The secret of the goal that announced Alessia Russo to the world, the out-of-nowhere backheel that stunned Sweden during England’s run to the European Championship last summer, was that Russo wasn’t sure it would happen. That the ball went in the net was, in her words, “maybe luck, maybe instinct.”
Last week, the goal she scored to open her account at her first World Cup was something else altogether: a silky first touch, an effortless shift of her weight, a confident finish into the lower left corner. That goal was a striker’s finish, the first of what Russo, and England, hopes will be many more.
“I play my best football when I’m feeling good and happy and confident,” the 24-year-old Russo said.
That on-pitch confidence, though, has not always been evident in Russo’s performances in the gap between that goal and her latest one.
In fact, her goal in England’s 6-1 hammering of China ended a six-month international goal drought for Russo. In the interim, she had found herself battling for a place as the team’s starting striker with Rachel Daly. In an interview in England before the World Cup, Russo admitted that it had been a lesson in patience but also a learning experience in what it takes to keep a place on one of the world’s best teams.
“All I can do is focus on myself, my game, what I can do to get better and how ready I can be going into the summer,” she said. “And that’s all I can control.”
Could the knockout stages, then, be liftoff for Russo? Despite the injuries to several key players that marred preparations for England and continued in Australia, the European champions have been building momentum ahead of their meeting with Nigeria on Monday in the round of 16. Midfielder Lauren James has emerged as a star in midfield, and Russo is poised to benefit.
“She just really has a feeling for scoring goals,” England’s coach, Sarina Wiegman, said. “She is a good header. She has a good shot. She just is a real No. 9.”
The statistics speak for themselves. Russo has scored 12 goals in 25 England appearances, among them an 11-minute hat trick — the fastest ever scored by an England women’s player.
Such is her status that, earlier this year, she was the subject of two world-record transfer bids. Her club at the time, Manchester United, rejected both, but she has since joined Arsenal, the suitor that made both offers, on a free transfer after her United contract expired.
Her rise, off the back of her performances in England’s triumph at the European Championship last year, has come at a historic time for the women’s game. Record viewing figures. Sold-out stadiums. And, as Russo knows all too well, competitive transfer windows.
“It’s what we’ve wanted for the women’s game, for years and years,” she said. She wants the clamor to continue: “I hope to still see it climbing the way it is now. The stages it deserves. The crowds it deserves, which we’re all getting now.”
Russo is still one of the younger players on her squad. But she is different in that she is used to being fully professional, something that not all of her teammates have experienced. England’s right back Lucy Bronze, for example, once worked at Domino’s Pizza as she made her way as a pro and an international.
“There’s some really, really humbling stories that you hear of older players that have had to work crazy hours and then go to training and then travel to games,” Russo said. “And it’s just like, ‘How was that a thing?’”
For Russo, soccer was always an easy choice. She grew up playing with her two older brothers in the yard and, at times, in the house, “until Mom would tell us off for kicking the ball inside.”
She began her youth career at Charlton Athletic and later joined Chelsea before moving to the United States to play for the University of North Carolina. She only returned to England in 2020, after signing for Manchester United, the club she grew up supporting.
Despite her path through professional teams and elite programs, though, Russo admitted to grappling with her newfound fame after the Euros. Before her team became European champions, she had a “pretty normal life,” she said. And now? “That’s changed.”
“Your life,” she said, “completely changes after one tournament.” And stardom, she found — part of the same growth that has raised the value of players and the profile of the game — has proved difficult at times.
“The attention that comes with women’s football now is hard to manage as a player,” she said.
So after a quiet start to the World Cup, Russo has made her entrance. Next up: a tough encounter during England’s round-of-16 match against Nigeria, which beat the home team, Australia, and helped eliminate the Olympic champion, Canada, in the group stage.
This spring, Russo said she was confident that the goals, and the wins, would eventually come. Now both are here, and England is thinking bigger.
“You go into every single tournament wanting and expecting to win,” she said. The European Championship, she said, lit a “fire to want to go and win more.” Lifting the World Cup would be the ultimate next step.
“I just want to win,” she said, “as much as I can.”
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