James was shown a red card in the 87th minute after a moment of madness late in the game – she stepped on Michelle Alozie’s back – but 10-player England held on in extra-time to take the match to a shootout.
Despite Georgia Stanway missing the first penalty, England’s remaining spot-kicks were close to perfect with Chloe Kelly, the woman for the Lionesses’ big moments, hitting her effort into the roof of the net to secure a 4-2 win on penalties.
“We’ve been practicing [penalties] a lot actually, and yeah, it’s working,” Kelly, who scored England’s winning goal in the Euro 2022 final, told the BBC after the match. “For me, it’s I’m going to score and that’s how I look at it and once I win that mental battle, we’re good.”
Nigeria was the better team and had chances to secure what would have been a surprise win over the European champion, but in extra-time especially the Lionesses battled. As Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” blasted out inside the stadium at halftime of extra-time, England was doing just that.
“Anything that is thrown at us, we show what we’re capable of,” Kelly continued.
“We dig deep as a group and we believe in our ability, and first and foremost, we believe in what we’re getting told to do.”
England was already on the back foot before James’ red card and Nigeria will see this as a huge missed opportunity to win a World Cup knockout game for the first time. Penalty misses by Michelle Alozie and Desire Oparanozie ultimately proved costly.
The Super Falcons came the closest to scoring – twice hitting the crossbar before the game went to extra-time.
English-born Ashleigh Plumptre has starred for Nigeria throughout the tournament and rattled the bar with a thunderous strike in the first half.
“Everybody is very disappointed because we put on a really good performance and we pushed England to the limit. We had really good chances,” Plumptre told CNN. “When all the emotions have settled down, we’ll be proud of ourselves.
“We’ve set the bar for ourselves and this should be the minimum for us now.”
While England fans in Brisbane were confident of a comfortable victory before the game, nerves quickly began to take over as the game neared a conclusion.
“I didn’t know if we were going to make it. I don’t think England played their best. I did not expect [the win],” Lionesses fan Tash Travers, who has lived in Australia for the past five years, told CNN.
But as Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” – the unofficial anthem for England’s men’s and women’s soccer teams – played inside Brisbane Stadium, fans of the Lionesses filtered out of the arena knowing their World Cup journey will continue.
England will next meet either Jamaica or Colombia. They play their last-16 match on Tuesday.