It is a question Lucy Bronze would prefer not to answer, but it is one that will continue to be asked as we move into a new World Cup cycle.
How much longer can England’s talisman go on for? How many more games can her troublesome knees take? How many more caps will she win? At the age of 31, can she really make it all the way through another four years and have one last crack at winning the one trophy that has evaded her throughout her long, glittering and distinguished career?
Bronze only needs a World Cup to “complete” football but having come so close to lifting the ultimate prize in Sydney last month, she returned to international action against Scotland with a question mark trailing behind her.
It was fitting that it was one of game biggest female stars who scored England’s first goal at the Stadium of Light, making the late diagonal run into the penalty box that had so nearly led to a goal in those tension filled evenings as the Lionesses clawed their way to a first World Cup final.
Back in her native North East, back at Sunderland, the club where she made her name, the timing of her run was as impeccable as her tendency to write her own scripts.
The roar that followed the announcement of her name as the night’s opening goal scorer was the sound of a woman being welcomed home by a crowd who knew she was one of their own.
It was a lovely moment and Bronze’s celebration, normally so reserved and simple, betrayed her own emotion. The ice queen melted; this was a release of emotion she had probably buried ever since that narrow defeat to Spain.
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) September 22, 2023
There were few more heart splintering images in the aftermath of England’s 1-0 World Cup final defeat than Bronze, on her knees, her head in her hands as her whole body shook with the agony of defeat. In that moment, as the energy was sucked from her body and the pain of what she had failed to do cut like a dagger, Bronze looked as vulnerable as we have seen her. It was raw and unfiltered - an image that endures a month later, not just because of what it meant then, but also what it signals for the future too.
We knew, just as she did, that it might have been her last chance to win a World Cup. That, in another four years, she would be 35 and the body may no longer be able to do what her mind has routinely demanded from it.
Bronze is England’s most experienced player, a veteran of three World Cup campaigns. Her presence on the right side of defence has been one of the most reassuring sights in English football ever since she made the position her own back in 2015.
But it is inevitable that, at some point, England will have to face up to the fact that Bronze cannot go on forever. There will come a time when she is no longer an automatic pick, a moment when she will be challenged and eventually deposed as the best right-sided defender in the country.
Just as the dominant Lioness in the Pride has to give way to the new generation, footballers also have to accept the inevitability of their decline.
Bronze was one of England’s best players in Australia. Another excellent tournament to go with all the others, but she was not at her best in the final and it was her mistake, giving the ball away in the middle of the pitch, leaving the right flank open for Spain to expose and score, that cost England the game. Such are the cruelties of sport.
Bronze has 114 caps for England, putting her above record goalscorer Ellen White and into the top ten all time Lionesses list. She is still some way short of Fara Williams, who holds the caps record of 172, but has made it clear there are no plans to retire.
England does not have anyone nearly as good as her waiting in the wings. It is safe to assume Bronze will still be first choice right back for the foreseeable future. Probably up to and including the European Championships in 2025. But what comes after that? Time and age are the enemy, as they are for all of us in the end.
Bronze has been a magnificent player. For a time, she was one of the best in the world and certainly the best defender. She reinvented what female players could do as a marauding full back. She remains a very good one, but she can no longer play in the same rampaging style.
The Barcelona star has already had to adapt her game, to modify her approach. She remains indispensable to manager Sarina Wiegman and there is no chance of that changing at the moment unless Bronze herself decides she has had enough.
Against Scotland, Bronze was a class act. Not just her goal, but the overlapping runs, the delivery from out wide, the physicality in defence. There was no sign of a World Cup hangover, but she is slowing ever so slightly and will continue to do so.
The speed from a standing start is no longer what it was, there are younger and faster wingers out there and Aston Villa’s Kirsty Hanson was certainly not scared to run at her and whip crosses in. Wingers were not always so audacious and brave when Bronze was marking them.
As much as it is painful to contemplate, Bronze will have to be replaced at some point, it is a case of when not if. She has moved into the stage of her career when the questions will not stop until she gives her final answer. Let’s enjoy her while we still can.