After overcoming her injury battle, Alexandra Popp is sure she has proved that she is not merely "making up the numbers" at EURO 2022.
Article top media content
With 118 caps to her name, Germany captain Alexandra Popp has won pretty much everything there is to win: Olympic gold, a FIFA U-20 World Cup, multiple UEFA Women's Champions League and Frauen-Bundesliga titles as well as individual honours. However, the UEFA Women's EURO remains a noticeable gap in the 31-year-old's illustrious career.
Popp was sidelined with serious injuries for both the 2013 and 2017 editions of the competition, with a torn ankle ligament and a meniscus issue respectively. In early 2021, she suffered a potentially career-ending injury when a piece of cartilage broke off inside her knee. Had the tournament not been postponed until 2022, she would have missed the finals for a third consecutive time.
Even so, this latest injury kept her sidelined for nearly 11 months, and she only returned to full fitness in March. Then, with three weeks to go before Germany's first game, came another setback: Popp tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to self-isolate. After such a long journey to return to the pitch, was this really going to keep her sidelined yet again?
It did not. Instead, on 8 July, fans at Brentford Community Stadium were able to witness a long personal ordeal come to an end. After coming off the bench for her long-awaited EURO debut, Popp crowned it by heading in Germany's fourth goal and wrapping up the win against Denmark. A visibly emotional Popp first raised her hands to the sky before dropping to her knees as her team-mates surrounded her.
"It was a really special moment because I had the feeling that many people had already written me off," Popp tells UEFA.com. "I was able to show with my fighting spirit and mentality that I'm still a force to be reckoned with. I'm not just here to make up the numbers."
Originally seen as more of a back-up option to striker Lea Schüller, Popp was called upon to start both the last two group games and the quarter-final against Austria, after her team-mate was ruled out through illness. The goals have kept on coming too: headers against both Spain and Finland before an error by Austria goalkeeper Manuela Zinsberger – forced by Popp herself – gifted the striker her fourth of the tournament.
Popp is now the first player to score in four consecutive games at a single Women's EURO. The only other player to score in four successive finals games is her compatriot Heidi Mohr – albeit across three separate tournaments, from 1989 to 1993. "To have won this battle – and that's the right word for it – against my injuries and to be here now [...] makes me very proud," Popp explains.
Her team-mates are just as grateful to have her by their side, and not just because of the wealth of experience she has amassed at the highest level. "Poppi is a leader, both on and off the pitch," says midfielder Sara Däbritz. "Her mentality and the energy she gives off every day inspires and motivates us all."
Youngster Jule Brand, who will soon be playing alongside Popp at Wolfsburg, listed "the calmness she exudes on the pitch, the mindset, motivation and desire to give everything and to score" as just some of the qualities she admires in the captain, while Lina Magull added: "What matters to us is her strong personality. She really sets an example."
Popp is currently the second-highest scorer in the finals behind England's Beth Mead, but the captain is chasing a more significant goal – namely, guiding Germany to their ninth Women's EURO title.
More importantly, she hasn't lost sight of the bigger picture. "We want to inspire those who are passionate about women's football," she says. "That's what I hope for this tournament: to create something long-lasting, globally and in Germany, so we can continue to maintain the hype."