Sunday, August 7, 2022

“Alessia Russo once scored 76 goals in a season for us, now we have 60 kids copying their butts”

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The Manchester United striker was an integral part of England’s run to the final and motivated children across the country to try out ‘The Russo’.

“We’re having a holiday camp with Charlton Athletic with 50-60 kids and I’ve never seen so many heels as there have been in the past few days!” said Colin Whitfield, Alessia’s former coach at Kent’s Bearsted Football Club I. “They call it ‘The Russo’ now. That’s not a back heel, that’s ‘The Russo’.”

England is officially in a state of Russomania.

The Lionesses have scored 20 goals en route to Sunday’s Euro final against Germany, but none better summed up the freedom of expression that has become a hallmark of Sarina Wiegman’s team than Russo’s outrageous nutmeg rear-wheel goal in the semi-final against Sweden.

It was an instant hit, propelling Russo into playground hero territory. However, anyone who has followed the career of the 23-year-old for more than a few weeks knows her penchant for the spectacular very well.

“She scored 76 goals the season she was with us,” Whitfield recalled. “I remember we played against Crystal Palace in a game and they hit the top right corner of the net from the halfway line. I don’t think Palace could believe it! She scored great goals.”

Russo first played organized football aged nine, for Bearsted FC’s under-9 boys team on a Saturday morning and for the under-10 girls team on Sundays in their inaugural 2007–08 season. In previous years, she had made herself known to coaches by booting a ball around under the pretense of watching her older brother Giorgio play.

“As soon as she was old enough, I asked her father Mario [a former semi-professional footballer] if she wants to play on our girls team,” says Whitfield. “Every time you saw her, she had a ball at her feet.”

She’s the “outstanding talent” in a team full of good players, according to Whitfield, who admits he sometimes benched her against weaker opponents because she would “destroy” them. She joined Charlton Athletic after one season but occasionally resurfaced for summer tournaments.

Around the time Russo played for Bearsted in the late 2000s, the club had four girls teams in different age groups. However, once everyone had reached U18 level, a ‘gap’ remained. “Like many things on the grassroots, you need the volunteers,” says Whitfield.

For seven years, Bearsted only had boys’ teams until last summer when an under-12 girls’ team was formed. “My niece wanted to start her own team, so we went to the club and said, can we start a girls’ team?” Jon Ford, the team manager, tells I. “They said yes that would be great, so we started our first season last September and finished runners-up in the Kent Girls and Ladies League.”

It’s inevitable that other Alessia Russos have slipped through the net: the hope at Bearsted and beyond is that England’s success at Euros will spur growth in grassroots sport. And get more girls practicing “The Russo” on Sunday league pitches.

By Richard Edwards

It’s early morning on the North Carolina University campus, but excitement is in the air and a name is on the lips of those involved at one of world football’s most celebrated grad schools.

“Oh man, that goal,” says Jody Jones, Associate Director of Athletics Communications. “In the semifinals? Are you kidding me?”

No wonder Alessia Russo’s virtuoso back heels are a topic of conversation. After all, this little corner of America has had just as much of an impact on this side from England as any other team in the Women’s Super League.

Russo, Lucy Bronze, Lotte Wubben-Moy and coach Sarina Wiegman have all carved a small place in the history of the Tar Heels – one of America’s most successful collegiate teams and a team run by a man who deserves it claim to have had a greater impact on women’s football than any other figure in history.

Anson Dorrance, now 71, took office in 1977 and 45 years later has no intention of retiring from an extraordinary career. Why should he when he still has the opportunity to work with incredible talent like Russo, whose university connections made her one of the headlines on state sports news networks the next day.

“It doesn’t happen often,” says Dorrance. “She has all kinds of wonderful qualities. She hits a ball with great power. When she came here she came with this huge hunger for goals that is crucial for any number nine, but what I love about watching her is the fact that she keeps adding more and more things to her game.

“But it’s not just Alessia, we’re enormously proud of all the England players who have come here and performed on the biggest stage. And of course that includes Sarina.”

Wiegman played for the Tar Heels in 1989, just two years before Dorrance would lead the USA to their first world title. That 2-1 win over Norway – thanks to a brace from Michelle Akers-Stahl – in Guangzhou not only helped raise the profile of women’s football across the pond, but also established Dorrance as one of the sport’s leading figures.

No one at FA headquarters knew at the time, but the American’s influence was soon to help transform England from a follower in international football to a front runner.

“We do our best to recruit as many of the best players as possible,” he says. “We’re always looking for the next sure thing and it never ends, we go through this process on an annual basis.

“We want to find the best female footballers that we can and bring them here because we have always followed the philosophy that steel sharpens steel.

“When Lucy was here she was training alongside Tobin Heath and when Sarina was here she was working with the likes of Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly – two of the greatest of all time.

“We’ve always tried to find the best football talent because playing against and with each other makes a much better player.”

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