One of the world’s brightest defenders is gearing up to earn her Team GB spot ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Footballer Millie Bright is fast becoming one of the world’s best defenders.
Named in the FIFA FIFPro Women’s World11 – which is voted for by thousands of players around the world – last December alongside the likes of England teammate Lucy Bronze, five-time World XI recipient Wendie Renard, 2019 FIFA Women's Best winner Megan Rapinoe and two-time UEFA Women's Player of the Year Pernille Harder, one would assume she had been destined to play the beautiful game.
But if things had worked out differently, the Chesterfield-born player could’ve been in the world of equestrian.
Horses were Bright’s first love. From the age of three she was on the back of a horse and fell into football by pure “accident” when she was nine-years-old.
“I got into football purely just watching a friend just because I stood on the sidelines, so I just joined. And before you knew it, the manager was waving in the papers around [asking] Mum and Dad, “can you sign?” Bright recalled in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.
“Actually, I learnt very quickly that I wasn't very good at football. And for me that was a challenge, I kind of really hated not being good at something so I set myself the challenge to be better at it.”
From there she was scouted for Sheffield United’s Academy, which is where things started to become a lot more serious for the youngster, who at 12-years-old was receiving nutritional plans and gym programmes.
While Bright loved the challenge, she didn’t know where football would lead her. At the time, women’s football was still in its infancy with limited pathways to making a living without juggling a second job.
“I think for me growing up, obviously, women's football wasn't professional then and I didn't really have any female footballers to look up to. And I didn't actually watch that much football myself,” Bright recalled.
In 2009, at 16 she joined Doncaster Belles, going straight into their first team. Small, inexperienced, and lacking the technical skills compared to her teammates, it was during a training session when former England international Vicky Exley ploughed through the teenager.
Choosing to "give it back" after some advice from her coach, she earned respect from her teammates. It was then that something sparked within Bright and from that day, she started to get a feel for the game – she wanted to be there, wanted to win every game and be part of a winning team. However, the feeling of doubt around her future in the sport still lingered.
“People always ask me, when did you know you'd be a professional? I said, the day I sign my professional contract,” the 27-year-old said.
“And obviously then you start to think, could this go somewhere? Is it possible? Will the women's game become professional? You have to have plan B, it [women’s football] wasn't professional at that time. I'm thankful that Chelsea came in and then the game became professional.”
Since signing with Chelsea F.C in 2015, Bright has gone on to become a key figure not just in the Blues backline, where she’s won three FA WSL titles, two FA Cups and more recently a second Women's League Cup, but also with the England national team.
On a personal level, the Lionesses defender, as mentioned before, was named in the World11. Bright admits she was “gobsmacked” upon hearing the news, having been named on the shortlist twice previously (2017, 2019).
“I think getting player recognition is the biggest recognition you can get so I was super grateful to be given that. But I need to go do better now. That's my mindset,” she said.
“It's so hard to consistently perform every single day when you take into account all the factors. I think I've really grown in that department and I'm just growing as a player and a person and hopefully I can keep doing it.”
Team GB returns to the Olympic Football stage
Originally meant to be a one off for the London 2012 Games, Great Britain is set to return to the Olympic Football women’s tournament for just the second time in history this summer. They secured qualification for Tokyo 2020 in 2021 through England’s semi-final appearance at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
With the team to be led by Hege Riise, the interim England coach after the departure of Phil Neville last year, the tough decision comes down to how the former Olympic gold medallist will select 18-players set to represent four nations (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland).
For Bright the Games this summer in Tokyo are something she is looking forward to, but realises that first the hard work needs to be put in to try secure a spot.
“I think we're all working super hard to make sure that we're on the list. There's a lot of work to be done and it's a small squad,” Bright said. “No one's guaranteed a place and we've all got to have that mentality that anyone can take that spot.
“There's a big pool of players to pick from and some incredible talent within that. I'm just excited to keep performing at club first and foremost and every opportunity I get internationally. I've got to step up and make sure I'm bringing those performances.”
This camp has been crucial for English players looking to secure their Olympic spot with Tokyo 2020 fast approaching the 100-days mark. And the thought of being able to go to an Olympic Games hasn’t escaped Bright’s mind.
“I think obviously from watching the previous Olympics, just the ceremonies, the atmosphere, all the athletes coming together for me is something so special and competing to be the best, and get that gold medal, it's just incredible. Hopefully if I make the GB Team. Being able to create those moments with my fellow teammates would be absolutely amazing,” she said.
Bright marked her return to the Lionesses backline in the teams 2-1 loss to France after she had missed the friendly against Northern Ireland through injury in February. The match, which saw France concede their first goal in over 13.5 hours as Fran Kirby converted from the penalty spot, was their first away outing in a year.
Speaking to Tokyo 2020 ahead of Friday’s match (9 March), Bright was excited to be back amongst the national team.
“It was obviously tough with it being Hege’s first camp and the girls having a competitive game. You’re panicking, ‘Oh, my God. I've missed the first camp’. There's a lot of players that can compete, but you just have to be strong mentally and I just had to go back to club, get fit and healthy then once I return to playing, make sure that my performances are top level,” the Chelsea defender said.
England the place to be
“I think we've got one of the top leagues,” Bright replied when asked about the rise of women’s leagues in Europe and England before adding, “I think that's proven with the amount of players that we have coming over and the attraction that we have for players wanting to come to the teams in the WSL, which is incredible.”
The United States is seen as the place for women footballers to develop their game and play against the best with the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) still viewed as one of the top leagues in the world boosting the likes of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Rachel Daly, Debinha, Marta, and Christine Sinclair.
But after the 2019 Women’s World Cup, there was a shift in the women’s football landscape which bore the rise and recognition of European nations including England as fans noticed the skill and talent within these squads.
The FA WSL has also seen tremendous growth with the creation of a second division in 2014 before becoming a fully professional league for the first time ahead of the 2018-19 season while salaries have also increased to the point some players don’t need to juggle a second job.
And Bright believes it is the best of both worlds with more foreign players including Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder, IWABUCHI Mana, Vivianne Miedema, CHO So-hyun, Tobin Heath, Sam Mewis, now featuring in the league.
“That's what we want, we want to be the best league in football. We want players coming from abroad,” Bright said. “I've found that working with players from different teams that [they] bring different things.
“We're more physical as English players, I think that's what we've been known for, whereas now we're becoming more technical. And I think you're seeing that from performances and having that competition week in, week out of clubs every single day competing against the best in training.
“It's going to improve players individually, but then the team as well. So then coming in camp, we're all coming together, having that experience and we'll improve. It's definitely been a success.
“It's just a start for women's football. It really is. I know we've come so far, but we've got so far to go and [these are] exciting times and the game’s just going to keep growing.”
The English Lionesses will face Canada in Stoke on Wednesday 14 April JST (Tuesday 13 April GMT).
The Olympic Football women’s tournament gets underway on 21 July, 2021 at Sapporo Dome.