England’s Lauren James can pick up where she left off in World Cup final

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For the first time in six decades, England is back in a World Cup final. 

Thanks to its talented, determined, easy-to-root-for women’s team, the country that invented the sport has the chance to claim soccer’s ultimate prize for just the second time ever and the first since England’s men did it on home soil all the way back in 1966.

The Lionesses run to Sunday’s decider against Spain (coverage begins at 5 a.m. ET with kickoff at 6 a.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) at the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand has captivated the nation. 

Everyone is on the bandwagon now, and nobody is happier than Lauren James.

With a spectacular game winning goal against Denmark followed by two more strikes versus China, James, the 21-year-old England playmaker, was one of the breakout stars of the tournament’s group stage. She seemed poised to dominate the knockout rounds, too. A red card in the round of 16 changed all that; James was sent off for inexplicably stomping on prone Nigerian fullback Michelle Alozie.

England’s Lauren James receives a red card for violent conduct

England's Lauren James receives a red card for violent conduct

As our Martin Rogers wrote at the time, the infraction was instantly reminiscent of similar moments of madness that torpedoed England’s men at multiple World Cups past, with one notable difference: while the Three Lions lost on penalties after David Beckham saw red against Argentina in 1998 and after Wayne Rooney was dismissed for stomping on Portugal’s Ricardo Carvalho again eight years later, the Lionesses won the tiebreaker and advanced. 

James still got suspended for two games, though — a major blow to the title hopes of a squad already decimated by injury. For the Lionesses to reach Sunday’s championship match at Stadium Australia in Sydney, they needed to do it without perhaps the most gifted attacker on the squad.  

England’s fans have a well-earned reputation for eating their young. Both Beckham and Rooney were subjected to horrific abuse by their own supporters following their respective misdeeds — and that was in an era before social media.  

Despite quickly apologizing to and being forgiven by Alozie — and despite the fact England won the match – James braced herself in anticipation of a similar deluge, disabling comments on her Instagram feed.   

It didn’t matter that she’d been backed publicly by manager Sarina Wiegman, her teammates, and England’s FA, which in a statement said that “Lauren is really sorry for her actions which led to the red card and is full of remorse. It is wholly out of character for her.” 

None of it would’ve been nearly enough to protect James had England gone on to lose its quarterfinal to Colombia or to the Matildas in the semis without her. James would’ve spent the next several years, maybe longer, being reminded of the worst moment of her professional life at every turn. Careers have been ruined over less.  

That all went away the second England reached the final. Now James can focus only on having the game of her life Sunday, and not just because the trophy is at stake. After being bailed out by her team, she knows she has a debt of gratitude to repay against Spain.

Assuming she plays, that is.  

With James out, Wiegman turned to 23-year-old Ella Toone for the win-or-go-home games against Colombia and Australia. Toone played suberbly in both, scoring a spectacular opener in the 3-1 victory over the latter. The coach could decide not to alter a winning formula, or determine that Toone has done nothing to lose her place. 

There’s no doubt it would be unfair for Toone to have to sit out the biggest game there is in favor or a player whose self-inflicted error easily could have cost her team a title shot. Several British pundits have said as much in recent days.  

“She can’t put James straight back into the team as far as I can see,” onetime England striker Chris Sutton said.  

“If I were England’s manager, I would start Toone and make clear to James that she has a huge opportunity from the bench to make an impact on the game,” said former Lionesses’ defender Casey Stoney, a veteran of three World Cup rosters who now coaches the NWSL’s San Diego Wave.

James will be thanking her lucky stars either way. 

Whether included in Wiegman’s lineup or deployed as a super sub, she’s flush with house money. England has survived and advanced twice without her. If they don’t win Sunday, James’ red card against Nigeria and her subsequent ban won’t be the reason why. The haters will have to find a different scapegoat. 

And if England does prevail? James could easily be the hero. As her early performances at this World Cup showed, she’s a game-changer no matter the role.  

She now has a second chance to prove it on the biggest stage of all.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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