Lucy Bronze, a representative of EE Hope United, a campaign to combat online sexist abuse, is the only England player in history to start in teams that have won European titles at club and international level and is feeling better suitable to play abroad after signing for Spain champions FC Barcelona.
After three successful seasons at Olympique Lyonnias, each time winning the UEFA Women’s Champions League, Bronze returned to Manchester City in 2020 but at the end of her two-year deal this summer, she shocked the footballing world by joining the Catalan club in July.
After winning this summer’s UEFA Women’s Euro, Bronze became European champions at club and international level alongside England team-mates Alex Greenwood and Nikita Parris, but only Bronze started in both finals. If she can also win the Champions League with FC Barcelona, she will become the only English player to win the title with different clubs, alongside Jimmy Rimmer and Owen Hargreaves.
During the current international break, she told me it’s “so far, so good. I love the training, where I live, the weather and the fans… the fans are just amazing like nothing I’ve seen before. So yeah, I’m just really enjoying the experience so far. These Spanish Barça players are just so smart. They see the game a little differently. Her style is a bit different than what I’m used to. A bit of a mix of how we played in France, but I think an extra notch up in terms of the intensity and intelligence of the football.”
Bronze admits her return to the Women’s Super League during the Covid pandemic hasn’t panned out the way she had envisioned and she needed a new challenge to jump-start her career. “I don’t think I’ve enjoyed the last two years in England as much as I thought I would. I absolutely loved my time in France, it was the best thing I’ve ever done. I have to say I just enjoy playing abroad. I think that’s just me. Some people enjoy the comforts of home. I think I’m the complete opposite!”
“So yes, the new challenge at Barça, one of the best teams in the world, is exactly what I needed. Their style of play is a style that can help me improve. Learning those little Spanish touches and little turns can hopefully help me improve my game in a great city for a great club. I think it’s a really good time for me to make the move. There aren’t many people who can say they’ve played for Barcelona.”
Bronze is known as an attacking right-back and will play at Barcelona behind Caroline Graham Hansen, one of the best right wingers in the world, but Bronze plays in the fluid Barça system and isn’t afraid of the players cramping each other’s game. “I think the way Barça wants to play, everyone takes up each other’s spaces all the time. (The coach) just told me to be free and find spaces where I can, whether it’s behind Caro or next to Caro’s side or her . It’s just about learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses and how we can complement each other. Obviously, Hansen is a world-class player and it’s not too difficult to play with world-class players.”
After playing in front of two record-breaking attendances at the Camp Nou last season, FC Barcelona head of women’s football Xavier Puig said it was the club’s intention to stage all UEFA Women’s Champions League matches there this season Venue with 99,354 seats. Bronze will become the second England player after Gary Lineker to represent FC Barcelona at Europe’s largest stadium and having visited the arena for her official presentation she can’t wait to play there. “To stand in the middle of the pitch and see his height was incredible. Yes, a very special place.”
Bronze spoke to me in her role as a representative for EE Hope United who launched a new campaign this summer aimed at tackling online sexist abuse of players and fans during the UEFA Women’s Euro. Research conducted during the tournament by Cardiff University’s HateLab revealed that 23 of the 25 players in England’s summer squad were tagged in so-called hate messages during the tournament.
The overwhelming majority of these offensive comments (96%) were misogynistic, with the remaining 4% considered homophobic. According to Matthew Williams, professor of criminology at Cardiff University, these included “attempts to disparage the success of women’s football, players being urged to ‘back to the kitchen’ or ‘make a sandwich’ in some of the less offensive posts, and suggestions that women shouldn’t play football. There were also grossly offensive posts that contained sexual innuendos. It is surprising that most of these posts remain live on the platforms.”
97% of hate comments were posted on Twitter, with 61% coming from identifiable male accounts, ten times as many as women, with a third unclassified. Player of the Tournament Beth Mead got the most of these ahead of Ellen White and Ella Toone with bronze in fourth.
Bronze revealed to me that she had a love-hate relationship with social media. “A few years ago I completely gave up because I hated it. I think it was when I came up when my career was on the rise. The more you feel the love, the more people see you, it also opens you up to more criticism.”
Hope United players have been featured in a range of video content teaching people how to block accounts, report online hate, mute and filter offensive content and how to diversify your social media feed by following more female voices , skills that have helped bronze in her own life. “I learned from them too. They give us, as individual players, information on how to deal with it. Not psychologically, but in terms of reporting. I was never really made aware of that.”
“You’re reporting the comments. Instead of just hiring them, you get rid of them, and instead of giving them the voice they’re trying to get, you’re doing the complete opposite. I want to read the comments, I want to read what the fans are reading I have to say I want to connect with the supporters. They have put their time and effort into coming to you and watching you play, supporting you and making a difference in your life and career. They want to give something back.”
Since the tournament, the increased press attention for the players has manifested itself in many ways. The fact that an English tabloid published photos of one of the players on holiday was one of the more unwelcome intrusions on their privacy. Bronze tells me nothing could have prepared players for the explosion of interest they received. “I think we’ve talked about it a lot, but you never really know what you’re preparing for until it happens to you. It was annoying. I know Alessia (Russo) was also stalked on vacation that was with her family. I like to think that their privacy hasn’t been violated, but we have such a good strong team working around us that we can all support and solve it if there are any problems.”
The study of 78,141 posts across Twitter, Reddit and 4Chan over a 13-week period from May 2 to August 1 identified more than 50,000 positive messages, showing that “hope” outpaced “hate” by 125 to 1 on social media platforms predominates, something that is bronze now prefers to focus on.
“I’m very fortunate to have people around me like family and friends, agents and people I work with who send me and share with me all the positive things that I have on social media so that I can can still connect and reply to those messages. I had to find a way to make social media work for me, but I’m working on it.”
EE Hope United will bring the UK together to tackle online sexist hate as part of EE’s commitment to digitally empowering the nation. Visit ee.co.uk/hopeunited