When Lucy Bronze was 11, a burgeoning football career almost came to an end when she was told she had to stop playing with her local team because she was a girl.
Sixteen years on, she produced a player-of-the-match performance against Norway, scoring a stunning long-range goal as England made it into the semi-finals of the Women’s World Cup. It was a display which drew lavish praise from her manager Phil Neville.
“Lucy Bronze is the best player in the world, without a shadow of a doubt – with her athleticism and quality,” said the Lionesses boss. “There’s no player like her in the world. I played full-back [for Manchester United, Everton and England] but never to that level.”
So just how good is Bronze? And how did a young girl who has described herself as “socially awkward” become a world beater?
‘Practice makes perfect’
“She loves a challenge,” former England international Alex Scott said on BBC One after Bronze was instrumental in England’s dominant quarter-final victory over Norway on Thursday.
Bronze set up Jill Scott for England’s opener after two minutes and six seconds – their fastest goal in a World Cup – before linking up with Nikita Parris in the build-up to Ellen White’s fifth goal of the tournament.
She fired in England’s third in the second half – netting against Norway for the second World Cup in a row.
“It always seems to be against Norway,” Bronze joked afterwards. “I’ve been dreaming of getting to the semi-final in Lyon. All the passion came out in that strike. I was practising a few shots like that this morning. Practice makes perfect.”
Ex-Arsenal captain Scott agreed with Neville: “Lucy announced herself at the last World Cup and she has to deal with people knowing her game. But she showed against Norway why she is the best right-back in the world.
“Tell her ‘you are the best, now you have to be the best player in the world’ and she rises to that.”
Centre-back Millie Bright described her performance as “outstanding”, adding: “She’s a top, top player and fully deserves it,” she added.
Taking France by storm
Bronze won three Women’s Super League titles and an FA Cup with former clubs Liverpool and Manchester City.
But it was a move to Lyon in 2017 which really lifted her career.
The 27-year-old joined the biggest club in women’s football and has gone on to pick up two Champions League trophies, two French league titles and a French Cup.
She trains every day with superstars including Norwegian Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg and French trio Amandine Henry, Eugenie Le Sommer and Wendie Renard.
This season Lyon won a fourth successive European title and Bronze picked up an assist in the final – setting up Hegerberg’s third goal in a 4-1 win over Barcelona.
Bronze will be heading back to Lyon on Tuesday when England play in the World Cup semi-final and she is expected to pick up her 73rd international cap.
She is one of just three players to have started every game for the Lionesses so far in this tournament, alongside Steph Houghton and Jill Scott.
“There are many emotions. I’m heading home, heading to where I live. I’m super excited,” said Bronze. “A prospect of playing one of the biggest teams in the world. We’re going to need to raise our level.
“I’ve never lost a game there. I’m one of the few players who can say that. I love playing there. I adore everything about the stadium and the city. I’m going to feel at home. I’ll unpack my suitcase like I’m at home.”
Ronaldinho, park runs and surgery
The right-back grew up playing football with England team-mate Lucy Staniforth, both trying to imitate Brazilian forward Ronaldinho.
“I can’t do tricks but I absolutely loved trying,” Bronze told BBC Sport before the tournament.
No tricks were needed from Bronze when she sprinted past the full-back to set-up Scott’s opener against Norway.
Bronze added: “I had a little Portugal kit and she had a Brazil kit. We taught ourselves how to do ‘around the worlds’ – that was the first trick that we ever learned. Those were the best times: us growing up together and messing about.”
She had always played with boys. There were three pitches near her house but when she was told she couldn’t play with them any more, she had to find a girls’ team.
The closest one was an hour and a half away and Bronze initially struggled to settle in. “I was socially so awkward,” she said.
Eventually she made an impression but had to come through setbacks. Needing surgery after snapping her knee on the first day of England Under-19s training was one of the toughest moments.
She spent three months doing laps of the park with her dog. A few years later she is playing in the World Cup, winning Champions League trophies and living in France.
“Four years ago I might have been a surprise to everyone else but I wasn’t a surprise to me,” said Bronze. “I knew I had the capabilities to step up and play for England at a World Cup and I’ve done exactly the same thing at this World Cup.
“I’ve still got a lot of things to work on and I’m still striving to be the best player I can be. For me now the pressure is no different, I always want to play my best and it’s the same now as it’s always been for me throughout my career.”