‘There were the usual words like ‘Go back in the kitchen’ but the saddest part was when their parents shouted: ‘Don’t get run over by a girl, don’t get dribbled past by a girl,’” Lena Oberdorf says as she remembers the reaction she faced most weekends. Oberdorf would be the only girl in the German league of youth football she played in, as the captain of her team TSG Sprockhövel, and the boys opposing her became increasingly desperate.
“They started to attack me hard from behind and I was: ‘OK, this is kind of dangerous now,’” Oberdorf says as she raises an eyebrow at the memory. Germany’s 21-year-old defensive midfielder will begin the World Cup as one of the most impressive female footballers in the world. Oberdorf won the best young player of the tournament at last year’s Euros and is ranked fifth in the Guardian’s top 100 female footballers in the world. But until joining Essen’s women’s team at 16, she played exclusively in boys’ football.
“It made me a better player because boys are bigger and stronger and you have to get through them somehow,” she says in her excellent English when we meet in Nuremberg. “I also learned to get rid of the ball very fast because I didn’t want to take a bad tackle. But I was used to it from my brother [Tim who now plays for Fortuna Düsseldorf] and sister. When you’re with your siblings in the garden you get those tackles because that’s how it is with family. You get angry at your brother and tackle him just as hard.”
She and Tim now “text almost every day or send Instagram reels where we laugh our arses off. So we’re really close.”
Those garden battles gave Oberdorf the tenacity and composure that define her. This will be her second World Cup because, while a schoolgirl, she played in the 2019 tournament. At 17 years, five months and 20 days she became Germany’s youngest World Cup player, breaking the record held by the great Birgit Prinz. In her laconic way, Oberdorf suggests she was less stressed playing in the World Cup than having to take school exams during the tournament.
“Maybe I could have done better if I’d been more in school but, all in all, it was good. The first game [against China] was pretty amazing to come on and break the record. But I also got a yellow card and that stuck in my head.
“We had a team meeting and [Germany’s manager] Martina [Voss-Tecklenburg] asked me how many yellow cards I had. It was in front of the whole team and I said: ‘Do you mean in that game or in general?’ I was so nervous that everybody started laughing.”
Oberdorf grins but her relish for tackling is matched by her exemplary vision, her ability to intercept moves and her skilful distribution that drives Germany forward. She is now the third-youngest member of the German squad but Oberdorf says: “We don’t count the years. We count the caps.”
She will win her 39th in Germany’s opening game against Morocco and her importance is likely to be even more marked than it was during her unforgettable Euros. Against Austria in the quarter-finals, with the score 0-0, Oberdorf won a series of tackles then beat her chest as if she had just scored a goal.
“We didn’t start well and those small things started the fire,” she says. “When you make those tackles it’s a good way of saying: ‘Hey, guys, wake up.’”
Germany won 2-0 and then beat France in a pulsating semi-final before coming so close to winning the tournament. Oberdorf laughs when I ask how she got over losing the final in extra time to England. “I drank a lot of vodka. I just drank to get over the pain because we lost to such a late goal.
“In our heads we were ready for penalties and then England got a corner. Normally we don’t concede after corners so it was very painful. But, really, we had a good night as my family was there. We danced, we drank and we went out. You realise you lost the final but you achieved so much more.”
Oberdorf believes the tournament represented a watershed for women’s football as it scaled unprecedented heights of popularity. “It helped being in England because English people watch every sport and they’re open to everything. Sometimes the Germans are like: ‘We have men’s football and nothing else matters.’ But things changed even in this country. When we came back to Germany it was amazing how many fans were there, celebrating us.”
Germany could play England again in the World Cup quarter-finals but Oberdorf reminds me that, first, they should face France or Brazil in a demanding last-16 match. “Brazil has an amazing team. We just played against them and they were technically very good. They also have Rafaelle [Souza] who did an amazing job at the back for Arsenal. Brazil is one of my favourites for the title even though I hope we go through.”
Can Germany become world champions? “I think so. We have the spirit and German discipline and we’ll be better. We didn’t show our best football in the Euros because we were scoring more from counterattacks. We play good attacking football now.”
Oberdorf describes herself as “a very easy person. I get along with so many different kinds of people.” She is certainly an engaging interviewee – and also fiercely principled. When I ask if she watched the men’s World Cup in Qatar, she shakes her head. “Not really. I was not into it after all the news about Qatar. The conditions were not good so I decided: ‘OK, I’m not going to watch.’”
Was she proud the German men covered their mouths in protest before their first game? “It was a good gesture but in Germany we laughed about it because it did not change anything. At least they did something because of the ban on the captain’s armband [supporting LGBQT+ rights]. But there was too much bad news about that World Cup so I didn’t really watch it.”
Oberdorf was indignant that Saudi Arabia were due to sponsor the Women’s World Cup until Fifa backed down. “I heard interviews with Alex Morgan [of the USA] saying how much she didn’t want a country where they don’t respect or accept me. I felt the same because I have a girlfriend and I wouldn’t like that. Of course it’s the money [that attracts Fifa] but, with the values I have, I wouldn’t like it. There are more important things than money.”
Have the Germany women’s team discussed making a statement against future Saudi sponsorship? “Not yet. But I think, when it comes up, we’re going to talk about it.”
Oberdorf has a low-key approach to her sexuality compared with the fraught repression that makes it so difficult for male footballers to come out. “We’re so open and tolerant,” she says of women’s football. “I don’t know if it’s down to gender or the environment because we don’t have this big screen around us. If someone says, ‘Oh, you have a girlfriend?’ it’s no big deal.
“With the men it’s such a big topic because it’s like this in society. If a [male] footballer comes out everybody’s like: ‘A gay footballer? Hmm.’ I wish every gay footballer can come out and be accepted by everybody. Society makes it really hard for the men but if you colour your hair green or red I don’t care. It’s your life. I didn’t come out and say: ‘Guys, I have a girlfriend.’ She’s on my social media sometimes so people can think what they like.”
While Oberdorf delights in the rise of women’s football she did not enjoy her growing fame during a holiday after the Champions League final. Oberdorf and Wolfsburg suffered heartache after losing a 2-0 lead against Barcelona and she “went on vacation to Mallorca. Every German has been there at least once in their life so this was my turn. But it seems everybody knew me because there are lots of football fans out there. So I [let down] my hair because nobody recognised me that way.
“I don’t have a problem with people talking to me and then asking for a picture. I don’t like it if they just take a picture. Then I feel like an animal in the zoo.”
That desire for a private life will be affected as attention on women’s football intensifies. Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, seemed happy to take the Saudi deal but he has since claimed it was “a storm in a teacup” and said he aims to have equal prize money for the men’s and women’s World Cups in 2026 and 2027. Oberdorf shrugs.
“I don’t know if it’s realistic. Let’s see how many people watch the games because you can’t spend money you don’t have. I would like higher prize money in the [women’s] World Cup but if it’s not possible I wouldn’t say: ‘Oh hell, that’s unfair.’ I’m a fan of working for [equality] and lots of teams are putting the effort in and playing good football … If we keep doing that we’ll get people in the stadiums and then we can fight for better conditions off the field.”
We return to her formative years when she was a solitary girl in a boys’ world. Did the opposition parents ever apologise to her? “Not really. There was just one player who came new to our team. His father heard our captain was a girl. The father told me later he was worried: ‘Why is a girl the captain?’ But when he got to know me and how I play he said: ‘Hey, it’s totally fine you’re the captain.’”
Did she always captain her boys’ teams? Oberdorf’s face lights up again as she answers with typical certainty. In this moment, as she says an unequivocal “yes” while smiling, Oberdorf looks like a possible World Cup winner next month, a future Germany captain and a definite leader of women’s football for years to come.
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