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Leah Williamson was determined to get to the Championships. But when a referee wrongly disqualified Leah’s penalty kick, her dreams came to a screeching halt. This is the story of how one kick, and the powerful woman behind it, transformed England’s national team.
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Leah Williamson stood on the soccer field, staring down the goal. The crowds cheered from the stands, but she couldn’t hear them anymore. There was the goal, the soccer ball, and what it would take to make this penalty shot—nothing else. Her team was depending on her to help win this tournament. Her team—England—and their opponents, Norway, both were trying to qualify for the Women’s Under-19 Championship Finals. They’d been working so hard, running possession drills, sweating through strength training, and dreaming about it all season. But only one team could move on. Leah drew her leg back, then forward, her foot connecting with the ball. It arced through the air, so fast, speeding like a comet.Bam! Gooooooal! She thrust her arms into the air, about to jump for joy. They were going to the championship – …[SFX: whistle!]With the referee’s whistle, everything came to a screeching halt. Leah felt like she froze in midair. What was happening?Suddenly, everyone was talking over each other, trying to make sense of what was going on.
“The ref is saying that a player from our team was encroaching. She’s disallowing the penalty shot!”
“And she’s giving Norway a free kick instead.”
“But…isn’t the penalty supposed to be retaken?”
“That’s what I thought!”
Leah and her team watched as the players on the other team cautiously began to celebrate and get into position for a free kick. Even they didn’t quite believe it. To everyone on the field, it seemed like the ref had made a mistake, but…could that be?
To Leah, it felt like whiplash. To go from feeling so happy—elated!—to so disappointed, in the few seconds it took to blow that whistle.
Leah and the other players filed off the field, dazed and upset. The familiar sights and sounds of the locker room—the metal cubbies, low benches, and cement floors, the patter and steam of the showers—seemed strange and foggy. Was this really happening? Was their win really going to be taken away?
Leah and her teammates weren’t the only ones who thought something had gone wrong. England’s Football Association (besides the United States, most other places in the world call soccer ‘football!’) officially challenged the referee’s call. And the organization in charge of the tournament agreed — the referee had made a mistake.
But that left a big problem. The game was over and Leah hadn’t gotten to retake her penalty kick. It was a bizarre situation—a lot of people said it was one of the strangest in soccer history! Leah couldn’t believe she was in the middle of such a mess. She’d been playing soccer seriously since she was just six years old. She thought she knew the game so well that nothing could surprise her anymore. But it turns out more surprises were in store…
As Leah pieced together what would happen next, her eyes grew wide. She and the other girls on her team cupped their hands around their ears or pretended to clean the wax out—that’s how much they couldn’t believe what they were hearing.
“We have to replay…the final sixty-five seconds of the game—starting with Leah’s penalty kick.”
“And…everything has to be the same as it was on the field today. The same players, standing in the same positions!”
They joked, “What about the birds that were flying overhead right at that moment? What about the wind?”
Leah’s feelings were mixed. She was grateful that the wrongful decision wouldn’t stand and that she’d have another chance to make things right for her team. But, there were other games already scheduled in the tournament. She had no idea when they would reschedule her one decisive kick. She wondered if she could score that point again!
As she left the locker room, Leah caught sight of her blond ponytail in the mirror. When she was six years old, the only girl on a team full of boys, her swinging ponytail made her stand out even more than she already did. Leah reached up to tighten her hairband. You know what else made me stand out? she thought. That I was the team’s star striker.
Just like she did back when she was a kid, she was going to have to trust herself and give it her best shot.
Ever since she’d joined her first soccer team, Leah had felt herself a part of history. She was following in the footsteps of incredible soccer players she admired—she wanted to make them proud by carrying on their legacy. She cared deeply about her teammates and she thought a lot about the younger girls who looked up to her, too. Women’s soccer didn’t always get the respect it deserved, especially in comparison to men’s soccer, and she felt she was in a fight to change that for future generations. And, of course, she just wanted her team to get to the Championships in Israel! That was a lot of pressure to put on one kick.
At the same time, Leah knew it was amazing to have another chance. She felt a little spark of excitement ignite in her belly.
Yep, she told herself. Excited. That’s how I’m going to feel.
Over the next few days, Leah tried to focus all her energy on the other matches going on. She did her best to keep calm, but it was hard not to obsess. To agonize. To panic. There was a lot of responsibility weighing on her. And she wanted to retake that penalty shot already!
It took five days for the officials to reschedule that one kick. But finally, the moment arrived. Leah was back on the field. It was surreal! The same players were there, standing exactly where they’d been standing five days earlier. The stadium was eerily quiet because no one was in the stands this time, although a whole nation of soccer fans was watching to see what would happen. Leah was comforted knowing her mom was there supporting her. She also gathered energy from her teammates. They believed in her. Leah had felt every emotion possible over the past few days, but she’d stuck with her decision. The emotion that won out was excitement. She was here to do what she needed to do. She was doing it not just for herself, but for her team.
Coming through for them—that gave her the strength and confidence to take a deep breath and then burst forward in a running start, launching at the ball, kicking it with power, precision, and determination. The goalie dove to intercept it, but it rocketed past her thick gloves and into the net. GOOOOOAAAAAAL!!!!
Leah clenched her fists and threw her head back, exploding with joy and relief.
She’d done it!
She’d gotten her team the championship!
Afterward, reporters clamored, wanting to know how Leah had won the game. With all eyes on her, how had she focussed her mind and body to make it happen — not once, but TWICE?
Leah insisted it was just one kick of the ball. The team’s win was a group effort and she was just playing her part as best she could.
That humble yet confident attitude is part of what led Leah Williamson, at the age of only twenty-five, to be named Captain of England’s Women’s Soccer Team in 2022, which is a huge honor!
Still, while others see Leah as a great leader, she still sees herself as one part of a great team. Leah feels like she’s surrounded by incredible players who share a pride and passion for this game that is unbeatable. So, whether she’s facing that goal for the first time or the millionth, Leah is thrilled to charge forward and to give it her all.