Alexandra Popp is Germany’s fiercely competitive captain driven by Euros hurt

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<p><figcaption><span>Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images</span></figcaption></p>
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<p>Eight years ago I was playing in the World Cup third-place playoff when we won a penalty in extra time and a Germany player was trying to unsettle the taker, Fara Williams. I felt it necessary to get in the way to protect my teammate by pushing my opponent – only to realise it was Alexandra Popp and that I might have made an error of judgment. The next minute, Eni Aluko had to join me to give us a chance of keeping Popp at arm’s length because it was the type of situation that needed two people to stop such an ultra-competitive person.</p>
<p>Thankfully for us, Fara scored and we took third but it was classic mind games from Popp. We saw this as our chance to finally beat a great rival and finish third, whereas Germany were upset not to reach the final, but Popp was still determined not to lose. It is a sign of who she is: a winner who will do everything she can to succeed. She has incredible technical and tactical ability but what has always stood out to me is her mental strength. Every professional footballer can kick, head and tackle but in elite sport mentality separates the good from the great, and she certainly falls into the latter category.</p>
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<p>Popp has quickly shown her importance to Germany in Australia, scoring twice in their opening victory over Morocco. She will hope to build on that on Sunday against Colombia and potentially secure a place in the knockout stages.</p>
<p>When I played for Chelsea against Wolfsburg in the Champions League, in a period where English clubs were playing catch-up to their German counterparts, her name would be on the team sheet and we would think: “I don’t want to play against Popp today” because of her versatility, strength and fierce competitive nature.</p>
<p>The 32-year-old is playing in her fourth World Cup and provides invaluable tournament knowhow. Being raw and talented is brilliant but the younger players will lean on older teammates to get them through. Popp was an important part of the Germany squad at last year’s European Championship and her absence against England in the final, after being injured in the warm-up, had a negative impact on the side.</p>
<p>Popp and her teammates will be desperate to make amends because they will be driven by hurt. Before the Euros final she was the tournament’s joint top scorer and she missed out on the Golden Boot to Beth Mead because the England player had more assists. I am sure Popp would have backed herself to get one in the final.</p>
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<p>As Germany’s captain she is integral, especially when they have so many young players, and she is certainly someone to look up to. Amassing 129 caps over 13 years proves Popp’s longevity. It is very hard to stay at the top for so long but she has maintained her standards, scoring 64 international goals. She is used to success at club level, winning seven Frauen-Bundesliga titles and the Champions League on three occasions. It is no coincidence that Wolfsburg have been so successful with Popp in the team.</p>
<p>Popp’s cap tally is more impressive considering she has missed two European Championships because of injury. She has always bounced back, even though she has suffered some serious injuries, and that can be linked to her resilient character. It is a sign of her mentality that she can recover and get back to her best.</p>
<p>She comes into this tournament after an injury-free season and that is extremely important for a player. I am sure if you ask everyone at the World Cup about their fitness, the vast majority will be carrying niggles, so it means a lot for someone, especially a player with a history of injuries, that they arrive with momentum and without doubts in their mind.</p>
<p>Against Morocco, Popp provided a focal point in the final third and showed how dangerous she is in the box, getting on the end of crosses to head Germany into a two-goal lead. Popp is flanked by two exciting young wingers, Jule Brand and Klara Bühl, who provide great deliveries and will be very important because if they get it right, Popp will happily oblige where it matters.</p>
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Alexandra Popp rises high to head Germany into the lead against Morocco. Photograph: Scott Barbour/Shutterstock

“Wherever she plays, she is a great leader, a great captain and one of the very best; she is also a team player,” Germany’s manager, Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, said of Popp after the Morocco game. I am not sure she needed to be told but it is always nice to hear these things. Popp will know her importance in the dressing room and there will be an aura around her. As Voss-Tecklenburg says, Popp is the archetypal team player, willing to play in any position. She has played in defence, midfield and as a striker. I am sure if her team needed a goalkeeper, she would be first to volunteer.

Germany are in a good position to qualify from their group but they are in the tougher side of the draw. They could face a last-16 match against Brazil or France, followed by a potential quarter-final against England. It is an incredibly tough route but Popp will be leading the charge and her teammates will be desperate to match her standards. If they do, they could go a long way.

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