Sport

SHOT AT REDEMPTION

From heroine to villain — red-carded England starlet Lauren James can still redeem herself

From heroine to villain — red-carded England starlet Lauren James can still redeem herself
Lauren James of England (centre) in action during the Fifa Women's World Cup 2023 Round of 16 against Nigeria at Brisbane Rectangular Stadium, Australia on 7 August, 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Darren England)

If England navigate past the quarterfinal and semifinal stages, forward Lauren James may continue eye-catching World Cup displays.

Technically astute. Fleet-footed. Strong. Rapid. These are just some words that describe England star Lauren James as a soccer player. In England’s 4-2 penalty win over Nigeria in the round-of-16, the starlet displayed her more petulant side though.

Frustrated by how Nigeria had played better than her and her teammates, and were holding them to a nil-all stalemate, which eventually required penalties, James inexplicably lost the plot.

The 21-year stomped on already floored Nigerian defender Michelle Alozie after the pair had tussled for the ball with just a handful of minutes left until extra time.

Initially, she was fortunate enough to be shown a cautionary yellow. However, a video assistant referee (VAR) review saw the decision overturned and the exciting forward was red carded instead. Her teammates were able to stave off the Nigerians — winning via penalties — in spite of their one-player deficit.

Michelle Alozie is fouled by by England's Lauren James

Nigeria’s defender Michelle Alozie reacts after being fouled by England’s Lauren James. (Photo: Patrick Hamilton / AFP)

The apologetic starlet has since been handed a two-game ban by Fifa. Her dismissal carried an automatic one-match ban. However, world soccer’s governing body felt that punishment was not enough and added one more game to her suspension.

That means England’s top goal scorer at the tournament to date — with three goals from four games – will miss their crucial quarterfinal contest versus Colombia on Saturday, 12 August. She will also miss a potential semifinal and is only slated to be back for the final. If her country makes it that far.  

In spite of Fifa’s heavy punishment, Alozie shared that she holds no ill feelings towards James for the moment of madness.

“We are playing on the world’s stage. This game is one of passion, insurmountable emotions, and moments… All respect for Lauren James,” shared Alozie.

The attacker’s absence will be a huge knock to England’s hopes of repeating what they managed at the 2022 European Championship — where they marched all the way to gold, winning the competition for the first time in history.

A year later, in New Zealand and Australia, Sarina Wiegman’s charges are in pursuit of a maiden World Cup gold medal. The best they have managed before was bronze in 2015.

With traditional powerhouses such as the USA and Germany out of the reckoning, the English are in with a great chance to simultaneously hold the titles of European and world champions.     

Against a tricky and tenacious Columbia, the Europeans will definitely miss James. When she is not petulantly stampeding on opponents she is a genuine threat for the World Cup hopefuls.

So influential has she been so far that of the eight goals that her country has managed Down Under, she has been directly involved in six. Her three goals are complemented by three assists — the joint-most as it stands.

With the likes of Manchester United midfielder Ella Toone, as well as Manchester City forward Chloe Kelly waiting on the wings, the champions of Europe are not bereft of quality. Nevertheless, none can match James for her creative output.    

“That’s the decision that’s made. Of course, that’s not up to me. It’s two games, that’s a fact for us and we respect that punishment. We take it from here and just hope we get through,” said England coach Wiegman.

Lauren James and Lingwei Yao

Lauren James (centre) of England and Lingwei Yao (left) of China in action during the Women’s World Cup 2023 group D match in Adelaide, Australia on 1 August, 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/Matt Turner)

Rising star

Though she has caught people’s attention, for mostly the right reasons at the ongoing World Cup, the 21-year-old has been making waves for years now.

The Londoner, of Grenadian and Dominican descent through her father, and English descent through her mother, is capable of sashaying beyond markers with ease.

She began her career with Chelsea, alongside her older brother and Chelsea captain Reece James. She then departed for a stint with neighbours Arsenal. She was just 16 years old when she debuted for the Gunners in 2017.  

She would leave London to be part of Manchester United’s first women’s team a year later. She spent three years with the Red Devils before she completed a full turn-around and she found herself back at Chelsea once more in 2021.

Since returning, she has firmly established herself as one of Chelsea’s most important players. She helped them win back-to-back league and FA Cup titles in 2022 and 2023. 

At the World Cup, she maintained that form and confidence. Evidenced by her scintillating curled goal as England beat Denmark 1-0 in the group stage.

As her stock continues to rise, she says she wants to carve her own legacy in the game. Speaking before the World Cup began, James said she doesn’t want to be known as just Reece’s sister.

“I want to carve out [my own name] and be known as ‘this is Lauren James.’’’

The incident with Alozie may have dimmed her World Cup shine somewhat. However, if her teammates can carry on hoisting the torch until the final, it will be the perfect platform for her redemption. DM

England and Colombia play their quarterfinal on Saturday, 12 August. Kick-off is at 12:30pm SA time.

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