“France were the better side today, there’s no doubt about that. They played better and I can’t take anything away from them. All the same, I’m very proud of my players. It was a gallant effort and they fought to the end.”
The words of England coach Hope Powell are an accurate reflection of Saturday’s quarter-final in Leverkusen, which the French won on penalties after outplaying Powell’s brave side for long periods. The statistics underline the dominance of Les Bleues, who had 33 goal attempts to England’s 7, hitting the target 11 times in contrast to England’s three goalbound efforts.
“It was a tough match and we had some really tired legs out there today,” lamented Powell. “The girls were really suffering at the end, and when it came down to the penalties we just didn’t have any luck.”
When Camille Abily had her side’s opening spot-kick saved, it looked as if it might be England’s day. Misses by Faye White and Claire Rafferty tipped the balance in France’s favour, however, leaving Powell to rue her team’s misfortune: “Faye and Claire both wanted to take a penalty. They felt confident, which is fantastic, and they were very brave in wanting to step up. I have nothing but admiration for them.”
Fatigue was etched all over the faces of the England players in the closing stages. And none of Powell’s charges suffered more than striker Kelly Smith, who was struck down by cramp towards the end of the second half of normal time and had to limp her way through the extra half hour, with England having already used their three substitutes. Even so, Smith shrugged off her obvious exhaustion to step up in the shootout and convert her penalty in defiant fashion.
“Kelly was really suffering but she kept going until the end,” said an admiring Powell. “I think it’s great that she wanted to take it and I have nothing but respect and admiration for her and the rest of the players.”
The pride and the passion
As she left the stadium, England keeper Karen Bardsley’s face still showed the telltale signs of defeat, her eyes still filled with tears. “We gave it our all out there and I don’t think anyone could have asked any more of us,” she said. “You can practice penalties in training, but obviously you can’t compare that to what you find here, with a full stadium, the fans putting pressure on you and a place in the World Cup semi-finals at stake.” With that Bardsley’s voice tailed off, the disappointment of defeat too much to bear.
Despite the reverse, English pride remained intact. “We’re disappointed about the late goal they scored to force extra time, but proud at out terrific team effort,” continued the England keeper. “It was a very emotional match.”
Having the last word, Powell took the positive view: “We need to keep on working towards a better future. The World Cup has been a fantastic experience for us but we have to look forward now. In football there’s always something you need to work on.”