LYON, France >> When the English Football Association asked Phil Neville to take over the women’s national team 18 months ago, it seemed a strange choice. His only experience as a head coach was a brief spell with a fourth-tier team in which he had an ownership stake.
Yet, that was far more experience than he had in the women’s game.
What Neville did understand, however, was winning, having lifted 14 trophies, including a Champions League title, as a player at Manchester United. So for a women’s team that had stalled in the semifinals of its last two major tournaments under coach Mark Sampson, Neville seemed like an inspired choice.
On Tuesday, we’ll find out whether the FA was right when England plays in yet another semifinal, this time in the Women’s World Cup, against the defending champion U.S.
“I was brought into this job to get us through a semifinal. I don’t think there’s been a team that’s played that type of football before,” Neville said of the passing game he introduced in England, one he considers revolutionary.
“This type of football will get us through a semifinal. We’re in it to win it.”
It has been 53 years since an English team has won anything internationally. In fact, no English team has even made it to the final of a World Cup since 1966. And Neville made it clear Sunday that he’s not interested in the consolation prizes his country took home from the last men’s and women’s World Cups, which England finished by playing in the third-place game.
“Nobody cares who loses in the semifinals. It’s all about winning. And my players want to win,” he said. “So if we don’t get the right result, we’ll be disappointed. We’ll see that as a failure.
“That’s not me being negative. That’s just our expectations and our belief and our confidence now and our mind-set. Every sport’s about winning. Nobody cares who gets the silver or bronze. It’s the gold medal that everybody wants.”
Especially the players on Neville’s roster. Twelve of the 23 women he brought to France also played on the England team that lost in the semifinals of the 2015 Women’s World Cup and the 2017 Euros. Captain Steph Houghton said they want a new experience.
“We’ve shown in this tournament we can go toe to toe with anyone,” she said. “We have to believe in the ability we’ve got in our squad. We have players that love these big games, love these big moments.
“And they don’t come much bigger than a semifinal against the world champion.”
England didn’t stumble into this opportunity by chance; women’s soccer has grown tremendously there in the last decade. Last year, the FA Women’s Super League became Europe’s first fully professional domestic female league, with its 12 teams including affiliates of deep-pocketed English Premier League clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
Seventeen of the players on England’s World Cup roster play in the Super League.
That momentum got another big boost this spring when Barclay’s signed a record $13.2-million deal to become the league’s title sponsor for the next three seasons, allowing the teams to split $660,000 in prize money for the first time.
Before that, players such as defender Lucy Bronze, whom Neville has repeatedly called the best player in the world, were often forced to choose between soccer and paying their bills. Who knows how much talent England forfeited when players had to quit the game to make a living.
“There’d been a turning point,” Bronze, who worked for a pizza franchise while playing at Everton, told the English magazine FourFourTwo. “I had finished my degree and was wondering whether it was better to get a ‘normal’ job or carry on playing. I was sleeping on people’s sofas.”
It was until about five years ago, when she was 22 and playing at Liverpool, that Bronze — whose middle name, appropriately enough, is Tough — decided to go all in with soccer, eventually jumping to French club Olympique Lyonnais, whose stadium will be the site of the Women’s World Cup semifinals and final.
“I said when I signed for Lyon two years ago the dream was to play in Lyon and at Lyon’s stadium for the World Cup. I’ve had to wait two years for that dream to come true,” she said. “It’s a stadium I love playing in and it’s a city that I love.”
It’s also the stadium where’s she played for two Champions League winners. On Tuesday, against the unbeaten and top-ranked Americans, she can take a big step toward adding a Women’s World Cup title to that resume. And don’t expect Neville to leave anything to chance.
Before last week’s quarterfinal game with Norway, the coach brought in David Beckham, a former teammate, to give the women a pep talk. He then played a video message from retired rower Katherine Grainger, Britain’s most decorated female Olympian.
She didn’t talk about her silver- and bronze-medal performances.
“It gave you goosebumps,” Neville said, “about what it takes to win.”