Flying High

Flying High

By March 2, 2020 Issue 16

English superstar, Lucy Bronze, on the joy of playing for Lyon, overcoming setbacks, and planning her rise to new heights.

By Orit Gat • Photographs by Roger Neve

 

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The day before Lucy Bronze and I meet, Lyon’s women’s team won 7-0 against the Russian team Ryazan in the Champions League, but Bronze didn’t play. It’s the first time she was rested. “My coaches at Lyon and in England beg me to take more days off,” she says, like a rebellious teenager defying a teacher. Jean-Luc Vasseur, the Olympique Lyonnais Féminin manager, told her: “I don’t want you doing anything. Don’t go running, don’t get on a bike. Sit at home and watch TV with your feet up.”

“Everybody knows,” she says, “that I just want to keep playing.”

I ask what she did with her day off, and the 28-year-old right back for Lyon and England shows me her pastel yellow nail polish. “I got my nails done, had some sushi, then watched the game.” (Lyon qualified for the round of 16 by beating Ryazan, 9-0, away, then 7-0 at home.)

We’re in a hotel lobby behind Lyon’s stadium and training ground. Bronze is wearing black jeans pre-ripped in the knees, sneakers, and a black sweatshirt; her hair’s in a bun, and she’s wearing no makeup. The nail polish feels like an aberration. She describes herself as a tomboy: “I feel like when I was growing up, women’s football had been quite rugged in a way. Only now you see girls do their eyelashes and wear makeup to games.”

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She feels that female players are largely represented in one of two ways—on the pitch, in their kit or sportswear, with a ball as an accessory, or in a gown, wearing heavy makeup, at an awards ceremony—“which is fine,” she says, “but people never see you outside of that, and then you don’t see yourself outside of that as well.”

When I ask about her day-to-day life in Lyon, she says it’s “pretty average.” She realizes that might not mean much to a nonathlete and adds: “Pretty boring. I get up, I drive to training, I eat breakfast with the girls, train, eat lunch with the girls, go home. People always say, ‘What do you do outside of football. What are your favorite hobbies?’ And I wonder, ‘Hobbies? My favorite thing is football.’ I go home, relax, recover, I have massages, I eat good food, because I want to play football the next day!”

She lives alone in the suburbs, a five-minute drive from the stadium. “I’m not really a city girl,” she explains. When she played for Manchester City, she says, “I lived for a year in the center of the city in an apartment shared with one of the girls from the team. It was nice, but I just like having the grass outside, being able to walk about. Traffic always bothers me.”

Lyon, though, has been good for her.

“Because of the stature of Lyon’s women’s team, in the city, women’s sport is normalized,” she says. “They don’t see the men’s team as different from the women’s.

It stems from the owner of the club, who’s like that. He comes to our games as he goes to the men’s games. That’s made a difference to how the club treats us and how the city treats us. If you say, ‘I’m going to a game,’ people ask, ‘Men’s or women’s?’”

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On my way to Groupama Stadium, or the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, I start seeing it everywhere—OL (for Olympique Lyon) graffiti on all the road signs. The stadium, visible from the highway, has a capacity of just over 59,000, but the women’s team often doesn’t play there. Instead, the women play many of their games at Groupama OL Training Center, capacity 1,524.

“Football is changing. Sometimes you get a big crowd and sometimes a small one,” Bronze says. “Five, six, or seven years ago, it was always a small crowd.”

There’s a duality to the way Bronze reflects on the game. Like the yellow nail polish against the black clothing, opposites coexist. She is hopeful about change, yet it can’t come soon enough for her: “I love playing in front of 30,000 to 50,000 fans every week. Unfortunately, we’re not ready for that. We’re just not there yet. It’s about the occasion—the big games bring the crowds and the excitement, and that’s why people love sports. It’s the excitement and the competition. In women’s football, we don’t have as many big games. We don’t have as many top teams and top players because the sport is a lot newer.”

Still, the dominance of the Lyon women is incomparable. In fact, it’s incomparable in sports overall. OL Féminin have won the French top-flight league every year in the past 12, while also winning six Champions League trophies and coming in second three times.

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Bronze’s path to Lyon feels seamless and impossible at once. Like the way she speaks, it is marked by a twofold narrative. There’s one version in which Bronze simply says that she came to Lyon to win the Champions League (she has, in both her seasons at Lyon) and “to play with a team where all the other players are the best in that position,” which improved her game as well. “When I first walked into the dressing room,” Bronze recounts, “I read the players’ names on the lockers and thought, ‘This is amazing.’ Now I think, ‘I’m one of them. I’m one of these special players who have joined Lyon.’” The other story isn’t one of a player who grows from one team to another until she reaches the apex of the game. For Bronze, it was much more of a stop-and-start experience. When we speak, she constantly says things like “it was a bumpy road” and “not that easy.” What she’s hinting at feels personal, sensitive, possibly painful. Considering her current success, it feels almost impossible to understand why Bronze is so hesitant, why her voice weakens when she says things like that, but when I ask about it, Bronze answers honestly and directly, possibly because she recognizes that her story isn’t necessarily rare. What’s unusual about it is where she ended up.

“I was told I wasn’t good enough,” she says. “Except for the current England manager and the coaches when I was very, very young, at every point in between I did not get picked for things.”

At age 17—just before the FA Women’s Super League was founded in 2010—she applied for a program for female players at Loughborough University. It was set up by the Football Association in England to support the women’s national team because there was no other structure backing young female players at the time. “It was perfect for me,” Bronze says. “I wanted to get an education, I wanted to go to university and get a degree. A lot of the other girls didn’t care for education.”

She was turned down.

Instead, she went to the U.S. and played for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She returned to Britain a year later because she was told she wouldn’t get picked to play for England if she stayed so far away. Catch-22.

Bronze’s is not an unusual story—just a generationally specific one. The feeling of managers’ lack of faith in her that still affects the way Bronze speaks is also a marker of a dearth of opportunities. There weren’t many other places to go, and she played by the rules. When she returned from the U.S., Bronze enrolled at Leeds Metropolitan University to study sports science. She was playing for Sunderland, her teenage club, in a nonprofessional league, and for England at the youth levels. She then signed on with Everton, one of the six founding clubs in the Women’s Super League, but struggled with injuries for the next three years. She moved to Liverpool, from there to Manchester City, and then to Lyon at the beginning of the 2017–18 season.

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The happy ending didn’t erase the difficulties. “It’s unfair, really,” she says, “and I think that’s why I want to change things now. Things like that still happen: ‘Oh, we’re picking five or six girls to do this talent thing,’ and I’m like, ‘Wait, what about the rest of them?’ Because I was one of the rest of them. They say they’re picking the best, but I wasn’t seen as that, and look at what I’ve become.”

What she’s become is a player widely acknowledged to be the best female right back in the world. But Bronze did not start in defense. She recounts how she started playing in the midfield, then got pushed up to be a striker when she was a teenager—“purely because I was this size since I was 14,” Bronze says. “I’ve been big, strong, and fast since I was a teenager, so the manager said, ‘You’re going up top.’ ” But she wasn’t a natural and didn’t enjoy it: “I scored loads of goals, but that’s not for me. I’d be in front of goal, and I’d pass it on to somebody else so they can score.”

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At England, Coach Phil Neville is testing out playing Bronze in the midfield, returning her to her teenage role. When we speak, she explains that when commentators and fans criticize Neville’s experiment, she laughs because the midfield is where she started. And then there’s the lighthearted conclusion: “I like being pushed,” Bronze explains. Discomfort is a challenge.

At which point, I ask about the dominance of her club side, because it does seem comfortable.

Last season, of 22 league games, Lyon won 20, drew two. Their goal differential was plus-83. They conceded only six all season. The pressure to win—“Not only do we have to win, but we have to win well,” Bronze says—is palpable. And perhaps it foretells what all of football is becoming. The investment in Lyon puts the team in a different category from most women’s football (though other teams, like PSG and Barcelona, are catching up). If this is the future of the sport, men’s and women’s alike—playing 50 games a season and having to win every one of them, with huge financial stakes—then Lyon may be the blueprint.

“The thing in Lyon is, you don’t lose, you don’t draw, you don’t even let goals in,” Bronze says. “That’s our competition. The football is the best football, to train and play. When this team is at their best, you get so much joy just playing. Sometimes, if I’m not involved in the passage of play and I’m kind of watching, I think, ‘That’s my team, that’s so amazing, I’m so glad I’m on this team and not playing against them.’ When I’m involved, sometimes I’ll have a moment where I look at the player next to me—we’ll give each other a little smile—and I’ll think, ‘Yeah, everything is going our way today. This is how football is meant to be.’”

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Still, even winning isn’t that simple in the women’s game. When Bronze talks about making the World Cup semifinal with England last summer, she saw it as an opportunity to make a difference within the sport: “Winning stuff always gives you a better platform to do that.”

The Lionesses received a lot of media interest in England and beyond around this World Cup, and Bronze, who describes herself as very shy, reluctantly became one of the most visible female players in the world. “I feel more comfortable with media now,” she says, “and I’m one of the bigger players in England. I want to use that to the team’s advantage, to the sport’s advantage. If I’m doing well on a personal level, I can then reflect that back on my team, my country, the sport.” Bronze’s sense of responsibility reflects one of the contradictions of the women’s game: that recognition is wrapped up in representation.

After the World Cup, Bronze won UEFA’s Women’s Player of the Year award. She lost Best FIFA Women’s Player of 2019 prize to U.S. star Megan Rapinoe, who also won the Golden Ball for best player of the World Cup, leaving the Silver Ball to Bronze. Talking about that, Bronze still laments how tight the semifinal between England and the U.S. team was, but the U.S. team, and Rapinoe in particular, proved her point about winning and influence: “Look at the U.S. girls,” she says. “They are fighting in all kinds of corners because that’s the kind of responsibility and the voice they have in their country now. That’s what came with winning.”

lucy_7It’s what is coming to Bronze as well. When she speaks, she is constantly considering herself, then her team, then the game. She argues for the game itself every time she plays it: She’s the player who rose to the occasion. The one who was told she wasn’t good enough and came to take ownership of a position that is increasingly important in the modern sport and make it her own. As she approaches the peak of her career, Bronze is already a model for a player who is growing with the sport and becoming one of its symbols. Her story of struggle, lack of recognition, and prevailing over them is not a Cinderella tale, nor is it a cliché—it’s a reflection of the sport itself, how it was slow to grow and short on opportunities.

As we’re about to part, she says, “Sometimes you want to change things, but where do you even begin?” She’s thinking about going into the English Football Association or the European football administration, after her playing career. It’s a big “after,” which looms even though she’s just reaching her peak.

She wants to play as long as possible:

“I’ve got a huge passion for the game that I don’t always see in all the players I play with. A lot of the girls say things like, ‘When I get to 35, I’m stopping.’ I think, ‘Stopping? It’s not even a job.’”

In women’s football, she believes, you can keep your career going a little longer if you’re professional, maintain your body and care about a long career, “which is definitely what I want. I want to have babies, but I want to play as long as possible.”

Could she do both? She speaks of her respect for athletes who’ve had children while playing, and how amazing it would be to have a child and play in a World Cup—to share that experience. “In women’s football,” she says, “it’s something that’s always in the back of your mind. If you have a baby in your 30s, is that the end of your career? I’d like to think that I’m strong enough to be able to come back. But then, you don’t want to step out of the game—you’ll miss a whole year, really, and when is the right time to miss a year?”

Maybe this, too, is a generational thing. To have paved your own way, to have had to learn what to aspire to because a path has not been delineated for you, gives you a kind of freedom of outlook. “I’ve got all these things to be thinking about,” she says.

For Lucy Bronze, the future is wide open.


This article originally appeared in Issue 16 of Eight by Eight. As an independent magazine it’s your support that enables us to continue bringing you the stories from around the football world. We hope you’ll buy the issue and join us.

 

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