The Lionesses came closer than any senior England football team – men or women – to winning the World Cup since 1966 when they narrowly lost to Spain in the 2023 Women’s World Cup final in Sydney on 20 August. The Spanish side edged victory 1-0 thanks to a fine finish from their captain Olga Carmona. And despite putting in a determined and dogged display, Sarina Wiegman’s England were unable to find an equaliser.
Despite not having the fairytale ending England fans hoped for, making it to the final was a fantastic achievement for England, who had lost key players Beth Mead, Leah Williamson and Fran Kirkby to injury before the tournament commenced. So let’s take a look back at how the Lionesses progressed through the rounds in the World Cup, that was co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.
England’s Road to Sydney
England qualified for the World Cup with consummate ease. Not that there was any real doubt given the Lionesses’ excellent record in recent years, but they absolutely stormed through Group D, winning all 10 of their games… and in some style: they scored a total of 80 goals and didn’t concede a single one!
North Macedonia (H)
Northern Ireland (H)
North Macedonia (A)
Northern Ireland (A)
The qualification campaign included plenty of big wins, but none more so than the quite astounding 20-0 triumph over Latvia. Unsurprisingly, this was a record-breaking scoreline for any England side (women or men) and included hat-tricks for four players. Based on their resounding qualification, it was no wonder England went into the tournament proper as one of the favourites.
Despite injury withdrawals and a couple of imperfect warm-up games, England had high hopes coming into the World Cup. On the face of it, England’s Group D opponents did not look overly challenging. England were ranked significantly ahead of Denmark and China, with the final team, Haiti, not even amongst the top 50 sides in the world.
That didn’t stop the relative minnows giving the Lionesses a scare in their opening match. Despite it being the first World Cup for which Haiti had qualified, they boast a number of top players and they put on a stubborn display against England. In the end, Wiegman’s side had to rely on a re-taken Georgia Stanway penalty to get the crucial – but nerve-wracking – victory.
England didn’t look to have brought their A game in the second match either as once again they won by the narrowest of margins. Lauren James scored after just six minutes and it stayed 1-0. Wiegman is not one to panic, of course, and her calm demeanour helped put the two victories into perspective.
England turned on the style in their third group match against China, however. Alessia Russo opened the scoring for England after just four minutes and Lauren Hemp added the second before the half hour mark. Lauren James added the first of her two just before the break and though China hit back after half time, James’s second and additional strikes from Chloe Kelly and Rachel Daly completed the 6-1 rout. The Lionesses were roaring.
Drew 0-0, Won 4-2 on Pens
England’s opponents in the Round of 16 were Nigeria, who qualified for the tournament having been losing semi-finalists in the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations. After England’s hammering of China, many expected a similarly one-sided affair in this match, but instead England faced a very tough and physical opponent who had chances to cause a major upset.
Despite England having more of the possession, it was the African side who had more shots (20 to England’s 12), but it ended goalless after extra time and the Lionesses edged it 4-2 on penalties. Lauren James’s red card and subsequent suspension was far from ideal, however.
England overcame South American opposition in the quarters when they came back from a goal down to beat Colombia 2-1. Lauren Hemp and Alessia Russo provided the goals in an assured – if not completely commanding – performance.
That set up a semi-final meeting against co-hosts Australia. England had lost 2-0 to the Matildas in a friendly back in April, and though England were the favourites, the home support would certainly give the Aussies a big boost. But the Lionesses put in a very solid display, Ella Toone opening the scoring to set the ball rolling.
The Aussies hit back with a blinder from their top striker Sam Kerr (who plies her trade for Chelsea). But England’s ever-reliable goal-getters Hemp and Russo bagged another goal apiece to put England women’s team into their first-ever World Cup final, having made the semis in the two previous World Cups.
And so to the final, the match towards which the England side had been building for years. After their fantastic Euro 2022 triumph, winning the World Cup was the natural progression for Sarina Wiegman’s England side. But things didn’t turn out that way.
England came closest to breaking the deadlock early on when Hemp’s effort rebounded off the crossbar. But the Lionesses were unable to test the Spanish keeper and it was Spain who got the breakthrough in the 29th minute with a precise low drive into the corner from Olga Carmona.
Spain had the majority of the possession and created the better chances as the game went on, and things looked desperate for England when their opponents were awarded a penalty for handball. Thankfully, as has so often been the case, world-class goalkeeper Mary Earps saved the day when she caught the penalty, to enthusiastic congratulations from her teammates. Alas, for England, it merely delayed the inevitable as Spain showed their ability to keep possession and run down the clock to edge towards their deserved 1-0 victory.
What Next For England (and Wiegman)?
It was a matter of so close and yet so far for the Lionesses, leaving players, staff and fans wondering what might have transpired if the squad hadn’t been depleted by injuries. But ultimately, making it to the World Cup final is a massive achievement (and more than the men’s side have managed since 1966!). And though it’s always going to be a gut-wrencher to lose in the final, on the day the better side won. But where will England – and their much sought-after coach – go from here?
Dutch ace Wiegman has now led two national teams to the World Cup final (she took Netherlands there in 2019, but lost to USA). She’s also won the Euros twice (once with England, once with Netherlands) and there are numerous sides at national and club level that would be eager to employ her. But, as things stand, she’s sticking with England and has no plans to leave. She currently has a contract until 2025, which would take her through to the next Euros. But whether she stays around until the next World Cup in 2027 is another matter. When asked about that prospect she replied, “Four years is a long time.”
Before that, though, England will need to regroup and focus on the next tasks at hand: qualification for the Paris 2024 Olympics and their upcoming Nations League fixtures. It will take character to bounce back from their World Cup final defeat, but this set of England players – and indeed their manager – has character in abundance.
We fully expect the Lionesses to roar again and we think they have a great chance of retaining their status as European champions when the Euros roll around in 2025. Whether Wiegman continues to have another shot at the World Cup after that, remains to be seen. But if she doesn’t, her boots will be tough to fill.