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England at the FIFA Women’s World Cup: Lauren James gives Lionesses cause to believe they can win it all



To outside observers it might seem curious that the reigning European champions would have travelled to Australia and New Zealand with anything other than a crushing weight of expectation placed on their shoulders by the public back home. And yet, even though England arrived at the Women’s World Cup as one of the bookmakers’ favorites there was a sense in the air that it would be quite the struggle to live up to the expectations they had set for themselves in winning last summer’s Euros on home soil.

A tricky group would have been hard enough to navigate at full strength. England were at anything but. Captain Leah Williamson was ruled out with a knee injury. The player who took the armband off her, Millie Bright, only just made it back to fitness in time. Further forward, star playmaker Fran Kirby underwent knee surgery that ruled her out, as did Euro 2022 top scorer Beth Mead, who finished second in voting for last year’s Ballon d’Or. Even for a nation as stacked with talent as England, these were almighty setbacks.

There are still aces in the England pack, few more than Sarina Wiegman, who responded to yet another injury blow when Keira Walsh injured her knee against Denmark by deploying a 3-4-1-2 that contrived to both catch China off guard and deploy so many of her best players in positions where they could display their full repertoire. The highest paid coach in the competition is earning her corn.

It is not just Wiegman’s great acumen that has England drifting towards giddy optimism, however. In Lauren James, the country has its latest breakout star, a burgeoning talent to put the country in mind of Michael Owen in 1998 or Wayne Rooney six years later. Like those two titans of the men’s game, James’ emergence has been long feted and yet she has still contrived to arrive as a bolt from the blue. Already the lofty comparisons are being laid upon her, and not just those in the preceding sentence. Her own father Nigel might be pinching himself to see his daughter capturing England’s attention, but he is not remotely surprised that her talent is shining through.

“Ronaldinho, Messi – those players have that freedom to play. She has that ability,” Nigel told the BBC. “We don’t see too many Diego Maradonas or Ronaldinhos anymore, so to be on the female side, when you see a player like that, you have to think to yourself ‘wow’.”

Certainly the Chinese defense must have felt like they were playing against an opponent in the lineage of those great names. On her way to two goals and a hat trick of assists, James was devastating, the “cheat code” in footballing form that Williamson once described her as. There is no weak foot to show the 21-year-old on to. Get tight to her and she has the technical quality and burst of pace to blow by you. Back off and she will bend the ball into the top corner time and time again. Those are the qualities that Nigel had drilled into her as well as her brother Reece, as the first siblings to represent England in the modern era (brother Joshua was also on the books at Fulham before heading in a different career path). 

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From an early age it was apparent that Lauren had qualities that set her apart from even the best and brightest girls when she joined Arsenal as a 13-year-old playing in their Under-17s team. Even that was not enough of a test for a player who would become the second youngest debutant in the club’s history. That the Gunners could not find a path for her is a matter of much contention, their loss would be Manchester United’s gain before Chelsea united her with Reece in 2021.

With club and country, her coaches have worked hard to temper expectations. James did not even begin the tournament in Wiegman’s starting XI, but by their third group game the system was being designed in a way that put the youngster at its heart, sitting just off a front two of Alessia Russo and Lauren Hemp, both of whom feasted off her eye for a pass. “I felt free,” said James. “Whether I’m on the wing or in the middle, I’m happy to be playing and contributing to goals.”

James may prove to be the gamechanger for England this summer but she does not have to be. Even without Kirby and Mead, there are match-winning forwards aplenty among the Lionesses group. Meanwhile a squad in which eight players are 28 or older can help guide their burgeoning star as the spotlight shines brightly on her. “I can help give her advice,” says Lucy Bronze, whose goals at the 2015 World Cup made her the talk of the nation for a time. “I can help keep her feet on the ground, but she is good at that anyway. She’s someone, like myself, who gets misinterpreted a little bit by other players or the media because she hasn’t always got a smile on her face.

“When she came into her first camp she was already asking me a lot of questions about things that other players didn’t ask. She reminds me so much of myself when I was younger. She is shy, but she believes in herself a lot.”

She is not alone in that regard. Now her country is starting to believe in what England could achieve. Their win over China was in the same vein as the smashing up of Norway that so invigorated last summer, and 8-0 thrashing in the second match of the group stage. Add to that a path to the final that looks all the more favorable after the elimination of Canada and Germany and there is cause for cautious optimism. If James continues in her current vein of form, that caution may well be thrown to the wind.

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