The mother of the England team is back!
Last Monday, Katie Chapman was included in England’s squad for the summer’s World Cup in Canada – the last installment of her long-awaited international comeback; meaning England will get the much needed benefit of her leadership, experience and complete midfield game for the first time in a big international tournament for six years.
The process began the 6th of March 2015, when England beat Australia 3-0 in the friendly tournament Cyprus Women’s Cup.
An impressive result and a nice boost for the team’s World Cup preparation, but the most important aspect of the match was not the result, but the long-awaited comeback (and 83rd cap) of England legend and midfield lynchpin Katie Chapman, after more than four years away from the national team.
In the words of the England manager Mark Sampson, ”she fitted back in as if she hadn’t been away”. ”She was positionally very sound, as aggressive as ever, good on the ball and a threat in both boxes”.
Another solid 90 minutes followed for Chapman in the last group game, a 1-1 draw with the Netherlands – before a substitutes appearance in the 68th minute in Englands 1-0 win in the final against Canada.
The Cyprus Cup is only a friendly tournament after all, a perfect place for Sampson to continue his work of developing a new set of players who will form the core of the team in the next decade. The experience will be more valuable for players like the attacker Fran Kirby, 21-year old centre back Alex Greenwood, left-back Claire Rafferty, or midfielder Jordan Nobbs, than it will be for Chapman.
By the summer, though, the reality is another one: if England want to reach the last-four in a World Cup for the first time ever, Sampson must make full use of Chapman and her many qualities.
This opinion might not go entirely unchallenged. Because it is certainly not the case that England lack intelligent, technically sound, experienced midfielders. Fara Williams, with an unbelievable 138 caps to her name, and Jill Scott – capped 89 times for her country – are two such players.
But firstly, none of England’s other midfielders have the range of qualities – technical, physical, cerebral and leadership-wise – that Chapman has. Secondly, and most importantly, while Williams and Scott (as well as other younger midfielders, such as Jordan Nobbs) are fine and well-rounded players, they lack Chapman’s special ability to make her teammates better – through her understanding of the game, her ability to always see the the whole picture; and through her attitude and sense of responsibility.
And if we can draw one conclusion from the Cyprus Cup – as well as the start of the WSL season, where she is captaining table-topping Chelsea – it is that she is by no means a diminished force at 32: working tirelessly box-to-box; showing strength and aggression in the challenges; displaying trademark vision and sound decision-making; more often than not finding a fine balance between the solid and the positive in her passing game. And, of course, always taking responsibility for what is happening on the pitch both in attacking and defensive situations, leading her team with experience and by example.
But, as most of you reading this know, Katie Chapman showing off all-round midfield play of the highest standard, and being an important member of the team is nothing new: she has been one of the most consistent female players in the world in the last ten years or so (though not one of the more glamorous ones – in playing style or personality – therefore the lack of star-status); let alone the heart and leader of the England team, together with the recently retired forward Kelly Smith.
The surprising thing is that England, somehow, thought they could do without their talisman, and these kind of performances, for over four years between late 2010 and now.
England’s best ever showing internationally came in the Euros 2009, going all the way to the final, with Katie Chapman – together with Kelly Smith, again – as the team’s key player and stand-out performer.
After her excellent tournament, she accepted an offer to play in the professional league in USA, but soon returned home again due to personal issues. With a turbulent year behind her, Chapman felt she needed to spend more time with her small children, and decided to take some time off from the national team (who were anyway in a less demanding period in between tournaments).
How the FA and England manager Hope Powell reacted to the personal needs of the cornerstone of her team for a decade?
As Chapman explained herself in an interview with BBC in 2013: ”I had a 10-minute conversation with (then England manager Hope Powell) and then three hours later, I got an email to say my central contract had been finished”.
“The time I needed time out, I didn’t feel very supported”, adding, understatedly, that “it was really upsetting”.
Astonishingly, she was kicked out of international football – and almost out of the professional game, as well (such was the weakness of the club scene in Britain at the time) – for being a mother; for asking for a little extra lee-room and flexibility in her schedule, for which her years of world-class service more than warranted.
But after Hope Powell – that indefatigable pioneer, but increasingly unpopular autocrat in the women’s game in Britain – was replaced by Mark Sampson in 2013, Chapman has slowly being reinstated in the national team again: now being picked for the World Cup this summer, six years since she last took part in a major international tournament.
Regardless of Hope Powells questionable sporting leadership, the FA as an institution has to shoulder a lot of the blame for the handling of the issue: on a personal level, in the way they dealt with a very reasonable request from a spotless servant to their cause for ten years (with 82 caps to show for it); but also in terms of the organisations responsibility as a role model and as a supporter of the women’s game, and of equality in sport in general.
When one of your absolute star players (of all time), by chance, also happens to be the only mother in the elite game in the whole country, the potential and symbolism is so obvious, it is startling that an organisation such as FA managed to miss it. Katie Chapman – her inspiring story, her experiences – should be used as an example to all aspiring female soccer players: to show that it in no way has to be a choice between creating a family and having an elite career, you can have both.
To the contrary, if you listen to Chapman, she makes it clear that it is the choices she made that gave her the motivation, mental strength and perspective to keep going and performing at her best into her thirties – whereas physiologically, the forced breaks from football might actually have given her more years at the tail end of her career, providing natural breathers from the wear and tear of the elite game.
But as we have seen, FA instead decided to kick her out of the team – and more or less out of the professional game, as well.
Luckily for England – and to none of their credit – Chapman kept going, and now as a 32-year old veteran, she is back as a central pillar of the England team; a key component in this new-look England team’s push for a first World Cup medal.
Sportswriter for amongst others Howler, Ourgame, TennisView Magazine and Backpage Football – as well as for Swedish soccer website SvenskaFans and Sportbladet (of the countries largest newspaper, Aftonbladet).
Plays, follows and covers a number of sports, with soccer as the undisputed number one; also wherein the biggest personal playing ambitions can be found. Studies journalism and international politics.