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Women's Football World Cup: England's Lucy Bronze, the world's best player?

Damien Meyer, AFP | England's Lucy Bronze during a World Cup match against Norway in Le Havre on June 27, 2019.

England defender Lucy Bronze is determined to beat the United States to the Women’s World Cup final in the city where she plays club football, Lyon. In the space of just a few weeks, Bronze has become one of the stars of the tournament.

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“Lucy Bronze is the best player in the world, without a shadow of a doubt – with her athleticism and quality. There’s no player like her in the world,” England coach Phil Neville sung his defender’s praises, touting Bronze for the Ballon d’Or, in the wake of her glittering quarter-final performance against Norway. “I played full back but never to that level,” added Neville, the former Manchester United and Everton player with 59 caps of his own for England, after the victory that propelled England to a semi-final date with defending champions the USA.

The Three Lionesses will meet the powerhouse Americans in Lyon on Tuesday in a match-up that wouldn’t have been out of place as a final. England will need Bronze to maintain her excellent form to book a slot in Sunday’s final. From the start of this competition, the 27-year-old’s star has been rising, but it hit new heights with an exceptional strike against Norway, a long rocket to the back of the net that rates as one of the prettiest goals of the World Cup.

‘The only girl playing with a group of boys’

Bronze had already turned heads at the 2015 World Cup in Canada, where England ultimately fell to tournament runners-up Japan in a 2-1 semi-final. Two years later, the Three Lionesses bowed out of Euro 2017 at the same stage of the competition in a 3-0 loss to The Netherlands.

Bronze, who plays for French legends Olympique Lyonnais at club level, has had it with being on the outside looking in for international finals. She’s been preparing for Tuesday’s match for months. “I said when I signed for Lyon two years ago that the dream was to play in Lyon and at Lyon’s stadium in the World Cup – I’ve had to wait two years for that dream to come true,” she said. “So I’m super excited to be heading to Lyon – home. It’s a stadium I love playing in and it’s a city that I love.” Lyon will also stage the World Cup final on Sunday.

Bronze has come a long way from her coastal hometown of Berwick-upon-Tweed, on the North Sea, a stone’s throw from the Scottish border. It was there that the daughter of a Portuguese father and an English mother took her first steps in football. “Up until I was 12, I was the only girl playing with a group of boys,” she told The Guardian. “I had to beg my mum to let me wear shorts to school so I could play football at lunch.” But for teenagers, mixed teams weren’t possible. Lucy couldn’t play with the boys anymore. “The coach told me I was too good to stop, and begged my mum to go find me a girls’ team, because one day I was going to play for England.”

Plenty of silverware

The young footballer’s parents eventually agreed. Bronze joined the club in Sunderland, a 90-minute journey from her home. Her efforts would pay off. She won a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina, winning a championship with UNC’s Tar Heels, a first for a British player. After returning from the United States, Bronze played a final season with Sunderland before signing first at Everton and then at Liverpool, where she won her two first English championships, before moving to Manchester City. Then, French legends Olympique Lyonnais came calling, recruiting Bronze in 2017. Her trophy cabinet has been filling up ever since. With Lyon, she has won two French championships, a French Cup and the Champions League, twice.

Bronze credits the opportunity at Lyon with improving her game. “I think the player I was two, even four years ago, I’ve always had that desire to win – that competitiveness – the physical edge by going to Lyon changed my game for the better,” she told a packed press conference on Monday. “All those technical superstars in the world now… I studied them. I wanted to stop giving the ball away; I wanted to make my technique better. Definitely, the player I feel I am owes a lot to the last two years at Lyon,” she added.

Her England teammates know how precious Bronze’s experience is to the national side. “It’s fantastic to have her on our team,” England forward Fran Kirby said after the Norway win. “When she gets the ball and she’s driving with it, there’s not many that can stop her.”

Appreciated on and off the pitch, Bronze is known for bringing good cheer to teammates. However, she told the BBC, "You'll probably see me with a smile on my face and joking, but I take the game 100% seriously.”

The Lioness luminary also knows the spotlight makes her a role model. She hopes the Women’s World Cup in France, in drawing more media attention to the event than ever before, will be a watershed. “I want the whole world to respect women’s football after this, and I hope it inspires more girls and women to play and to know they will be respected and treated as an equal.”

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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