Just in case England’s giddy fans were expecting their side to stroll to a first major tournament success at Wembley on Sunday, along came Alex Popp to burst their bubble.
After thumping in Germany’s winner in the 76th minute against France on Wednesday night – her second goal of the night – Popp’s expression of ferocious determination as she leapt into the air encapsulated a clear message: do not write off Germany.
Popp has become the figurehead of the German resurgence, a leader of the pack who has been on fire in this tournament. With six goals in five games, she is level with England’s Beth Mead in the race for the Golden Boot, having become the first female German player to score in all three group games at a Euros.
But it is not just her insatiable hunger in front of goal that has propelled Germany forward. Popp is the complete player who is said to have a calming presence within the national side – a quality that is intrinsically linked to the fact that she is not just a professional footballer. She is also a qualified zookeeper.
When the two-time German footballer of the year signed for Wolfsburg a decade ago, women’s football in Germany was still teetering on the cusp of professionalism. Unsure if she could carve out a viable career in the game, Popp decided to undergo a zookeeper apprenticeship as a back-up option in case football didn’t work out. After completing her zoo training in 2015, Popp also found an interest in dog physiotherapy.
She ended up pursuing football, but her love for animals has always been intertwined with her life on the pitch. On her days off, Popp regularly visits Tierpark Essehof Zoo near Wolfsburg. She even popped into London Zoo earlier this month to enjoy some downtime during the Euros. It is a passion which provides the headspace for her to operate on the pitch.
Forget Lionesses: according to Jasmina Schweimler, a freelance sports journalist and German women’s football expert, Popp is “a tiger up front”.
Yet there is another side too. “She can also be the calm one at the back, telling everyone to do this and that – and to breathe,” Schweimler added. “If you look at the squad we have, there’s so many young talents who probably don’t know how to handle setbacks. She brings that calmness to the team.”
Those like 20-year-old Lena Oberdorf – who has played beyond her years at this tournament and hailed Popp as a “beast” after their semi-final victory – have benefitted hugely from her presence.
The irony is that Popp has been busy making up for lost time. Unbelievably, at the age of 31, this is her first Euros, after injuries hampered her chances of selection for the 2013 and 2017 tournaments.
After undergoing surgery at the start of the year for an ongoing cartilage issue in her knee she only fully returned to competitive football in March and faced a race against time to be fit for the Euros. Thankfully, it was third time lucky.
“This tournament is exceeding all her expectations,” says Schweimler. “She just wanted to be part of this team. Making the squad was the main goal, and now she’s basically making history by scoring in five consecutive games. She’s our top scorer, what more can you ask for?”
Popp was not supposed to be the headline act. Her teammate, Lea Schuller, the leading scorer in last season’s Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga last season who has averaged almost a goal a game so far during her international career, was expected to provide the firepower up front. But when Schuller tested positive for Covid after Germany’s opening match, Popp stepped up to lead Germany’s attacking line. Having formerly operated as a defensive midfielder in the national team, she has thrived in her new habitat.
“It’s ridiculous that this is her first European Championship,” says Justin Kraft, a journalist who writes for German sports website, Spox. “She’s able to drop deep into the midfield and play the balls into the right gaps – with her head but also with her feet. Her sense for the right spaces is amazing. She always knows where she has to go. She never stops – she always puts pressure on the opponent and that is so valuable for the German team, because she not only runs blindly, but very smart.”
The irony is that Popp is said to be someone who prefers to slink under the radar. That will be difficult given the fact that she has become Germany’s de-facto goal scoring machine.
“Right now, Popp is definitely a star in Germany,” adds Kraft. “Everyone here is riding the wave of her success.” With her predatory prowess, Popp has fired a warning shot to England.