Solna meant Silvia Neid’s team sealed a sixth continental title on the trot.
To the uninitiated, it might simply sound like business as usual for the nation lying second in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking, but in fact this particular triumph was different. The long and extraordinary scenes of celebration after the final whistle confirmed the special nature of the achievement.
The victory certainly made amends for past disappointments, and also meant the players cast off a huge burden of expectation. But there was actually far more to it than that. On the day after the final, the expressions on the faces of the German players spoke volumes, betraying relief mixed with elation after a pulsating and top-quality tournament in Sweden, but also a real sense of excited anticipation for what is still to come.
Germany won the FIFA Women's World Cup™ in 2003 and 2007, but some of the sparkle and swagger was lost after that. A demoralising quarter-final exit at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011 on home soil, failure to qualify for the Women's Olympic Football Tournament 2012 in London as a consequence, and a patchy start to the UEFA Women's EURO in Sweden gave the grumbling critics plenty of new ammunition.
The team emphatically answered their detractors out on the pitch. “This triumph feels very special. We're overjoyed at the moment," declared Neid. And upon their return to Germany, Neid's side were welcomed by more than 7,000 fans in Romer Square, the old main square and balcony where all German World and European Champions are traditionally welcomed after flying back to Frankfurt.
*Back with a bang *Precisely 750 days earlier, the 1-0 extra time defeat to eventual world champions Japan meant the Germans were eliminated from the global showdown in the last eight. The legacy was a deep and lasting sense of shock, but the tears of disappointment have finally dried. Germany are back where their reputation and their own ambitions suggest they belong, and a potentially worrying decline has been halted.
No less a figure than Joachim Gauck, the President of the Federal Republic, sent congratulations: “Celebrate, and accept the applause! The whole German footballing family is delighted for you! Your magnificent performance has shown once again that German women's football is among the best in the world."
*Triumph in adversity *Prior to the showdown in Sweden, confidence that Germany could maintain their exceptional run of success on the continental stage was unusually low. On the one hand, injury robbed the squad of no fewer than six international class individuals in Kim Kulig, Babett Peter, Alexandra Popp, Linda Bresonik, Viola Odebrecht and Verena Faisst.
What then became the youngest team at the tournament with an average age of just 23.5 opened with a goalless draw against the Netherlands, and although Neid’s side then defeated Iceland 3-0, the doomsayers were out in force after a bitter 1-0 defeat to Norway in the final group match. Incredibly, it was Germany's first loss at a European Championship in 20 years.
“But we never gave up and we earned the title through all our hard work," reflected midfielder Nadine Kessler. Central striker Celia Okoyino da Mbabi also emphasised toil and togetherness: “It's just unbelievable. We had an unbending will to win and kept our eyes on our target. Our absolute team spirit has been rewarded with the title."
In the event, Neid's troops strung together three 1-0 victories in a row to beat Italy in the quarters, hosts Sweden in the semis, and the Norwegians in the final. Sunday's victory brought sweet revenge in two respects, on the one hand for the group stage loss, and on the other for a never-to-be-forgotten defeat fully 18 years ago, when Norway won the 1995 FIFA Women's World Cup final on the same ground in Solna by a 2-0 scoreline. The Germany side that day was led by playmaker Silvia Neid.
*Test passed with flying colours *All the evidence suggests Germany are back on the pace in global women's football. The last vestiges of yearning for a golden generation spearheaded by the iconic Birgit Prinz have evaporated as the class of 2013 stated their credentials in Sweden.
“Congratulations to Silvia Neid and the whole team," declared German FA (DFB) president Wolfgang Niersbach. "The trophy is a terrific success and confirms the standing of women's football in Germany. What this young team, weakened by the loss of many regulars, has achieved at this EURO deserves huge credit. We're proud of our women," he added.
It remains to be seen whether the continental triumph marks the start of a new era, potentially shaped by creative talents such as 19-year-old Bayern Munich striker Lena Lotzen, and 21-year-old team-mate Dzsenifer Marozsan, a naturally gifted schemer who won the adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Japan 2012 and the adidas Silver Ball at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup New Zealand 2008.
What cannot be doubted is the depth of unexploited potential in Neid's rejuvenated squad. With an eye on the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015 in Canada, the likes of world champions Japan and Olympic gold medallists USA will have taken note.
*Title of hero falls to veteran *However, for all the excitement prompted by the emerging newcomers in German women's football, it was the last of the golden generation who ultimately made the difference. Keeper Nadine Angerer, a 34-year-old who earned her 124th international cap on Sunday, was her side's hero with two penalty saves.
Nor is this the first time Angerer has performed wonders in goal, as it was she who went through the entire FIFA Women's World Cup 2007 in China PR without conceding a single goal, saving a penalty from Brazil's Marta in the closing stages of the final. “We've done it, and it's phenomenal," a visibly overjoyed Angerer said after the decider in Solna.
The player nicknamed Natze *exuded pride, but also an awareness that her heroics have provided her younger team-mates with a possible springboard to greatness. Midfielder Lena Gossling, a UEFA Champions League winner with Wolfsburg and a figurehead in the new German women's national team, knew where to direct her words of praise: “We all have to be grateful to *Natze!"