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“TO LEAD the team onto the field as a captain was definitely a special moment that I will remember fondly forever,” recalls the now retired Celia Sasic, looking back at her own experience of leading her country in the first stand-alone women’s international football match at Wembley Stadium five years ago.
It was November 2014 and on the back of some huge Wembley Stadium attendances for women’s football at the 2012 London Olympics, the Football Association decided to give centre stage to its Lionesses in a glamour match against the reigning European champions, Germany.
It was a dream come true for the players, and not just the English ones. “Every child knows Wembley Stadium and about its very special spirit,” Sasic tells me.
“The anticipation for this specific match was correspondingly high. Every footballer, male or female, has this dream of running around in this stadium.”
In a stellar career in which the striker won two European Championships, the Champions League, finished top scorer at the World Cup and was voted Best Player in Europe in 2015, playing at the home of English football remains a vivid memory.
“What I do remember is the pretty long journey through the London traffic, although we were staying close to the stadium, and of course the training session the day before, when we arrived at the stadium, went into the dressing room and the pitch.
“I will always remember the sight of the ‘This is Wembley’ lettering in the interior of the stadium especially.”
Five years on, every available ticket has been snapped up, but back then a sell-out was inconceivable as planned engineering works on the London Underground made travelling to the game difficult and torrential rain deterred thousands who had bought tickets from attending.
Nevertheless, a crowd of 45,216 is still a record to watch the Lionesses in England, a record that will be smashed on Saturday.
“Of course it was a pity that the stands were not fully packed, but it was not an everyday situation for a women’s match back then. Even though it was not sold out, the atmosphere at Wembley was terrific for a women’s football game at that particular time.”
At the time, the England Women’s team had never defeated Germany in 18 previous matches. In fact, no German national team, male or female, has lost at Wembley since 1975, a record that Martina Voss-Tecklenburg’s team will be hoping to maintain this weekend.
“Everyone knows that the games between England and Germany have a certain history and are something special. However, this had no effect on your own game because we knew how to concentrate and focus but I really enjoyed playing against the Lionesses.”
After Jordan Nobbs rattled the crossbar with the first shot of the game within 30 seconds, Germany imposed themselves on a sodden Wembley pitch.
Alex Scott was credited with an early own goal before Sasic added two first-half goals to leave the home side trailing by three at half-time.
Sasic’s first goal was a superb solo effort where she raced half the length of the pitch, unchallenged before sliding the ball under Karen Bardsley.
“The first goal was basically a typical ‘Celia’ goal. I scored several goals from similar situations. I like to play on wet turf and I enjoy having a lot of space in front of me.”
In spite of reaching a third successive tournament semi-final at this summer’s World Cup, Phil Neville’s Lionesses have an unimpressive record in recent home matches, losing four of their last six, a run which does not bode well going into a home European Championship.
Now, the eyes of over 80,000 expectant fans will be on them as they face a team they have never beaten on home soil in 11 attempts.
Sasic, who played in a home World Cup in 2011 and scored in front of 73,680 people at Berlin’s Olympiastadion, believes England must learn to use their huge fan base to their advantage.
“A home setting should never be seen as a pressure but rather as a support. People do not come to see a failure, but to see their team win and celebrate together. The players will not often, if ever, have the opportunity to play in front of so many people. Accordingly, they should enjoy it and not think too much.
“England played a great World Cup, even if they ended up without a medal. They really ‘played’ football and you could see their plan in every game.
“They have made a great development as a team in recent years. For me, as a former striker, I especially liked Ellen White’s performance at the World Cup. She is what you imagine when you think about a striker.
“In addition, players like Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze or Jill Scott, players against whom I have played myself on various occasions, bring a lot of experience as well as young up and coming talents like Nikita Parris.”
Whereas nine of the English players involved five years ago may feature on Saturday, the German team has been in transition, disappointingly exiting the last two tournaments at the quarter-final stage.
Sasic herself retired in 2015 at the age of 27 to start a family and only four of that 2014 team will travel to Wembley this time.
Sasic hopes the experience of this weekend’s match will help the younger German players when it comes to the European Championship in 2021.
“There are some interesting talents in the team. Klara Beuhl, for example, has great potential, just like Lena Oberdorf. Unfortunately, Giulia Gwinn, voted the Best Young Player at the World Cup, is out injured for this match. For their development, matches against prime opponents under these spectacular conditions are extremely helpful.”
Younger than four of the current England squad, the 31-year-old Sasic, is now proving herself to be a leader off the pitch as well.
“I work as a special adviser in the DFB EURO GmbH so I’m directly involved in the organisational process for the next two men’s Euros. Our approach is that there is only one football without any differences.
“Accordingly, we want to organise a Euro for everyone. There will be exciting football festivals, whose impact reaches far beyond football. We are challenged to organise a contemporary major event that has positive effects on society in general: social, ecological, sustainable, fair and inclusive.
“Football has the power to inspire everyone. This is a great opportunity for us — but we consider it as an obligation. We are working hard to convert the chances that hosting Euro 2024 opens up — for us in Germany and the whole of Europe.”
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