When Sarina Wiegman saw Lauren James after her red card against Nigeria, the first thing the manager said to her was: “It’s happening.” There was absolutely no chastisement, an attitude offset by the player’s immediate apology and the fact that England had progressed , was relieved.
However, this has made the team’s World Championship a bit more complicated, not least due to the odd arrangement that James might not receive her full penalty until after the quarter-finals. It is a permanent one-game ban pending the FIFA Disciplinary Committee’s timing review, which certainly won’t be until Saturday.
What is certain is that despite all the obvious comparisons, it would never be a David Beckham in 1998 or a Wayne Rooney in 2006. It’s not just because England won on penalties. We’re a long way from 10 heroic Lions, one stupid boy, especially when it comes to women’s football.
One of the most common post-game responses — aside from asking what James was actually doing — was that she should be protected from the pitchforks Rooney and Beckham faced.
That is a good thing. It’s just football and she’s only 21 years old and she’s witnessing a game of this intensity for the first time.
Even a manager as experienced as Wiegman said she had never experienced such an immersive game. So what would it be like for someone so young and faced with such expectations?
“They’re in such an intense and emotional game and in a split second she lost her feelings,” Wiegman said.
That shouldn’t preclude a more constructive discussion of anything that should serve James.
Because it’s only football, but also top-class sport. The team is aiming for the biggest prize in the game. Dealing with that pressure and all that the stage entails is a fundamental part of peak performance; the fulfillment of talents.
Still, it’s just too bad James can’t now make this World Cup his own in the way she threatened. Their campaign was on one of those glorious uptrends, with note for note perfection when it comes to the storyline of a young star taking it to the next level.
She first scored the decisive winner against Denmark and effectively announced herself, before taking her personal highlight show against China to a new level.
Ultimately, however, this was part of the problem, which Nigeria played into and benefited from for a while.
James’ performances in this new role as Number 10 made her the player Randy Waldrum had to reckon with. Nigeria made a point of putting them out of the game. There were always four players around her, isolating James and keeping a good distance between her and other attackers. It was remarkable how often she dropped back to pick up the ball.
Those who know her say it was just one of many clear signs that she was frustrated, which is all the worse given that she’s one of those players who needs to feel like she’s constantly in the game. James has never been one to wait dangerously on the sidelines.
It’s saying a lot that the England bench at least considered substituting them beforehand, but Wiegman felt the game was too close. This tightness only increased James’ frustration, which she then took out on Michelle Alozie.
She will have to deal with that if she becomes one of the best players in the world. For her part, her teammates have already told her that some of the best players of her youth are just as responsible.
James pointed out that she just couldn’t get into the game.
Amid the general sympathy, Wiegman offered a benevolent interpretation of the moment.
“She definitely doesn’t want to hurt anyone. I haven’t seen it again. She doesn’t want to hurt anyone and I think she agrees with that…she’s the sweetest person I know and yes, things like that happen too. You can’t change it anymore It’s a big lesson to learn, but of course she didn’t do it on purpose.”
It may well be true that James didn’t mean to hurt Alozie as it was just a kick and not a ‘stamp’, but it’s hard to say it wasn’t intentional. After initially stumbling upon the Nigerian player, James could easily have avoided stepping on her. Alozie’s amused response – which has itself been the subject of many memes – said so.
However, Wiegman is good at this type of management. The approach will be to sign James.
The hope is that Fifa will not act as forcefully due to the more reserved nature of the contact and that James’ team-mates will give her another reprieve.
They played their part in preventing this from becoming another national moment, even though it shouldn’t have happened anyway.
It was just meant to be a lesson that James will use to get to the next level.