England on brink of historic breakthrough
"It's the best moment of the players' career. For some of them, it's the best moment of their lives. It's absolutely huge for us". Casey Stoney putting into words just what reaching a first major final means to this group of England players.
As for the Germans, their opponents in Thursday's European Championship final in Helsinki, it's not quite another day at the office, but they've been here so many times before. "We're a tournament team," says Germany legend Steffi Jones ahead of the match. She's not wrong.
England players may prefer to look away now while I share a couple of stats... The Germans are chasing their fifth straight European title and seventh out of a possible 10. Not only that, they've won all 34 games they've played in this competition since 1999. I could go on. Suffice to say, Germany have a winning mentality. Even when they were a goal down in the semi-final against Norway, there was an air of inevitability about the eventual outcome. Sure enough, Germany came through to win 3-1.
Fantastic, yes, but are the Germans invincible? I believe not. And far more importantly, England know it. Despite Germany's superb record, England are the only team to have prevented them from winning a match at a European Championship or World Cup since 1999. That was a goalless draw during the World Cup in China two years ago.
Clutching at straws perhaps, but there's further reason for optimism if you're an England fan. That's because there's a new depth to Hope Powell's side. Six of her squad members are full-time professionals in the new pro league in the United States, while most of the others are now benefitting from FA central contracts. Worth £16,000 per year, central contracts mean those in possession only have part-time instead of full-time jobs, allowing them not only to train more efficiently but, crucially, to get proper recovery time. It's the sort of detail that fully professional sports people take for granted but that England's female footballers are extremely grateful for.
Not only are England fitter than ever before, they're also now more experienced than ever, too. This young squad, which finished bottom of their group at Euro 2005, has now matured and bonded into a much stronger unit. Eniola Aluko, for example, looks like a different player. She sat A-Levels during the 2005 tournament, which took place in on home soil. Now, four years on, she's passed her law degree with a First and is a full-time professional footballer with St Louis Athletica in the US. Anyone who saw her outstanding individual goal against Finland in the quarter-finals will have seen a player now brimming with confidence.
As well as individual improvements, England have also tasted some success as a team. Admittedly nowhere near the scale of the Germans, but they won the Cyprus Cup (an international invitational tournament) in March and relished that winning feeling. They're hungry for more.
Women's football in England suffered a blow earlier this year when the Football Association deferred the much-anticipated Super League by a year due to financial uncertainty due, in part, to the collapse of Setanta. But FA chief executive Ian Watmore, recognising that England have trailed behind their German, Scandinavian and American counterparts for so long in terms of development, uttered encouraging words this week when he said the new league will not be deferred again, as many in the game have feared.
We'll find out in the next couple of weeks whether the Super League does in fact get the green light to start in 2011. In the meantime, victory over Germany would provide the biggest boost the women's game has ever had in England. Maybe their time has come.