For all the boneheaded decisions and temporary losses of control. For the Tony Romos of the world fumbling the snap and botching what could have been a playoff-game-winning field goal, and all those Chris Webbers calling timeouts they don’t have. For the Draymond Greens who have a championship trophy in sight, until a punch in the groin ruins everything. And the David Beckhams who never even got that far.
James could do it for them. Because every sports villain could use their own a hero.
After her second start in the tournament, which was nothing short of pure soccer genius, James was once again hailed as her country’s “cheat code.” But even in video games, can prodigies do this: Send the first of three assists in the opening four minutes of play? Casually score on a first touch from the top of the box? Then score again during a 6-1 win over China, all while making her dad’s prediction — that she could turn into the Lionel Messi of the women’s game — seem understated?
That’s when the legend of James was at its peak. Still a national favorite and a World Cup darling. By the next match, however, she bottomed out. By stamping the bottom of a Nigerian player with her boot.
The incident — as some British fans have referred to it — was sport at its ugliest. In a flash, James couldn’t keep her head and committed the worst decision of her young career. It could’ve cost her team, which went on to play on with 10 women instead of the full 11. However, England survived Nigeria in a penalty shootout.
James began to make amends, the way modern athletes do, by showing remorse over social media. She apologized to Michelle Alozie, who plays for the Houston Dash and works as a research technician at Texas Children’s Hospital, and promised to learn from her mistake. It was a first step in recovering some good will from the public. It also didn’t hurt that England kept winning.
James’s actions merited a two-game banishment, meaning her country had to play on without her in the quarterfinals and semifinals. So while still riding high after the big win over host country Australia, and inside an Irish pub nestled in the middle of the Sydney central business district, forgiveness flowed freely among four of England’s most ardent supporters. As did the pints of Guinness and glasses of rosé.
Two married couples walked into Scruffy Murphy’s on Friday afternoon, wearing the white and blue jerseys with the three lions over the left breast. They’ve been following around England’s national women’s team for nearly two weeks and witnessed the incident live, but didn’t realize how bad it looked until later. Not her best, they all admitted. And yet, they’re over it. Besides, they’re ready to witness what could be one of those happily-ever-after moments that only sports can offer.
“She had a lot of bad press back at home, didn’t she?” said Sharon Murray, from Suffolk, “but only a day or so.”
“It was the David Beckham scenario all over again,” her husband, Paul, chimed in.
“We’ve seen it all before,” Sharon agreed. “She’ll come in on Sunday and she’ll score the winning goal.”
“That’s what we said. That’s what’s going to happen,” Sarah Bloomfield added.
“She’ll go from villain to hero,” Paul predicted, and then in cheery unison with his wife: “It’s written in the stars!”
Sadly for Beckham, that didn’t happen. In the 1998 World Cup, he was the young English star who grew frustrated, kicked an opponent and drew a red card. Argentina eliminated England and Beckham was pilloried back home. Though Beckham went on to play in two more World Cups, each time fizzling out in the quarterfinals, the red card became one of his defining career moments. Years later, Beckham described the reaction from media and fans as “pretty brutal.”
It doesn’t have to be that way for James. She may not start — the team has carried on just fine without her, and her replacement scored a goal in the semifinal match against Australia — but she could rewrite her narrative. Also, that of soccer in her country. England, mad as it is for football, has not won a World Cup since the men did so in black-and-white footage. A scoring blast or a helpful assist from the only player in the nation’s history, male or female, to account for five or more goals in a World Cup match could go a long way toward breaking a drought that has lasted 57 years.
“Three-one, England,” Bloomfield predicted as the winning score that would cement her country’s first women’s World Cup championship.
A 3-1 win over Spain on Sunday night would be her ideal scenario. If the victory is written as a comeback story, then even better.
“Lauren James will come on,” Bloomfield continued, forecasting her expectations. “It’ll be 2-1, and then she’ll score the [final goal].”
Her second chance comes quickly. For some, there’s a delay: Green, the heartbeat of the Golden State Warriors, had to wait until the next season to lift another trophy. He later blamed his flagrant foul on LeBron James, and suspension, for spoiling the Warriors’ 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals.
For many others who blunder, another shot never comes. So hers would be the redemption for the athletes who never got theirs. For all the athletes who have been remembered for their worst mistakes, Lauren James could be their cheat code.