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The woman leading German football's new era at Paris 2024

July 18, 2024

Germany enters the women's football tournament at the Paris Olympics with a new look. Sjoeke Nüsken's role as the emerging leader has taken on even greater importance in light of Lena Oberdorf's injury.

Sjoeke Nüsken on the ball while playing for Germany
Sjoeke Nüsken has had a strong first season in England and now heads to the OlympicsImage: Fotostand / Voelker/picture alliance

Stability has recently been in short supply in Germany's women's national team. Through coaching confusion, postmortems of their World Cup group stage exit in 2023 and the international retirements of stalwarts Svenja Huth and Melanie Leupolz, Alexandra Popp has been one of very few constants.

Although the Germany captain, 33, will miss Friday's Euro 2025 qualifier against Iceland because of a minor foot ailment, she is poised to lead a new-look Germany squad hoping to recapture Olympic gold in Paris. The Wolfsburg striker is the lone player left from Germany's gold medal triumph at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

But with so much instability, Popp can't stand alone. With Sara Däbritz also absent through injury, interim head coach Horst Hrubesch, who will give way to Christian Wück after the Olympics, will require new leaders to emerge during the Games.

Chelsea's Sjoeke Nüsken leading Germany's next generation

One of those may well be midfielder Sjoeke Nüsken, a member of the Chelsea squad that won England's Women's Super League.

The 23-year-old made her Germany debut in 2021 but missed out on the squad for the postponed Euros the following year. She made the 2023 World Cup squad but only played a few minutes in a tame group-stage exit.

After that tournament, Nüsken left Eintracht Frankfurt for Chelsea, where her versatility and, more surprisingly, her goalscoring made a real impact.

Chelsea midfielder Sjoeke Nüsken firing a shot at the top of the box during a match in England
Sjoeke Nüsken's scoring ability came to the fore during her first season with ChelseaImage: David Davies/empics/picture alliance

"Nusken has a natural ability to be in the right spaces inside the box," her Chelsea coach Emma Hayes, who has now left to coach the USA, said after a Nüsken hat trick in the season just gone.

"She's a box player, no question. She wants to be there, and the third goal epitomized her desire, her positioning and her quality. I might give her a game in goal as well next week, just to try it out."

Although Hayes never quite followed through on that idea, Nüsken's all-round abilities mark her as a likely leader of the new German guard. Tall, strong, good in the air and with a smart, reliable range of passing, Nüsken has also added goals to her game.

After nine in 47 Bundesliga games, she's already racked up eight in 21 in the Women's Super League and scored a memorable double in the quarterfinal of the Champions League against Ajax.

"I believe the switch to Chelsea, the season, and the many goals she scored obviously has something to do with a player's self-confidence. We also notice that in training," said her Germany teammate Lea Schüller.

She will likely start in midfield in Paris, where she will be without fellow midfield general Lena Oberdorf, who sustained a cruciate and medial collateral ligament injury in the 4-0 win over Austria. But Nüsken doesn't necessarily think what the teamsheet says will be reflected on the pitch.

"I can be used a bit more unpredictably," she told Kicker magazine earlier this year.

"When the opponent sees the lineup, they don't know exactly where I will be used."

Nüsken believes her first season in England has made her a better player. She praised the WSL's ability to sell out larger stadiums regularly and its playing style, which is "a bit faster, wilder, more aggressive" than the German league.

Nüsken's growing in importance for Germany

Hrubesch's side has been drawn in a tricky group in Paris, with World Cup cohosts and semifinalists Australia, four-time gold medalists USA and Zambia, which boasts the world's most expensive player in Racheal Kundananji.

Zambia's Kundananji making history in women's football

But even before that, they face two crucial games in qualifying for next summer's Euros — away in Iceland on July 12 and at home against Austria on July 16.

Even in those games, Hrubesch will likely rely on the player he refers to as "kleine Nüsken" (small Nüsken) — the player thinks her coach is unsure how to pronounce Sjoeke.

"She always made herself small at the beginning, but now I hope that she will make herself even bigger," Hrubesch said recently.

"On the one hand, she can influence games, and on the other hand, she can also make a physical impact. She is actually pretty complete all around, but there is still a lot to be done."

An Olympic medal, following the WSL title she won with Chelsea this year, wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Edited by: Chuck Penfold

This article was originally published on July 10, 2024 and updated on July 18 to reflect the injury suffered by Lena Oberdorf.