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England beat Brazil to win first women's Finalissima

April 7, 2023

The champions of Europe and South America met in the first Finalissima on Thursday, with England beating Brazil on penalties. The game ended 1-1 in normal time and bought pros and cons for both ahead of the World Cup.

Leah Williamson and Mary Earps hold the Finalissima trophy aloft
England have made a habit of winning trophies at WembleyImage: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/Reuters

Ahead of this match, it was hard to know for certain just how much the newly-formed Finalissima really meant. But the reactions of the two goalkeepers after England won on penalties after a 1-1 draw suggested it’s more than just a friendly, or a World Cup warmup.

As Chloe Kelly smashed home the winning spot kick at the other end to where she’d scored the extra-time goal that beat Germany in the final of last year's Euros, both stoppers looked to the sky. For England’s Mary Earps, there was relief — and then pure joy — that her injury-time fumble hadn’t cost her team. For Brazil’s Letitia it was an attempt to hold back the tears.

This was the first time the European and South American champions have met in such a one-off match. Early on, the gulf between them was as vast on the pitch as it is in the atlas.

From the start, England came out with ferocious intent. Alessia Russo constantly threatened in behind, Lauren James and Lauren Hemp loitered with intent on the wings and, at the back, Alex Greenwood and Leah Williamson seemed to be operating in a forcefield that prevented them from coming under pressure.

"This feels like home for me," said Kelly of Wembley. "It was brilliant to be here and an excellent performance from the girls. It was another challenge here tonight but we're building momentum and keep moving forward now."

Toone turns up heat

Brazil couldn’t match their opponent’s early intensity and confidence and it was Williamson, seemingly with more space than any of the 83,132 fans in the stands at Wembley that kickstarted the move that broke the deadlock. Her forward pass through the lines found Lauren James with space of her own, she found Lucy Bronze, who played a one-two with Georgia Stanway, and then cut back for Ella Toone to stroke home.

That it was such a fluent team goal should come as little surprise. Under Sarina Wiegman, England have become settled, composed — and close to invincible. This win made it 30 games without defeat.

They’ll need a few more if they’re to go to the next level and win the World Cup. And they’ll probably need to be more ruthless against sides who look as weak as Brazil did early on. Though their coach, Pia Sundhage, was missing some key players, the South Americans looked way off their European counterparts in fitness and cohesion for the first 45 minutes.

Ella Toone celebrates a goal for England
Ella Toone opened the scoring for England, who dominated the first halfImage: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Though it was only a year ago, Wiegman, a coach who values consistency of selection like few others, has had to undertake a quiet revolution in attack since that home tournament win. Russo and Toone have gone from impact subs to the central fulcrum with Beth Mead injured and Ellen White having retired.

But it is perhaps James, the only starter on Thursday not selected for the Euros, who is the biggest change. As threatening as England’s attack is, James is a wildcard. For stretches of Thursday's match, she ambled around, looking like she was doing a supermarket shop without a list. But, in reality, she's an exceptional reader of space and a master of conserving energy for a drop of the shoulder or a concentrated burst of speed that few can cope with. She had a few moments in her 74 minutes in north London, but there are more to come.

Strength in depth key for both sides

As Kelly proved again, squad depth will be important in Australia and New Zealand when the World Cup starts in July.

Sundhage and her team proved they, too, have players that can change the game from the bench. Though the XI she put out was inexperienced, the former USA and Sweden coach is not. Her double substitution at the break made a cakewalk a contest. Suddenly, England were forced into making quick decisions and mistakes started to nibble away at even this team’s deep-held confidence.

One of the substitutes, Adriana, should have given the loud pockets of Brazilians an equalizer to cheer but failed to connect with a fairly simple chance just before the hour. Then Geyse struck the bar after Toone had been robbed on the edge of the box. Games are rarely won at halftime and tournaments are rarely won by teams without the ability to pick themselves off the floor.

"It was a tale of two halves almost," said England defender Jess Carter afterward. "There are positives we can take from the game and there are learning points as well. And I think the learning points are almost bigger than the positives because we need to find a way to deal with the pressure and come out on top."

Though they did just that, Brazil's improvement rattled England enough that Wiegman's unbeaten record was under threat. Earps, recently named the best goalkeeper in the world by FIFA, spilled a routine low cross into the path of Alves — who lashed into the roof of the net to take the game to penalties before finding instant redemption in the shootout.

While Brazil can take heart from their second-half display, they can't take the trophy. Though this one does seem to matter, it certainly doesn’t matter as much as the one that will be lifted, perhaps by one of these teams, in Sydney on August 20.

Edited by Richard Connor