Lionesses’ instantly iconic backheel goal can be catalyst for so much more

Chelsea’s Sam Kerr called it “lit”. Conservative MP Tracey Crouch called it “pure filth” (in a good way). If you’re looking for a standout moment in a breakthrough tournament, Alessia Russo’s backheeled nutmeg goal – the third for England against Sweden on Tuesday night – is not a bad place to start.

Russo, the Lionesses’ supersub, has scored four goals in the women’s European Championship to date. This was of a different order, a fierce shot saved by the Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl had seen the ball apparently squared off by two defenders only for the 23-year-old to slam her heel through it, sending it through two sets of legs and into the net.

Edited with added hip-hop commentary – “I take the ball, shoot, I miss it … sike, I swished it!” – Russo’s impudent strike has been viewed 900,000 times on BBC Sport’s TikTok account. On Twitter, the figure is over 2m. Meanwhile, in more traditional media settings, the BBC report a figure of 9.3m viewers watching the game on BBC One (that goes up by another 2m when you add online streams). This contrasts with a peak audience of 980,000 viewers watching England play India at Twenty20 cricket on BBC Two last weekend.

Russo herself described the goal as being the upshot of a decision to find “the quickest route for me to get this ball in the back of the net”. The Manchester United player, who now has 172,000 Instagram followers, confirmed she doesn’t often score goals in such an unconventional manner and that “I don’t think you’ll see one again”. It was certainly significant, however. “To score in a semi-final and progress to the final is a huge highlight of my career,” she said.

The England squad returned from Sheffield to their base in south-west London on Wednesday with news helicopters tracking their coach. The players now rest up before making preparations for a Wembley final at 5pm on Sunday.

The England coach, Sarina Wiegman, who has shown herself to be as decisive a performer as any of the players on the field in these past few weeks, has said her team is “ready to write history” by becoming the first England women’s team, and the second national side, to win a major tournament. But with “football’s coming home” now echoing once again across the country, she observed the broader significance that victory might achieve.

“We said before the tournament and throughout that we want to inspire the nation, I think that’s what we’re doing and making a difference. The whole country is proud of us and even more girls and boys will want to play football.”

The video of eight-year-old Tess Dolan dancing in the stands of Bramall Lane after the Sweden match, another viral cut-through, seemed to symbolise the moment a lifelong engagement with sport and an active life could begin. “Going through my mind was, when I’m older I want to be a footballer,” she told BBC Breakfast. “I was looking at how they were celebrating and thinking of how I was going to celebrate.”

But 10 years after the Olympics arrived in London, a question of legacy now arises again. Can this public engagement, affection in fact, lead to more people in general and more girls in particular taking up the national game?

BBC pundit Ian Wright said after the semi-final that “if girls are not now allowed to play football in their PE lessons just like the boys are, then what are we doing?” The words of the former England men’s international speak to the fact that, currently, less than half of the country’s secondary schools offer girls the opportunity to play football as part of the curriculum. Research compiled by the FA showed that while only a third of girls aged 5-18 participated in football each week, 91% of those without access through PE did want to play.

“What we’re trying to break here is years of tradition, decades of tradition where football has been on offer for boys and therefore taught by male PE specialists,” says Louise Gear, the FA’s head of development. “There are fewer female PE specialists that are actually trained and competent to teach football. So there’s a confidence and a competence challenge that schools do face. That’s the biggest barrier right now.”

A lack of teaching has consequences for female participation in football more broadly, Gear says. “This isn’t about competing with other sports, this is about equality and girls being able to access football as the boys are,” she says. “What we find more often than not in secondary schools is that sports that are taught in PE and games lessons are the sports that feature in after-school clubs and competitions. The school then sets up representative sides. They then start to compete against other schools in the local area. It’s a domino effect.”

The FA currently runs an in-school training programme for teachers, supported by Barclays, but also has another scheme that starts at a younger age. Shooting Stars, which is run in association with Disney, looks to make primary school girls confident enough to engage with the sport in the playground, a place still consistently dominated by boys.

These changes are systemic and require resources and determination. But the impact of having role models recognisable across the country cannot be underestimated, according to Gear. “It’s absolutely huge”, she says. “Yes, they’re inspiring the whole nation – you can feel it can’t you? – but girls have to see it to believe it. They have to see these role models on the football pitch, playing at the top level, to believe that this a sport for women and girls, not just for boys and men.”