Alex Popp is set to take the field for Germany after a long injury layoff. She's maintained her presence within the national team, but returning to action was a big step towards her dream of playing in the Women's Euros.
Given the raft of injuries and coronavirus infections that have dogged Germany over the past two years, the stories around the national team often have more to do with who's missing than who's taking the pitch.
And though a handful of players are indeed unavailable for Germany's upcoming 2023 Women's World Cup qualifiers against Portugal and Serbia, the focus is finally on a rousing return instead of the most recent absence: captain Alexandra Popp is back in the Germany fold after nearly a year out injured.
"I am ecstatic to be back, not just as a visitor but officially as a player. I'm incredibly thankful to be back on the pitch," Popp told a press conference this week.
The 31-year-old has faced a grueling stretch after injuring her knee in April 2021. Popp looked set to return early this year after nine months of painful rehab, only to reaggravate her injury during a friendly for her club side, Wolfsburg. In January she once again went under the knife, pushing her total spell off the pitch to just shy of a year.
"By then I couldn't take it anymore. I had been so patient and had dealt with it well, and then with the second operation, I was really over it. And again, I had to put the brakes on my recovery," reflected Popp.
Popp's continued impact on Germany
Despite the many hurdles on her road back to fitness, Germany's Swiss army knife attacker has returned at a pivotal moment. She's already helped fuel a resurgent Wolfsburg's late-season push domestically and in the Champions League, and she's returned to the national team just in time for the upcoming Euros.
Even while ruled out with injury, Popp has proven a key leader for a young Germany team, and will only further cement that with her return.
"She's been with us a couple of times (while injured) and gave us plenty of input. She's remained part of the team leadership, so in that sense, Poppy's never been fully gone," Germany coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg told a press conference when asked by DW about Popps recent impact on the team.
"But it's incredibly important for her to be back. Knock on wood that she, and all our players, can stay healthy."
And while Popp's coaches and teammates credit her important role off the pitch, Germany's youthful squad have clearly also missed her leadership on it in recent matches. According to Germany and Wolfsburg teammate Kathrin Hendrichs, having Popp back is critical — not least because Popp isn't afraid to tell it like it is.
"I think it's really important that it's not all just a big lovefest, but that we have someone that isn't afraid to let their teammates know loud and clear when something's not good enough. And that's one reason I'm really happy she's back. Not just for myself, but for the whole team," said Hendrichs.
Euros in her sights
Popp's stern touch will be a boon to an inexperienced squad, but she's not in the side simply to call the shots.
A dynamic, crafty attacker with the physicality and engine to help run the midfield, she brings both versatility and stability that Germany desperately need given their diminished squad. The fifth-highest scorer in national team history, Popp can help jumpstart an attack that has flagged against some of Europe’s best.
Just where she slots into the lineup against Portugal and Serbia could be an indication of how Voss-Tecklenburg will utilize Popp at the Euros. While the looming qualifiers are a priority for Germany, their captain's true focus has long been on England.
"The main goal during my recovery was always the European Championship. Whenever I faced a setback, that's what I was thinking about to dust myself off and get back to work," said Popp.
The dream of playing in the Euros has long been an elusive one for Popp. She's already faced the heartbreak of missing the tournament through injury twice. Though not yet fully fit, she seems well on her way to appearing in what will be her first European Championship. And if she is back at her best, Popp could prove the difference-maker for a young yet determined Germany.