The agonies will take some getting over and, by a most bitter irony, the curse of the missed penalty lives on.
The captain Steph Houghton stepped up to take the kick seven minutes from time which could have sent the side towards the final because Nikita Parris had already missed two in the tournament. But her effort, to the goalkeeper’s right, was weak. She held her head in her hands, the dream desperately extinguished.
The margins were achingly narrow. A few millimetres of Ellen White’s grey left boot had been deemed over the video referee’s red line when she found the net minutes before the penalty — but that is football’s new way.
It cannot be said that the victors did not deserve the spoils. The United States had the game’s outstanding chances, might have been out of sight by half-time and can say with justification that they remain faster, stronger, tougher and smarter than the pretenders to their throne. But Phil Neville’s England revealed the strides his team have made.
Both sides were diminished. Goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, superb for Neville throughout the tournament, had known for several days that a hamstring strain would put the match beyond her. Megan Rapinoe’s absence — seemingly through injury — was the bolt from the blue which sent a surge of hope through England. ‘Scared of Lucy innit’ quipped Bronze’s brother on Twitter.
But the United States tore at England from the off, their modus operandi being to squeeze the life out of opponents in an opening surge. They had scored in the first 12 minutes every time in the tournament and this was no different.
It wasn’t so much the beauty and technical merit of the opening goal — Rose Lavelle’s dummy allowing a ball to run through to Tobin Heath, whose impeccably weighted cross was headed in by Rapinoe’s replacement Christen Press — but the ensuing American power which made you fear very deeply for England.
Neither Lucy Bronze nor Jill Scott managed a challenge when Press sent in her header, while Demi Stokes versus Heath down the US right looked a desperately treacherous match-up from an English perspective. Millie Bright looked a deeply troubled soul at the heart of a defence which was listing badly in those early moments.
England held more of the ball but their careless concession of it as they sought to build from deep — a theme of this entire tournament for them — brought more perils. A five-yard free-kick from Keira Walsh surrendered possession and left England chasing in the 28°C head of the Lyon night. It felt like some kind of an avalanche was coming.
Somehow Neville’s side managed to hold on and, in their first attack of the game, find an improbable equaliser. Walsh hit a 30-yard crossfield pass for Beth Mead, whose rapid cross beyond Kelley O’Hara allowed Ellen White to navigate the ball cleverly into the top right-hand corner of the net.
But there was no disguising the fact England were losing the midfield battle. They had a few more moments in the opening period: two efforts from range by Walsh, one nearly deflected into her own net by Becky Sauerbrunn. Yet they lacked balance in Neville’s new formation and White was terribly isolated without the presence of Fran Kirby to create the reverse passes and balls inside for her. Above all, the decision to break up the Bronze-Parris combination removed the axis which had accounted for 45 per cent of England’s attacking thrust in the quarter-final against Norway.
America, a threat whenever they forged forwards, justifiably resumed the lead just beyond the half-hour. Lindsey Horan angled a cross from the right, allowing Alex Morgan to head just beyond the reach of Carly Telford, who might just have reached it if she had not ventured a pace off her line.
Kirby arrived three minutes before the hour, resuming the position she has maintained behind White in this tournament as England reverted to the formation, with Parris in front of Bronze, which had got them here.
The errors in possession kept coming as they played out from deep. A Telford pass to Bright, with Press on her shoulder, could have seen the US home if the young striker had squared the ball to Heath instead of shooting.
But England found balance and new momentum. And then came the moment they thought they were back: a smart pass through midfield by Walsh, sublimely eased into the path of White by Scott and the forward striding forward to find the net. The ‘goggles’ celebration had ensued when Edina Alves Batista, the Brazilian referee, called things back.
Soon VAR ruled in England’s favour. White’s leg was taken away by Sauerbrunn as she shaped to shoot and after a five-minute delay while the angles were examined, the fateful penalty was awarded. Houghton stepped up … but fluffed it.
England’s misery was compounded came when Bright was shown a second yellow card four minutes from time after going in over the top in a challenge on Morgan. England have achieved so much, though it may take them some time to appreciate it.