Look, we’ve all tried it. The skill itself is not the thing. Anyone who has ever kicked a football at any level has at some stage tried the cheeky backheel with which Alessia Russo foxed the Sweden defence at Bramall Lane on Tuesday night. It is a staple of playground kickabouts, five-a-side games and pre-match warm-ups the world over. And yet there seems to be an unspoken acceptance that as you travel up the echelons, such impertinences are ultimately left behind, for fear of waste and inefficiency, for fear of embarrassment, for fear of how it might look to everyone watching.
Fear is one of the most underrated elements of elite football. It is why wingers try to squeeze in a cross instead of taking on a defender. It is why defenders hoof the ball clear rather than picking a pass through the lines. It is why moments of genuine inspiration are so rare at the top level. The bigger the stakes, the bigger the quantum of failure. Aversion to risk is what makes us human. And so as Russo gathers the ball in the Sweden penalty area with 22 minutes to play in the European Championship semi-final, pretty much the last thing anyone expects her to do is the thing she actually does.
By way of a thought experiment, let’s imagine Russo tries the backheel and it doesn’t come off. It skews off her foot or hits one of the two defenders tailing her, and bounces harmlessly clear. Worse, let’s imagine that Sweden win the ball back, work it up the field, create a chance, score to reduce the deficit to 2-1. Maybe they even go on to win and break England’s hearts. Perhaps Russo, who a few seconds earlier had just missed a golden chance to put England 3-0 up, now becomes the lightning rod for the angst and anger of a grieving nation.
The phonelines of two-bob radio talkshows light up with fury. Russo’s backheel becomes an emblem of the complacency and decadence of this England team, perhaps even of English entitlement and arrogance. This, whether she is conscious of it or not (and of course she is not), is the risk/reward scenario Russo is shouldering when she takes on the shot. If all this seems a little far-fetched in the morning-after glow of a resounding 4-0 triumph, then is it any more far-fetched than what really happened?
Let’s now take a moment to consider Russo. She is 23 years old and has already played for five clubs. She started in the Charlton academy before being taken on by Chelsea, where she played under Mark Parsons, now the coach of the Netherlands. She captained the development side. Aged 17, she made her debut for the first team. With the Emma Hayes era quickly gathering pace, Russo was clearly being groomed for a starring role in one of English football’s great dynasties.
Instead, she left. She dropped down a division to Brighton: a smaller club with a sparser setup but one that could offer her immediate first-team minutes. In the summer of 2017, she moved on again to the Tar Heels of the University of North Carolina. Her highlights reel from her time there is a catalogue of pure filth. There are wicked stepovers and audacious shots from distance; feints and sole rolls; clutch match-winning goals.
Against Wake Forest she closes in on a cross, sells an outrageous dummy to the keeper and finishes into an empty net. Against North Carolina State she gets the ball 40 yards out with her back to goal, sends one defender for a snack and a soft drink, turns away from two more and lashes home from distance.
In her sophomore year, again against Wake Forest, she finds herself one-on-one with the goalkeeper and decides to try a naughty little dink. She plants her standing foot and the goalkeeper cleans it out, a hard knee smashing into a hard shin and breaking it at the base. She doesn’t play again for six months.
The portrait that emerges from these early years is of an exuberant and yet ruthlessly impatient talent: a young woman who knows exactly how good she is, transfixed only by the goal and the quickest way of reaching it. If you’re in her way then she’s going to get rid of you. Nothing personal. If she doesn’t like the new contract Manchester United are offering her, she rejects it, as she did last month.
For all her sublime technique and vision, there is little that is showy or ostentatious about any of this. The skills and tricks, the unsentimental arrivals and departures, the contract stand-offs, are simply the quickest solution to the problem in front of her.
So as she assesses her options on Tuesday, she isn’t thinking about the shot she just missed. She isn’t thinking about what Colin on Twitter is going to say the next morning. She isn’t thinking about the time she tried an impudent little flick and got a broken leg for her trouble. She isn’t thinking this is a European Championship semi-final. There’s a ball, there’s a goal and all she cares about is the shortest route between the two.
It takes a confluence of factors to produce a goal like that. A culture of empowerment and expression, where forces such as external judgment and fear of failure simply do not impinge. A coach who encourages players to live rather than simply exist. And being 2-0 up helps. Most of all, though, it takes a woman of Russo’s uninhibited skill and unshakeable will: a woman on the biggest stage of her life and scared of absolutely nothing.