England did it. In front of a record crowd of 87,192 at Wembley Stadium, the Lionesses topped Germany in extra time to claim the nation’s first senior international trophy since 1966. The encounter was what you would expect from a match of such magnitude: cagy at times, brilliant at times, chaotic at times, and wrought with tension throughout until the final whistle.
En route to the final, England manager Sarina Wiegman and Germany boss Martina Voss-Tecklenberg proved themselves the preeminent tacticians in this tournament. However, it was the latter who was given the task of making the first adjustment before a whistle ever sounded. Key forward and team engine Alexandra Popp suffered a muscle injury in warm-ups and was replaced by Bayern Munich striker Lea Schüller.
This injury happening to anyone minutes before a major final is devastating, it happening to Popp is downright cruelty. Popp, who turned 31 in April, was playing in her first ever European Championships due to previous ill-timed injuries. And she wasn’t just playing, she was excelling. Popp had scored in every single match, twice in the semifinal win over France, and was tied on goals with golden boot winner Beth Mead heading into the final (tiebreaker: assists).
Sadly, a remarkable story met a soul-crushing end and we’ll never know how a healthy Popp would have influenced the final.
However, in football as in life, there’s plenty of cruelty to focus on, but also warmth. For England supporters, and more narrowly Chelsea supporters, Fran Kirby holding and lifting the trophy was a marvelous sight. Just four months ago Kirby’s season was halted due to a mysterious extreme fatigue. It was the joint decision of her and manager Emma Hayes to not try to play through it but to focus on identifying a diagnosis, then treatment plan.
Unfortunately this was not the first time Kirby struggled with non-football related health concerns. In 2020 she developed a rare heart condition called pericarditis. She recounted in her struggles in her own words, detailing how walking up a flight of stairs brought her to the brink of exhaustion, and her genuine fears that she would never play football again.
We here who bleed the correct shade of Blue are familiar with the unthinkable resilience of Fran Kirby, but it should never not wow us. We may remember that when Kirby returned from pericarditis she did so, amazingly, in the form of her life, scoring 16(!) goals and dropping 11(!) assists in league play. Still, Kirby faced a much shorter timeline to prove not only her health, but efficacy, to her teammates and Wiegman ahead of the Euros.
She did, was named to the squad, and started all six games of the tournament, scoring two goals and plating three assists. Kirby, along with teammate Millie Bright, were the only Chelsea players to start every game for Wiegman. Bright herself had an impressive tournament, carrying her stellar club form to the national team as a central part of a defense that allowed just two goals all tournament.
On top of the physical ailments overcome, Kirby’s most difficult recovery was figuring out how to navigate life without her mother, whom she lost when she was just 14. Her mom fully supported her footballing career and instilled the confidence in her that she would need to make it from Reading’s academy, to their first team, to Chelsea, to winning titles, and onto the Lionesses.
After the final whistle Kirby was likely sensing several swirling and intense waves of conflicting emotions — disbelief, relief, joy, and wistfulness. When she got a hold of the trophy, and in the midst of the flood of raw emotion and celebration, she took a moment to be alone, well sort of. With the trophy in one hand, she put her other hand on her lips, looked toward the sky, and blew a kiss to Denise.