England have not only made sporting history here in Australia. In what is potentially the most significant moment English women’s sport has ever enjoyed, they have the opportunity to leave a legacy for years to come.

Whatever happens in Sunday’s momentous showpiece against opponents Spain in Sydney, the Lionesses will become the first senior England football team to play in a World Cup final since 1966, and the only one ever to do so on foreign soil.

That in itself is a stunning achievement at this most memorable of tournaments. But the impact of this side extends way beyond the record books.

This is a team which continues to attract new fans, confound the sceptics, shift perceptions, and inspire millions with its blend of talent, spirit and humility.

When set against the cruel injuries that ruled out key players such as captain Leah Williamson, Euro 2022 Player of the Tournament Beth Mead and playmaker Fran Kirby, their slow start to the World Cup, and the disruption caused by the suspension of top scorer Lauren James, England’s campaign seems even more remarkable.

Last year, their march to European glory was fuelled by home advantage. This time they have been thousands of miles away, and in the semi-final found themselves in the most intimidating of atmospheres imaginable, taking on inspired co-hosts Australia, buoyed by the will of an entire nation in their national stadium.

But as ever with this team, despite such adversity, England found a way to prevail.

And here at the biggest and most competitive World Cup to date, if they can add the sport’s greatest prize to their European crown it will establish them as not only one of Britain’s greatest teams in any sport, but as the dominant force in the international women’s game - an astounding feat given the much smaller player pool compared with rivals like the United States.

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England’s success owes most to a golden generation of players. The way they have won graciously, consoling opponents, has reinforced the sense that these are role models the country can truly be proud of.

It underlines the already glittering reputation of their coach Sarina Wiegman, who has taken the side to the next level after arriving in 2021 following the disappointment of semi-final exits at the previous two World Cups.

And it is the latest evidence of the impact of investment in the women’s game over the past decade; the FA’s establishment of St George’s Park as a centre of excellence for national teams in 2012, their talent identification programmes that discovered and then developed these stars, and the professionalisation of the Women’s Super League (WSL) in 2018.

For many, the final will feel like the completion of a long journey the sport in England has been on since the FA’s 49-year ban on women playing on league grounds was lifted in 1970.

The Lionesses have already achieved much for the game, and for women’s rights more widely. Their Euros triumph on home soil last year provided a huge boost to the sport in terms of participation and profile, with the number of registered players and WSL attendances and viewing figures both leaping as a result. The team successfully campaigned for girls in England to get equal access to school sport, with the government subsequently committing £600 million in funding.

And yet, for all the progress that England reaching the final represents, for many, there is still a long way to go. Through their advocacy, the Lionesses have highlighted elements of that themselves: before the tournament began, Mary Earps said it was “hurtful” that fans could not buy a replica of her goalkeeper shirt.

In a separate controversy, it emerged that the players were disappointed by the FA’s stance on performance-related bonuses - a dispute yet to be resolved - and part of a wider frustration concerning the governing body’s commercial strategy. In a statement, the squad said their fight was driven by “a strong sense of responsibility to grow the game”.

The Lionesses have unwittingly sparked discussions in other ways too. While the FA have tried to play it down, there is now a debate over the absence of its president Prince William and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Sunday’s final.

There is also scrutiny over the fact Wiegman is paid around a tenth of the salary men’s team boss Gareth Southgate enjoys. The FA have said she would be considered for his job in the future, provoking conversations over the lack of female representation off the pitch in the sport.

Of the 32 nations involved at this World Cup, only 12 had a woman as head coach. While the prize money on offer here in Australia and New Zealand has quadrupled since the last tournament, it is still only a quarter of that on offer for players at the men’s World Cup. The way Fifa president Gianni Infantino said women must “pick the right battles” to “convince us men what we have to do”, seeming to suggest they were responsible for action over equality, has also caused controversy.

Domestically, the review of women’s football by former England international Karen Carney recently highlighted how women and girls remain significantly less active than men and boys, with gender stereotypes and facilities still holding girls back from participating. Carney made clear the need for minimum standards in the professional game, calling for much more investment, the urgent tackling of a lack of diversity, a new dedicated broadcast slot, and the professionalisation of the second tier Championship, among a raft of recommendations.

As London 2012 and other landmark British sporting moments have proved, inspiration can only do so much. Opportunities and investment are the other essential ingredients for legacy to be lasting and real.

Twenty years ago, in the very same stadium in which the Lionesses will walk out on Sunday, England’s men’s rugby union team memorably beat the hosts to win their only World Cup. It was one of English sport’s most cherished moments, enjoyed by many millions back home, turning the players involved into legends. But it did not change sport and society in a way that victory for the Lionesses could.

Many will now be hoping that if England can become world champions, generating greater audiences, new players, more respect and fresh sponsors, the momentum needed to tackle the outstanding issues still facing the game will only accelerate. And that this team can become even more transformative, and bring about even more positive change for future generations of Lionesses, than it already has.

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