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US star Alex Morgan, 'La David Beckham' of women's football, eyes more glory in France

Thomas Samson, AFP | Morgan is a UC Berkeley Political Economy graduate as well as the bestselling author of a football-themed book for middle schoolers.

When the US faces France in the quarterfinals of the Women’s Football World Cup on Friday in Paris, fans of both allegiances will be watching US star forward and one-time Lyon import Alex Morgan, dubbed locally “le David Beckham au féminin”.

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With her opening performance at this tournament -- during which defending champion the United States thumped Thailand 13-0 -- Alex Morgan’s return to France was nothing short of illustrious, tying the FIFA Women’s World Cup single match scoring record with five goals and adding three assists.

The 29-year-old California native, Team USA’s co-captain and the star of the National Women's Soccer League’s Orlando Pride, is already the face of women’s football in the United States.

Morgan has attracted sponsorship deals from Coca-Cola, Nike, McDonald’s, AT&T and many more. She has also appeared on the cover of the video game FIFA 16, the first woman selected for the honour, shorthand for football super-stardom. She has 6.5 million followers on Instagram and 3.5 million of each on Facebook and Twitter. Morgan has even appeared alongside two of her US teammates on The Simpsons, cementing her status as a cultural icon beyond the bounds of football. Last year, she played herself in a comedy feature film called "Alex & Me".

Conscious of her status as a role model for young girls, the UC Berkeley Political Economy graduate is also the bestselling author of a football-themed book series for middle schoolers called Kicks and an ambassador for UNICEF. Morgan is a spokeswoman for the national women's team suing the US federation for pay and working conditions equal to those of the US men’s team. In 2019, she was one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people and a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition model -- life material that makes for an unusual Venn diagram.

Ahead of the US team's bid to defend the world title it won in Canada in 2015, the veteran star said that she would decline President Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House to celebrate if the team won again in France this July.

I don’t stand for a lot of things the current office stands for,” Morgan told Time. “We don’t have to be put in this little box. There’s the narrative that’s been said hundreds of times about any sort of athlete who’s spoken out politically: ‘Stick to sports.’ We’re so much more than that, okay?”

But as Morgan’s technical ability and speed can attest, her celebrity and influence is a direct result of her athletic prowess. The 5’7” power striker is simply a winner: Olympic gold-medallist, world champion, North American champion in two professional leagues as well as in the Champions League. In May, Morgan became only the seventh player to score more than 100 goals for the US national team.

Another trophy in France?

For Morgan, who won a coveted French Cup, French League and Champions League triple with Olympique Lyonnais in 2017, that auspicious June 11 opener against the outmatched Thais in Reims may well prove to be just one sweet step on the way to the World Cup final July 7 on Lyon’s hallowed football ground. But to get there, her Team USA will have to get the better of a clutch of Morgan’s former teammates from that stellar 2016-17 OL squad in Friday’s knockout showdown against the hosts in Paris.

After the Thailand game, the regional daily Ouest-France headlined on the “American who seduced the French”, predicting Morgan would be “one of the French public’s foreign sweethearts” during this World Cup, not least after her six-month loan spell in Lyon two years ago.

Indeed, when Olympique Lyonnais President Jean-Michel Aulas drew Morgan to his storied club – after a conspicuous one-sided courtship via Twitter-- he deemed her “le David Beckham au féminin”. The comparison with the media-genic former England star, no less famed for his impact beyond football than for his crisp free kicks, was apt. Morgan is strong on the pitch, in every sense of the word: on the field, sure (“probably the fastest female player in the world”, Aulas said at the time, but also in pure marketing terms. In Morgan's six months at Lyon, her adoptive club even produced a series of web videos called “Rendez-vous with Alex Morgan”, featuring their American idol getting to know Lyon.

By all accounts, Morgan's time at France's top club, although prolific (12 goals in 16 appearances and three trophies), was a challenge for the player. Dogged by injury, she missed the French Cup final and had to exit the Champions League final early.

With Morgan back in France for the World Cup, France Footballasked her former colleagues at Lyon, coach Gérard Prêcheur and teammate Corine Petit, to reflect back on the American's short spell at OL.

Both noted Morgan’s diminished fitness, arriving at Lyon as she did a just a month after her US club season concluded. Coming into a club like the Olympique Lyonnais, already rife with superstars attuned to the club's own system of play, would be a tricky assignment for anyone, even at full fitness. The New York Times recently characterised Lyon as no less than “the most dominant – and possibly the best – sports team on the planet”, citing comparisons to the Harlem Globetrotters. But Prêcheur and Petit nevertheless raved about Morgan’s talent, work ethic and friendliness as a teammate.

She arrived with the star label. Her arrival was also for everything she represents [beyond football], media-wise,” Petit told France Football of one-time teammate Morgan. “But she integrated well into the group and did the team spirit good. Even though the situation is unusual at Lyon because we’ve all known each other for a long time. She’s a pleasant person, who loves life, who makes the most of things, and who loved France.”

Judging by French media coverage, that feeling is mutual, which makes the hosts’ clash against the top-ranked Americans on Friday all the sweeter for French football fans. With one caveat: Morgan has scored more goals against France than she has against almost anyone else, with six markers in four career games. The players who once lined up alongside Morgan in Lyon, like Wendie Renard and Eugénie Le Sommer, may be among France’s biggest stars. But they will have their work cut out to advance past the quarters against Morgan’s powerhouse United States.

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