Izzy Christiansen and Toni Duggan stood in the shadow of Barcelona’s team bus behind Budapest’s Groupama Stadium, arms wrapped around one another in a cathartic tearstained embrace. “I think all the players were just looking at us like ‘are we ok?’ Christiansen laughs. “It was one of the most emotional moments of my life.”
At 8 am on May 8, Izzy Christiansen was sitting at home with her parents apprehensively when the email arrived in her inbox. The Lyon midfielder had been a constant fixture in the England squad for the best part of four years until a grim injury forced an early end to her season, but her angst had been allayed by reassurances that she was “vital” to the team.
But before she could even finish reading the wrenching words informing her she’d been cut from Phil Neville’s World Cup squad, she broke down. “It wasn’t just the devastation of not getting picked,” she says. “It was the emotional rollercoaster I’ve been on for three months, the intensity of my rehab being tailored towards going to the World Cup. We cut corners, we broke down barriers, I worked my arse off to get in the best possible position to be selected. I still get upset when I think about it, but that’s sport.”
Christiansen’s rehab had been exhaustive ever since she’d sat in hysterics, inconsolable and alone, in the underbelly of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa after England’s physios told her she’d broken her leg and damaged the ligaments in her ankle. With 65 days until the squad was finalised, the panic onset, but the worst consequence revealed itself to be the glimmer of hope. The belief that if she pushed her body to its last fibre, there was a faint promise she may be able to recuperate in time.
“The timing and the uncertainty of just being sat in the unknown thinking ‘am I going or not’; the hardest thing was not knowing where I stood,” she says. “It was so difficult. Part of me wishes I would’ve just been ruled out of the World Cup straight away. It would’ve been a lot easier for me mentally. As much as I’m grateful for having the chance, the last three months have been the toughest I’ve ever had or will have to endure in my career.”
For two months, Christiansen arrived at St George’s Park – England’s training base – at 7:30 am each morning with a schedule of single-leg workouts, anti-gravity treadmill exercises and deep-water runs to complete. The numbing evenings were spent drowning her leg in an ice machine, supervising a watched kettle. When, at last, she was given the all clear to kick a ball again, the thought of her rushed rehab had left her scared to strike the ball with proper force. In the end, only by imagining she was taking a penalty in the World Cup final, did Christiansen force herself to follow through.
So when Neville called to explain his decision, Christiansen was too despondent to speak. The desperate exertion to convalesce and mental anguish over her non-selection had left her both angry and empty. As the text messages poured in, she turned off her phone and left it unanswered for three days, dreading the thought of the sympathetic tide. Those hours are still a blur, lying in bed distraught but unable to sleep, stricken by grief’s insomnia.
“I was so out of it, I genuinely didn’t know what to do with myself,” she says. “I just felt like my whole world had come crashing down. I couldn’t think clearly because I couldn’t stop crying, I was so upset. So many things were going through my head. The call [with Phil] didn’t go the way I wanted it to but I think he understood.”
The sorrow brought on a wave of self-reflection. After moving to Lyon at the beginning of the season, Christiansen made 14 appearances before her injury meant she missed the club’s run-in to a historic treble and she couldn’t outrun the doubts over her own contribution. “It’s strange because, from a collective point of view, we got all those trophies. But on paper, individually, I’ve had the worst possible season. I’ve had two injuries, I had a break, missed out on a World Cup,” she says, the pain still audible in her voice. “It’s hard to take in. I had to keep reminding myself that I deserved those medals”.
Christiansen wrote down her achievements as a means of silencing her own questions, forcing herself from the storm’s eye into a wider perspective. Three years ago, she received the PFA Player of the Year award after a glittering season at Manchester City. At Lyon, she embedded seamlessly into the most formidable team in women’s football.
“It’s easy to get caught up in what’s going on instead of remembering the path you’ve been on to get there,” she says. “We’ve always had ups and downs. I’m obviously really upset but, in reality, I don’t know if I’m actually ready to play in a World Cup. My injury still hasn’t fully recovered. If I was asked to play 90 minutes against Scotland tomorrow, I don’t think I could.”
Five days after hearing the news, Christiansen returned to France to finish the final hurdle of her treatment. The pain of non-selection, still so raw, had left her anxious to go back, “scared” of interrupting the team’s preparations for the Champions League final. “I just didn’t want to sit in the physio room and bring the mood down,” she explains. “Sometimes, I’d just take the ice machine home because I felt like a bit of a burden. People were walking on eggshells around me because they didn’t know what to say.
“I’m in a better place now but I was still just digesting everything that’s happened.”
Christiansen watched from the stands as one of her closest friends, Toni Duggan, lined up for Barcelona in that final last month. Lyon hared to an astonishingly composed 4-1 victory and Christiansen revelled in the bittersweet hour after the final whistle, “forgetting everything” in a reprieve of blind bliss celebrating with her teammates. But after the delirium had subsided and she left the ground, she saw Duggan nursing her own wounds in defeat. And, in that moment, the actuality was suddenly overwhelming.
“We were both in sheds of tears. I’m so desperate for her to succeed and I think she feels the same way about me. She’d worked her socks off in the final and got no reward for it, but she just wanted to console me about not getting picked. Seeing her in the flesh, it was such an emotional moment.” The pair hugged, sharing and easing each other’s woe, old friends reunited.
“I’m not going to hide from my emotion, it’s been incredibly difficult to accept,” Christiansen says. “But the injury has made me appreciate the support I’ve been given a little bit more, especially through the dark times. The stress and strain you put on the people around you, being an athlete is a selfish domain. Now I want to deliver some more good times for the people who believed in me when nobody else has. I want to move forward and find that sparkle again.”
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