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Millie Bright: New England captain a cautionary tale

February 8, 2023

European champions England enter the World Cup with key players injured. Even the previously unbreakable Bright has suffered. She told DW that players are "not robots" and the growth of the game comes at a price.

Millie Bright applauds during Euro 2022
Millie Bright has been a regular for England and Chelsea and is a leader for bothImage: Sam Mallia/Equalizer Soccer/SPP/IMAGO

They may be entering a World Cup as European champions for the first time, but England also enter as a side shorn of their captain, main attacking threat and primary creator.

The absences of Leah Williamson, Beth Mead and Fran Kirby, as well as the retirements of Jill Scott and Ellen White have also deprived Sarina Wiegman’s side of valuable leadership. In Williamson’s absence, her central defensive partner, Millie Bright, will wear the armband in their opener against Haiti on Saturday and beyond.

But she too has had to endure a rare, but significant period on the sidelines. A knee injury sustained in the Champions League quarterfinal against Lyon in late March saw her miss the end of the WSL (Women’s Super League) season, as her Chelsea side won a fourth consecutive title.

Though injury is never wished for, Bright has said she welcomed the break after a gruelling spell. A  FIFPRO survey ahead of Euro 2022 found that the central defender had played more minutes than any other player at the tournament in the season that preceded it. She played every second of England's campaign and barely misses a minute at the club level when fit. On the face of it, it's a problem many players would love. But there are drawbacks.

Player workload cause for concern

"Our schedules are way more demanding now,” she told DW earlier this year. “We're expected to do tournament after tournament after tournament whilst competing for every trophy when you play in those top end clubs. It's impossible to keep going and we're not robots, our bodies are going to break down," she added, in prophetic fashion. 

"Whether you're male or female, the scheduling has to be able to allow the players to perform at the highest level week in week out, year in year out. Because eventually players are going to burn out and that's when you start getting fatigue and then injuries. Playing on when you're fatigued is not a good thing."

A spate of injuries to high-profile female footballers in a season bookended by continental tournaments and the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, combined with the explosive growth in the women's game, has seen demands on players like Bright skyrocket.

The 29-year-old sees a responsibility to continue to aid that growth from her leadership position but admits that sometimes "we almost want to do too much." The balance between capitalizing on the feelgood factor of England's home tournament win and the upcoming World Cup and making sure it's sustainable can be precarious. 

"I'm very stubborn as a player and as a person. It's hard for me to say I'm not ready, because I would give an arm and a leg for club and country, and I would play every single minute available."

Leading the Lionesses 

After making her comeback in a 0-0 draw with Canada played behind closed doors at England's World Cup training base on the Sunshine Coast in the Australian state of Queensland, Bright will likely be required to play every minute for her country in the World Cup. But Williamson's stature on and off the pitch will also need replacing. England's Niamh Charles told DW she had no doubt her Chelsea teammate could step up.

"I know Millie really well, having played together a lot," she said the day after the Canada game. "I think it's great to have her back and I think her presence on the pitch, her leadership, her experience, it's all invaluable to the team."

Expectations are sky high for England, who also play Denmark and China in Group D. Bright said she thinks breaking their major tournament duck last year will be significant this time around.

"Before [the Euros], looking back in those moments, of course, everyone always says we're here to win. But I think when you look back and you're realistic, we were just competing. For us now though, I think it's that mentality of just being fearless. And knowing that we've got the squad to go all the way."

Bright missed Popp battle

Their opponents in that Wembley final believe they too have such a squad.  Martina Voss-Tecklenburg's side were robbed of Alexandra Popp's services when one of the tournament's best players pulled out after sustaining an injury in the warmup last July. Many could be forgiven for that thinking Bright would have been relieved. Not a bit of it.

Martina Voss-Tecklenburg puts an arm around the shoulder of Alex Popp
Alex Popp's goals took Germany to the Euro 2022 final but she missed out on the gameImage: Colorsport/IMAGO

"I was absolutely gutted," she says. "She's an unbelievable player, she's always been really fiery on the pitch. Never malicious but always a really good competitor when I've played against her in the Champions League. So I was really gutted she was unable to start that game.

"I love that battle, that competitiveness and I was just really looking forward to that challenge on the biggest stage."

She may yet have that chance, with both Germany and England slated to meet in the quarterfinals if both win their groups and first knockout match. First, Bright faces the unfamiliar challenge of regaining full fitness. Others have already missed their chance, a devastating fate that seems likely, as things stand, to become more common.

Edited by: Jonathan Harding