Pure joy and a sports bra: the photo that encapsulates England Women’s Euros win

No other word will do but joy. The image of 24-year-old Chloe Kelly whirling her shirt above her head after scoring the Lionesses’ tournament-winning goal against Germany, pursued across the Wembley turf by exultant teammates Jill Scott and Lauren Hemp, exudes – and inspires – a sunny burst of delight.

The celebratory shot perfectly captures the story of the England women’s Euro 22 victory – a fiercely united team, an unswerving sense of purpose, a feeling of positivity that transcended even the sparkling successes on the pitch. In a time of division and real economic suffering for many, the Lionesses – with their infectious ear-to-ear grins captured for ever – have brought us all some unalloyed happiness.

But, as the unexpectedly overwhelming response to a tweet I posted revealed, there is more to this image than your average sports photo, even one showing an England senior football team bringing home its first major trophy in 56 years. Kelly, after pausing in near-dread to ensure her goal was allowed, yanked off her top to whiz it around in victory, cheerfully revealing her white sports bra to 87,192 fans in the stadium and millions more watching the match worldwide. “This is a woman’s body – not for sex or show – just for the sheer joy of what she can do and the power and skill she has,” I wrote.

I wasn’t alone. Within moments, the shot was being dubbed “iconic” – the “enduring image” of the women’s final and even the tournament. Young women on Twitter began cheering Kelly – and her bra. “Her sports bra will go down in history for ever,” wrote one fan, while another commented, “Chloe Kelly celebrating her goal in a sports bra is the feminist image of the decade.”

For me and other, ahem, older observers, Kelly’s celebration has resonance that younger fans won’t remember. Back in 1999, the US footballer Brandi Chastain secured her nation its second Women’s World Cup victory with a glorious deciding penalty against China – then celebrated by tearing off her top and plunging to her knees. The image of Chastain in her black sports bra, arms held powerfully aloft, dramatically boosted women’s soccer in America, whose team leads the world. The “99-ers” are warmly remembered still.

Chastain, who tweeted her congratulations to Kelly (“Enjoy the free rounds of pints and dinners for the rest of your life from all of England”), reflected on the moment afterwards, and has previously offered a clue to the appeal of the shirtless image: “There’s something primal about sport that doesn’t exist anywhere else – when you have a moment like scoring a winning goal in the World Cup championship, you are allowed to release this feeling, this emotion, this response that is not elicited anywhere else.” (Of course, it’s not technically allowed – based on the rule against “excessive celebration” of a goal, Kelly was given a yellow card.)

This primal expression of release is summed up in the photo of Kelly and her teammates. Typically, public images of women are contrived, designed by others – often men – for an outsiders’ gaze. Even “natural” representations of women in our infinite variety, such as those co-opted so profitably by the Dove campaign, are commodified, stylised. Here instead is a woman thinking about herself, her sporting skill and her team: looking out, even as she is being looked at. So she’s in her bra? What of it? Try playing without one.

The history of women’s sport has been a tale of encumbrance, both politically and physically. Earlier Chloe Kellys played tennis in long skirts, forcing aside folds of weighty fabric as they lunged for a backhand. Edwardian female rowers endured similar absurd outfits, and until 2015 were told they weren’t strong enough to row the testing Tideway Boat Race course. The long decades of women’s exclusion from professional football in Britain is a shameful story we should recall, to recognise the many powerful shoulders on which the Lionesses stand.

No one can now reverse the England women’s triumph. The Football Association chief executive, Mark Bullingham, said the team had not only “captured the hearts of the nation, but they have also broken down boundaries. They have left a lasting legacy that will positively impact women’s and girls’ football in this country for generations to come.” The boundaries are indeed gone: Kelly’s shirtless picture is about joy and about freedom for women, sporting or not, to see and celebrate the world our way.