England’s coach Sarina Wiegman eyes fairytale World Cup ending

Women’s World Cup final will be fourth major final in Wiegman’s career, one of the most illustrious in women’s football.

England manager Sarina Wiegman smiles during a press conference
By the quarterfinals, the 53-year-old Dutchwoman was the only female manager left in the competition [Carl Recine/Reuters]

After guiding England to the Women’s World Cup final on Wednesday, just over a year after they won the European Championship on home soil, coach Sarina Wiegman seemed stunned.

“I never take anything for granted but it’s like, am I in the middle of a fairytale or something?” she said.

Wiegman’s ruthless Lionesses beat co-hosts Australia 3-1 in the semifinals in front of a large and somewhat hostile crowd and will take on Spain in the final on Sunday, bidding for their first-ever Women’s World Cup title.

The clash in Sydney will be the fourth major final in Wiegman’s career, which is one of the most illustrious and successful in the women’s game.

In 2017, Wiegman led her native Netherlands to Women’s Euros glory before guiding them to the World Cup final in 2019, where they lost to the United States.

Heading into this year’s World Cup, Wiegman was among just 12 female managers out of 32 coaches but by the time the tournament reached the quarterfinals, she was the only female manager still in contention.

If Wiegman goes on to lead England to glory, she will become the first England manager – men or women – to lift multiple major trophies.

Wiegman’s reign as England’s manager has already turned heads in the country, where fans are confident “it’s coming home” – 57 years after Alf Ramsey guided them to glory in the men’s World Cup at Wembley.

Since taking over the role in late 2021, Wiegman has transformed England into a competitive and resilient team, which has lost just once – to Australia in a pre-World Cup friendly – in 38 games.

“Her record for England has been nothing short of extraordinary,” BBC Sport’s Emma Smith told Al Jazeera. “She has taken a side which had shown great potential in 2019 [where they finished fourth] and drawn out its full potential.

“What has been the most remarkable part of her tenure has been the ability to both harness and use momentum as it has built behind the England team, and also overcome significant challenges such as injuries, issues over pay and bonuses, and concerns about squad selections, to the extent that they have faded into the background when compared to the sheer weight of momentum which England have.”

England's Millie Bright and manager Sarina Wiegman celebrate after the match as England progress to the final of the World Cup
Wiegman celebrates England’s semifinal victory with players Millie Bright, centre, and Kiera Walsh [Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Reuters]

According to freelance journalist Philip O’Connor, the major reason for Wiegman’s success with England is that she has the trust of her players.

“Her managerial run has been outstanding. I cannot think of a better coach in the game right now,” said O’Connor, whose Global Gael podcast covered Ireland’s World Cup journey in detail. “Her game planning is second to none, and she is excellent at adjusting her tactics on the fly.”

O’Connor added that Wiegman, in stark contrast to her predecessor Phil Neville, had a record and a reputation in the women’s game that spoke for itself.

“While other coaches have had a tendency to try to put square pegs into round holes, she has treaded the fine line between getting her best players on the pitch and getting the most out of them brilliantly,” he explained.

‘She does things her way’

Even though England entered the World Cup as one of the title favourites, they also had to deal with their fair share of issues before or during the tournament.

All-time top scorer Ellen White announced her retirement ahead of the tournament, while captain Leah Williamson and Euros top scorer Beth Mead were ruled out of the World Cup due to ACL injuries.

During the tournament, breakout star Lauren James was suspended for two games over a red card, and key midfielder Kiera Walsh missed a game due to injury.

The team also had off-field problems such as disputes with the governing Football Association over performance-related bonuses before they decided to pause those discussions until after the World Cup.

These issues posed a challenge for England, but thanks to Wiegman’s impressive adaptability, and the team’s belief, they always found a way to reach the next step.

The Dutchwoman’s clarity and consistency have played a key role, resulting in England being the most efficient team at the World Cup.

“Under Wiegman, things have been done her way and no way else,” Smith added. “This can be seen in her insistence on playing Women’s Super League top scorer Rachel Daly at left-wing back, despite external criticism, with positive results.

“She has her system and ensures the players follow her lead – but is not afraid to change things if circumstances necessitate.”

Freelance women’s sports journalist Nancy Gillen said a mix of tactical excellence and superb team management has made Wiegman so successful.

“Wiegman’s tactical nous is clear when watching the Lionesses. She knows how to get the best out of each player in each position, but can also show the flexibility needed to switch things up when they are not working,” Gillen said.

For Lionesses fan David Whelan, Wiegman is the master of adaptability.

“Adaptability is frequently used as a vague, positive term to describe managers, while we also [praise] dogmatists like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp for their staunch faith in their way,” said Whelan, writer and Evan Frankel Fellow at the University of Denver.

“But I think that oversimplifies what the best managers tend to really do; football tactics are tending towards more complicated equations with variable functions, and the only thing you want to come after the equal sign is a single letter, ‘W’. Wiegman is the master of that.”

While her competitive drive and tactical awareness make her the perfect leader, Wiegman is also a likeable figure in the changing room, with England forward Alessia Russo labelling the 53-year-old as the team’s role model.

The calm and quiet coach’s humility makes her stand apart from the rest.

“Whether it’s visible publicly or not, too many coaches have a Messiah complex, where they believe in their own ideas, systems and opinions above all else, whereas Wiegman is humble enough to see each game and each opponent as a problem to be solved using the resources at her disposal,” O’Connor said.

“To look at what she does tactically or in terms of team selection is to miss the point – it is her leadership and how she is as a person that is the cornerstone of her success, and that kind of thing is seldom learned on coaching courses.”

Wiegman has also called for more female coaches to be helped into the game.

A 2019 study by FIFA found that only 7 percent of football coaches worldwide were women, though women have been very successful on the international stage: All but one of the major women’s football tournaments – the World Cup, Euros and the Olympics – have been won by female-coached teams.

One of the biggest barriers for female coaches is the coaching certification process, which requires significant costs and is labour intensive. Meanwhile, the rapid growth of the women’s game is likely to attract more men – although it could also mean that more retired female players enter coaching.

“Of course what we hope is to get more female football coaches at the top level and the balance gets better than it is right now,” Wiegman before England’s game against Nigeria.

“Of course males are welcome too. There are lots of males who have done a very good job in the women’s game, but if the balance is better that will also inspire other women to start coaching.”

Meanwhile, after a month of dealing with obstacles down under, England and Wiegman are gearing up for the final hurdle against Spain and their quest for reaching sporting immortality.

All eyes will once again be on serial winner Wiegman, who will be keen to write the perfect ending to her fairytale.

Source: Al Jazeera