Women’s World Cup: A brief history of English football’s half-century of heartbreak and near-misses

There is no question the Lionesses have everything they need to triumph on Sunday, however, so long as they stay focused, remain true to themselves – and recall a few timely warnings from history.

Here’s a quick look back at England’s biggest tournament disappointments between 1967 and 2021, should Sarina Wiegman’s side require any further motivation ahead of the big one.

World Cup 1990 semi-final

One of the most storied World Cups of recent times, Italia 90 will forever live on in English nightmares, with Gazza’s tears as unforgettable as Luciano Pavarotti straining at the cummerbund to belt out “Nessun Dorma”.

After two decades of international underachievement, England had emerged from the group stage to see off Belgium and Cameroon and set up a mouth-watering semi with old rivals Germany at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin.

On the night, Bobby Robson’s team played out a torrid 1-1 draw and an extremely tense, goalless period of extra-time before inevitably facing a penalty shoot-out.

A dejected Stuart Pearce walks away after missing his penalty during the 1990 World Cup semi-fina against Germany in Turin

Gary Lineker, Peter Beardsley and David Platt all converted from the spot but the usually impeccable Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle could not on an evening as emotional and operatic as its soundtrack that would be relived in agony for many years to come.

Euro 1996 semi-final

While there was plenty to relish about the first international football tournament to be held on English soil since 1966, with the nation united by Frank Skinner and David Baddiel’s immortal anthem “Three Lions”, it all ended in grimly familiar circumstances under Terry Venables.

Paul Gascoigne’s magnificent strike against Scotland, an uncharacteristically clinical 4-1 trouncing of the Netherlands courtesy of Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham and Pearce’s furious redemption from the penalty spot against Spain had brought genuine belief that victory was in sight before Germany reared their ugly head again, forcing penalties after another 1-1 draw.

This time, a certain Gareth Southgate was the unlucky man from the spot.

World Cup 1998 round of 16

It was penalties yet again that did for Glenn Hoddle’s England at France 98, this time against Argentina after a dramatic 2-2 draw that had seen a young Michael Owen break away to score a career-defining wonder goal and David Beckham sent off for a petulant kick out at Diego Simeone (a foul not dissimilar to Lauren James’s against Nigeria).

David Beckham is dimissed against Argentina at France 98

Paul Ince and David Batty missed the crucial kicks in Saint-Etienne but the disgrace was Beckham’s, who was hounded by opposition fans when he returned to action for Manchester United a month later and was only belatedly forgiven.

World Cup 2002 quarter-finals

Four years later, in Japan and South Korea, the Three Lions had emerged impressively from a tricky group and beaten Denmark 3-0 in the round of 16 before coming up against eventual winners Brazil in the quarters.

Having taken the lead through Owen, England ended up going down 2-1 to goals from Ronaldinho and Rivaldo in what was a pretty vintage South American side, also including the likes of Cafu, Roberto Carlos and Golden Boot winner Ronaldo, O Fenomeno himself, back with a point to prove.

The absolutely filthy lob Ronaldinho drifted over David Seaman for the equaliser in Shizuoka was much like the goal Colombia’s Leicy Santos scored against Mary Earps in the quarters of the current tournament last weekend.

World Cup 2018 semi-final

After a string of disappointing tournaments – ending with losses to Portugal in 2006, to Germany in 2010 (with the help of at least one dodgy decision to deny Frank Lampard a perfectly valid goal) and a failure to even escape their group in 2014 – new manager Gareth Southgate found personal redemption and inspired an unlikely run on M&S waistcoats in Russia five years ago.

After a workmanlike progression through the groups, England saw off Colombia before excitement really reached fever pitch when they beat Sweden 2-0 in the quarters, inspiring at least one set of overly-refreshed patriots to smash up a branch of Ikea in euphoria.

England’s players celebrate with Kieran Tripper after his glorious early freekick against Croatia

Despite taking an early lead in the semi-finals thanks to Kieran Trippier, England were gradually worn down by a superb Croatian side orchestrated by Luka Modric, conceding first an equaliser to Ivan Perisic and then the winner to Mario Manzukic in extra-time.

Football did not come home after all but, just for a moment, it had felt like its return was written in the stars.

Women’s World Cup 2019 semi-final

Just a year later, the same fate struck the Lionesses in France when their impressive run to the semis was ended by the reigning champions, the US Women’s National Team, led by Alex Morgan and a particularly imperious Megan Rapinoe, who found time to have a blazing row with Donald Trump in addition to scoring in the final and picking up both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball.

Christen Press gave the Americans an early lead in the semi before Ellen White pulled it level, only for Morgan to net the winner and provoke the crowd with a mocking tea-sipping celebration that she later insisted had been misinterpreted.

Euro 2020 final

This one is still a little raw. Southgate’s men had emerged, not especially excitingly, from the groups of this Covid-delayed tournament with two wins and a draw – scoring only twice but keeping three clean sheets – before beating Germany, Ukraine and Denmark to set up an encounter with Italy at Wembley on a particularly rowdy summer Sunday evening.

Again taking an early lead, as they had against Croatia in Moscow – this time courtesy of Luke Shaw – England’s nerves got the better of them and they allowed the Italians back into it. The Azzurri duly equalised through Leonardo Bonnucci, dragging the match to extra time and then penalties.

Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bakayo Saka all missed their kicks, inspiring some utterly appalling racist abuse on social media afterwards but then a very heartening outcry of public support in response.

Gareth Southgate consoles Jadon Sancho after his penalty miss against Italy


If there’s a lesson in all of this for the Lionesses, it’s that their own penalty record of late is rather better than that of their male counterparts.

Earps superbly kept out the Brazilians to win the Finalissima in April this year as England won the shootout 4-2 and Bethany England, Rachel Daly, Alex Greenwood and the mighty Chloe Kelly (always a player for the big occasion) all hammered home their spot-kicks in the recent victory over Nigeria, suggesting they might be less inclined to crack under pressure.

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