“I wish no-one knew my name.”
Strange sentiments from any top-level footballer, and yet Laura Bassett meant every word. At the time, she firmly believed that her name would only ever be associated with one thing, and one cursed moment.
“It will always be, ‘In 2015, England crashed out because of Laura Bassett’s own goal’, so I have to take responsibility for that,” she said. “It will always be me and my name.”
Yet even in the immediate aftermath of the agonising, sliced clearance that sent Japan through to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ final at England’s expense, Mark Sampson had an entirely different take on Bassett’s situation. “When she comes home,” the Lionesses coach vowed, “she’ll be a hero.”
Of the two opinions, Bassett’s appeared easier to swallow. Here was an erstwhile low-profile defender, her 32nd birthday fast approaching, who - lucklessly or otherwise - had cost England their first shot at a Women’s World Cup final. Sampson’s words, like the embraces of her team-mates and outpouring of support on social media, seemed to be rooted in their desire to console rather than any genuine belief in the prospect of redemption.
This same coach, those same colleagues, Bassett could hardly bear to look in the eye. “I wanted to get out of there,” she admitted. “I wanted to cry and be on my own and bury my head. And the hardest thing was looking at other people here who had committed themselves to this team. For the first time in a long time, everyone had believed England could do it.”
Everyone was so supportive and I’ll never forget that. The only way I could repay them was with a performance.
Sampson, though, proved that there was more than mere sentiment to his prediction. He knew that, while England could no longer do ‘it’ – win the World Cup – they could still do something special. The Lionesses had, after all, never claimed a medal of any sort at a World Cup before, and to do so in Canada they would need to beat Germany. The same Germany they hadn’t beaten in 31 years.
The question was: would Bassett – by her own admission, “heartbroken, devastated, just uncontrollable” – be in a fit mental state to face the nation’s nemesis? A meeting was swiftly arranged to discuss just this, with Sampson the first to lay his cards on the table. “Mark made it clear he wanted me to play,” Bassett recalled. “As a player I wanted to play, but I’m only human. I thought, ‘What if it happens again? What if I let my team-mates down, let my country down?’ But, as a player, to hear the manager say he wanted me to play meant a lot to me and allowed me to grow in confidence.”
England, of course, went on to not only beat but keep a clean sheet against a team that had won 18 and drawn two of the sides’ previous 20 meetings. Bassett, as she had been throughout the tournament, was outstanding, producing a performance all the more remarkable for the ordeal she had so recently endured, and the scrutiny she was under. The result was that she returned home, just as Sampson had predicted, to a hero’s welcome. Better still, that reception came not from a sympathetic public, but from a nation genuinely inspired.
“We were getting tweets saying, ‘My daughter has gone to her first training session’. I got messages from some girls who had given up the game and had been inspired to go back,” Bassett explained. “All those little stories meant so much to us as players because we never really had that influence before. If the tournament kick-started something then maybe things happen for a reason and it was meant to be. [Team-mate] Kaz Carney said, ‘This has happened to you because you are strong enough to deal with it’. I don’t know if it’s true but it’s a fantastic compliment.
“Everyone was so supportive and I’ll never forget that. The only way I could repay them was with a performance [against Germany]. We’d have loved to be in the final. But to go away with bronze medals around our necks and to prove that we are a nation to be reckoned with, we’ve changed even more opinions of this England side.”
Sampson’s team had proved themselves both formidable and admirable. So too had Bassett. If her name is to be known and remembered in Women’s World Cup history, it should be for the very best of reasons.