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World Cup: Alex Popp's legacy shines for Germany

July 14, 2023

As women's football has boomed, so has the standing of Germany captain Alex Popp. The 32-year-old is an icon among fans and teammates alike after a storied career. The 2023 World Cup could be her international swan song.

Alexandra Popp celebrates a goal
Alex Popp is hoping to recreate her magic touch from Euro 2022 at this year's Women's World CupImage: Alessandra Tarantino/AP/picture alliance

Everything appeared to be lining up for Alex Popp on the eve of the Euro 2022 final in Wembley. After years of injury setbacks, she was finally on Europe's biggest stage in front of 87,000 fans.

With six goals in five games, Popp's blistering form led Germany to another big showdown after a few years in international wilderness.

But after tweaking a muscle during extra shooting practice in her final training session, Popp's dream of glory slipped away once again.

"It was extremely hard to grasp that I probably couldn't play a European Championship final," she told DW. "It took me a really long time to process it. There were a lot of questions — should I have trained at all, should I have taken that one more shot?"

Popp pulled herself out of the starting lineup shortly before kickoff. Even though her aerial prowess would have still caused chaos for England, she sacrificed her dream for the team.

It's one reason why she is so loved among fans and why she commands respect from teammates who describe her as an "icon."

Germany striker Alex Popp celebrates a goal.
Popp's had her fair share of obstacles in a successful careerImage: Eibner/Memmler/picture alliance

Formative years inspired by the Yellow Wall

This journey toward inspirational leader started at a very young age in Germany's Ruhrgebiet, where a football-mad region forged a football-obsessed future Germany captain.

"I felt like I never had any other choice but to play football," said Popp. "I started extremely early, when I was 4. Right from birth, I felt like I was always on a football pitch or in a gym."

Such is life for many in a region where Germany's fiercest derby, between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, captivates national and international audiences.

Popp's hero growing up in the small town of Gevelsberg was Andreas Möller, whom she admired from the Westfalenstadion stands with her mother and brother in Dortmund colors.

"My father, no chance, he's a Schalke fan," said Popp, laughing. "I was so proud the first time I stood in the stadium and saw the Yellow Wall, felt the atmosphere. That was an incredible experience."

Football was automatically entrenched in her soul and soon seeped into her legs as she realized she was pretty good at the game.

First steps into professionalism

At 16, Popp made two big moves that would shape her professional career — the first was enrolling in school at the Gesamtschule Berger Feld, run by none other than Schalke.

Here, alongside her studies, Popp trained as the only girl with talented Schalke youths like Joel Matip, Ralf Fährmann and Max Meyer, which she said was essential to her development.

Alex Popp celebrates with the German Cup in her hand in a Duisburg shirt.
Popp started winning trophies at an early ageImage: Achim Scheidemann/dpa/picture-alliance

"I have to say, it wasn't easy to make it work," she said. "At first the boys were very skeptical and didn't really know how to deal with me. But fairly early on we played five versus two and they saw 'OK, she's got something'. It calmed down quickly after that."

Just as crucially, Popp earned a contract with FCR Duisburg, a German powerhouse at the time. She was now training with World Cup winners such as Inka Grings, Simone Laudehr and Annike Krahn and arrived with the typical swagger and arrogance of a teenager.

"I was very cheeky when I was younger," said Popp with a smile. "I moved to Duisburg and actually thought 'Hey, I'm here now and I'm more or less better than you'. But I was soon shown very quickly that I wasn't."

"She was quite young, in her character too," recalled ex-Duisburg teammate Krahn. "But you could see that she had a certain talent, you saw that quickly on the pitch. And you could tell that she would progress in the years to come."

Popp won the UEFA Cup (now Champions League) and the German Cup in her first season at Duisburg. And in 2010, she made her name on the international stage, winning the U-20 World Cup with Germany after scoring an incredible 10 goals in six games.

"She was already somewhat of a leader at that time. I wouldn't say she was a natural-born leader, but it was beginning to emerge. And she also developed in that direction quickly," said Krahn.

Under the tutelage of Grings, Popp started to master the art of goal scoring and would soon cement her place as Germany's go-to striker.

Wolfsburg years bring unbridled club success

It was in Wolfsburg, however, that Popp truly grew into the dominant striker and leader she is today. In 11 years, she's scored 152 goals and won seven Bundesliga titles, nine German Cups and two Champions League trophies.

In her first season in 2012-13, Wolfsburg won the treble after defeating heavy favorites Lyon in the Champions League final.

Women's World Cup 2023 explained

"Personally I thought Lyon played with a certain arrogance, which just motivated us even more," said Popp. "And we did it in the end. None of us could believe it. And we couldn't believe we'd also won the treble. That was a feeling that can't be described."

At the age of 22, Popp had won it all in club football. But then began a rough run of injuries. An injury aggravated in the Champions League final meant she missed Euro 2013, which Germany won. And she sat out Euro 2017 as well after injuring herself during pre-tournament preparations.

And although she did win Gold at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics with Germany, injuries were threatening to curtail her international career, so much so that at times she contemplated retirement.

"I think you learn something new with every injury," said Krahn. "You get to know your body better, you develop your personality differently, and value your time on the pitch differently."

So when Popp finally got to play in that European Championship in 2022, there was a feeling of redemption in the air.

Euros pain fuels World Cup ambitions

That fateful injury sustained in shooting practice, however, robbed her of her big moment. Germany lost 2-1 in extra time without their inspirational captain, even though she was their biggest fan on the side of the pitch.

"I think, with a bit of reflection, she can be very proud of what she achieved. And also proud of how she dealt with it," said Krahn.

Now, it's time to go again. And there is fire in Popp's belly as she looks to lead Germany back to the top of international football at the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Alex Popp celebrates with three Germany teammates
Popp (second right) is highly respected among her Germany teammatesImage: Nick Potts/AP Photo/picture alliance

"She shows that you should just keep at it, stay on your path and not let anything get you down. She's definitely inspired me a lot," said Kathrin Hendrich. "Poppi is an icon. If you ask anyone in Germany which footballer comes to mind first, then she would be top of the list."

That adulation makes Popp the star attraction whenever Germany trains or plays, but she's purely focused on leading her team back to the top of international football. She's said multiple times in the past weeks that Germany believe they can go all the way.

"I'm really looking forward to the World Cup. And I think we can play a big role in the title race," she said.

Germany face Morocco, Colombia and South Korea in Group H. Topping the group and navigating the round of 16 could line up a potential rematch against England in the quarterfinals.

There's little doubt Popp will have extra motivation to play in that showdown. It will be another chance to make up for lost time, and find redemption.

Edited by: James Thorogood

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor