Ellen White’s long journey to Euro 2022 final must be watershed moment for girls football, whether England win or lose

‘What do I need to be a Lioness?’ Tess, an eight-year-old football fan and Scotton Scorchers midfielder, asked Ellen White this week.

After footage of the North Yorkshire schoolgirl’s care-free dancing following the Lionesses’ semi-final victory turned her into an overnight sensation, Tess was given the opportunity to ask England’s all-time top goal-scorer the secret to her success.

“I think just lots of heart, just loving football, working hard,” White answered. “But just be yourself, I think that’s the best thing.”

Across her 12-year career as an England player, the striker has practised what she preaches and her passion has untold value to watching fans.

Disbelief: The emotion pours out of Ellen White of England after the semi-final win over Sweden. (Picture Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

While the Bramall Lane crowd was partying at the final whistle, the cameras trained on White revealed a player contorted by emotion, staggering across the turf with her face buried in her shirt, smearing tears with her hands.

With her disbelief plain for all to see, White’s tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve tells you everything of the magnitude of the moment.

On paper, the threshold at which the England team now stands seems almost too good to be true.

The Lionesses have only conceded one goal this tournament, and have never lost a game under manager Sarina Wiegman, mastermind of the Euro 2017 champions, the Netherlands. On Sunday, her players will fight for a major title in front of a sell-out Wembley crowd and millions watching on television across the country.

England's striker Ellen White (R) celebrates with England's defender Rachel Daly after winning at the end of the UEFA Women's Euro 2022 semi-final football match against Sweden (Picture: Getty Images)

On a huge stage, the likes of White, Beth Mead and Mary Earps offer aspiring football players an experience they themselves never had. This month, England fans have witnessed brilliant female footballers not only excelling technically and as a cohesive, steamrolling unit, but also all the euphoria and camaraderie that goes with participating in a thriving football team.

Euro 2022 has been as much an advert for the joy of sport as the beauty of football, and it is unsurprising that young fans in the stands have adopted the same wide-eyed wonder that characterises White’s trademark goal celebration.

Though she is poised on the brink of matching Wayne Rooney’s record 53 goals for England, the former Leeds United forward has not been in shooting form this tournament, notching just two of the Lionesses’ whopping 20 goals.

But while her team-mates have chipped in with a glut of goals, White has quietly carried on doing what she does best – playing with feeling. White’s infectious performances show football is a mode of expression – and it’s been taken up by little Tess dancing in the stands and hundreds more like her, as well as White’s talented young understudy, Alessia Russo, whose clever turn and cheeky backheel have added bags of personality to the side.

Ellen White of England in action during the UEFA Women's Euro England 2022 group A match between England and Norway at Brighton & Hove Community Stadium on July 11, 2022 in Brighton, England. (Picture: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

It would be hard for White to imagine a more perfect moment – scoring a winner at Wembley, record-breaking or otherwise – to inspire millions and earn a closure on women’s football’s long journey from low crowds and pay-to-play, toward the sit-up-and-pay-attention buzz which has swept the nation this month. But the important work of the home tournament has already been done and is not so attached to the fortunes of its rampant hosts. A defeat to Germany can’t take the light out of young watching eyes – if nothing else, it will motivate girls like Tess to play more football and take England one step further.

What young fans with the same question as Tess – ‘what do you need to be a Lioness?’ – won’t know is the plight of the Hope Powells and the Kelly Smiths of the sport, nor will they realise that the buzz alone will not sustain the next generation of England players.

With just 63 per cent of schools currently giving genders an equal offering of football, things need to change so that the pathways for girls who want to play can sustain the enthusiasm generated by Euro 2022. This has to be the legacy of this summer’s watershed moment – what happens next must do justice to White’s passion.