England’s women footballers are world beaters, but earn a fraction of the male players’ rewards or fame... so why isn’t Lucy Bronze, their star player, jealous? Here, she explains why she feels sorry for the men
It would be safe to say there aren’t many professional footballers who grew up dreaming of becoming a chartered accountant. Fortunately, Lucy Bronze doesn’t seem to mind being a touch unusual. Numbers are just her thing.
‘It’s probably the wrong way round, I know,’ she laughs, ‘but I just love maths, and doing equations. When I was a kid I was really good at it, so when I was seven I asked my mum what job lets you do maths and pays you for it. She said accountancy, and that was it. I was dead set.’
At that time, football was just a game to her. As a child growing up in Northumberland, Bronze, now 25, would play every day, but football never presented itself as a potential career. Certainly not for a girl.
‘I didn’t dream of joining Man City as a professional one day, or representing England, because I didn’t know that was even possible,’ she says.
Nearly two decades on, England fans should feel thankful it’s football one, tax audits nil. A defender for both Manchester City and the national side, Bronze is now considered one of the finest footballers in the women’s game.
We meet on a radiant Monday at St George’s Park, the FA’s immaculate, 330-acre national football centre in Burton upon Trent, where England teams of all ages and genders prepare for matches.
Earlier in the day, Bronze and 22 other players were named in England’s squad for this summer’s Uefa Euro 2017 tournament in Holland.
Having finished third in 2015’s World Cup, a performance that elevated the women’s game to new heights in this country, the team find themselves among the tournament’s favourites.
The announcement from their young manager, Mark Sampson, came earlier than normal. Many saw it as a statement of confidence. He already knows his best players, so why faff around?
Bronze is a name you need to know. Since winning the first of her 42 caps four years ago, when she was one of the youngest players in the squad at 21, she has made the England right-back position her own, appearing to have no discernible weakness to her game.
She tackles aggressively, heads anything airborne with precision and gusto, marauds up and down the wing with electric pace, and has already scored far more goals than is reasonable to expect of a fullback (four, which is four more than Gary Neville, who won 85 caps in the position, ever managed).
The best women players earn £50,000 a year – Wayne Rooney pockets six times that every week
‘Lucy’s got it all to be the best in her position in the world,’ Sampson tells me. ‘She’s athletic, skilful and does everything to win.’
Aggressive though she may be on the pitch, Bronze describes herself as ‘a bit socially inept’ off it. What she really means is that she’s endearingly bashful. Yet her middle name is Tough. No, really.
She was born Lucia Roberta Tough Bronze, a moniker that follows the Portuguese naming tradition of including the mother’s maiden name (her father, Joaquim, is Portuguese).
‘Mum was Miss Tough, and her sister was a police officer, so she was Sergeant Tough,’ says Bronze. ‘All the women in my family are commanding and headstrong.’
I didn’t dream of joining Man City as a professional one day, or representing England, because I didn’t know that was even possible
Bronze spent her earliest years living on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, a diminutive tidal island off the Northumberland coast with no more than 180 residents, before the family moved to Alnwick when she was seven.
Unlike many of the ‘Lionesses’ (as the England women are known), football didn’t run in her family. Neither parent was a fan, but Bronze began playing with her elder brother, Jorge.
‘I wanted to do everything that he did. I wasn’t as strong as him, but we were so competitive.’
She was soon the only girl playing for Alnwick. Once, when she was 10, her aunt – that’s Sergeant Tough, to you – took her to Newcastle for a club match and before kick-off, an opposition player suggested it might be an easy fixture, what with them playing a girl. Bad move.
‘I crunched him in a tackle, and he went off crying,’ Bronze recalls, with slight relish. ‘My aunt was jumping for joy.’
Two years later, FA rules meant Bronze had to stop playing on mixed teams, but she soon got scouted by Sunderland, at which point both mother and daughter realised football could well be a career option.
‘Mum didn’t know how anything worked, but the scouts remembered me from seeing me play before, so she realised I must be pretty good.’
An England U17s call-up followed, as did a Player of the Match award for Sunderland in the 2009 FA Cup final when she was just 17.
She then won a scholarship to hone her skills for a semester at North Carolina University, after which she returned to England to begin a sports science degree at Leeds Metropolitan.
At that point, she moved to Everton Ladies, before joining Liverpool two years later. Fortunately, in the women’s game, making that switch doesn’t make you quite the pariah it does in the men’s.
Bronze spent much of her time in Merseyside battling injuries. She rolls up her tracksuit bottoms to show me her left leg, which has a deep scar. Doctors had to trim half her menisci (fibrocartilage strips in the knee) after she developed a cyst, putting her out for a year.
The injury to her right knee was arguably worse: she ‘burst it open’ playing in 2009, and was told she might lose her leg.
‘The surgeon told me he’d only ever done the operation twice, and it had worked 50 per cent of the time. My mum was in tears, but it was fine,’ she says, somehow managing to sound cheerful.
Once recovered, Bronze moved to Man City in 2014. Unquestionably, it’s City who have the best and most equal facilities in the Women’s Super League (the women’s football equivalent of the Premier League), sharing a glitzy training base with the men’s side.
Despite being reigning champions, though, City’s women – who include eight of Bronze’s England squad mates – don’t receive the same pay packets as their multimillionaire male counterparts.
When I went to my first FA Cup final, we had to pack bags in Tesco to raise enough money for a bus to London
In the women’s game, the very best players earn around £50,000 a year, with bonuses and sponsorships included. By contrast, Wayne Rooney pockets six times that every week.
‘People talk about it being sexist, but I actually feel sorry for the men sometimes,’ Bronze says. ‘We see the media pressure they come under. We’ve had jobs and studied – they have to give up everything from 12 or 13 if they want to make it.
‘We won’t ever make as much as them,’ she adds, ‘but it’s amazing how much the women’s game has grown. When I went to my first FA Cup final, we had to pack bags in Tesco to raise enough money for a bus to London. Now, I own a house. If you told me that two years ago, I’d have laughed in your face.’
Bronze shares the property with two of her teammates. There’s no bling or flash car, though – she cycles to training. ‘Some of the girls have Range Rovers and Mercedes, but that’d be a waste of money for me. I’d just be posing,’ she says.
She mentions wanting ‘a load of kids’ but first she hopes to emulate her heroes, Serena Williams and Paula Radcliffe. ‘They completely dominated everyone,’ she says. ‘I won’t feel successful if I don’t get a major trophy with England.’
Once that’s all checked off, there’s always accountancy to get back to. ‘I feel like I’m getting rusty,’ she says. ‘I want to go back to school, get my masters, and do the accountancy thing at last. You know, get back to the dream. The real dream, that is, not the football dream.’