When Alex Popp scored her first ever Euros goal against Denmark in Germany's opening group stage game, she dropped to her knees with tears in her eyes. Her teammates gathered around her and lifted her to her feet, knowing what it meant to her to be appearing in her first Euro tournament.
The 31-year-old had missed the 2013 and 2017 editions with serious injuries. She very nearly missed this tournament as well, suffering another serious injury that kept her out until March of this year. If the tournament had gone ahead last year as planned, we would be lamenting the missed opportunity of not getting to see one of Germany's -- and the world's -- most prolific players. COVID-19 then nearly ruined her opportunity to appear when she tested positive just three weeks before the tournament began.
That's why it was nice to see a relaxed and ecstatic Popp wheel away from the goal celebrating on two occasions on Wednesday after she gave Germany the lead twice in their 2-1 semifinal win over France. Compared to the slump of relief on her shoulders after the Denmark goal, this was a player who had answered any questions there were over her going in.
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"It was a really special moment because I had the feeling that many people had already written me off," Popp had said of her first goal against Denmark. "I was able to show with my fighting spirit and mentality that I'm still a force to be reckoned with. I'm not just here to make up the numbers."
In that first game, she was coming off the bench as an impact substitute after 60 minutes. Coming into Wednesday's match at Milton Keynes, she had cemented her spot in the starting XI and was aiming to become the first player to score in five consecutive matches. She had previously equalled the record set by her compatriot Heidi Mohr by scoring in four.
Her first goal of the night was an act of class. It had been tit for tat between the two sides in the opening 40 minutes with the pace electric and some superb saves off set pieces by both goalkeepers. Then, Svenja Huth found some space down the right and whipped a wonderful cross into the box. Popp got in front of the French defenders and volleyed the ball past Pauline Peyraud-Magnin. As well as being an individual record for Popp, the goal also marked Germany's 100th goal in the tournament. It seemed fitting that the scorer was someone who had given so much to German football.
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An own goal from Merle Frohms four minutes later -- which ended a remarkable record in which Germany didn't concede for 403 minutes in the competition, the last time being when they were beaten by Denmark in the quarterfinal in 2017 -- saw France come back into it, but Popp was there to step up once again in the second half. Her second goal was relatively similar to her first in that Huth once again crossed the ball into the box and Popp was there to stick it in the net. The only difference is that this time she used her head. Once again, though, it was a one-touch shot, as all her goals have been.
Heading into Sunday's final against hosts England at Wembley (Watch LIVE, noon ET on ESPN, ESPN+), Popp has scored six of Germany's 13 goals and ties Beth Mead for most goals scored in the competition. Those six goals come from 17 shots while the rest of the Germany squad has a combined seven goals from 75 shots, meaning Popp has scored 46% of their goals. She has been the difference for this Germany team that many doubted coming in.
"I have to admit I am more emotional than I used to be because I know how I have arrived at this point. Being here, having the opportunity to perform and being fully fit at this stage makes me very proud," Popp told reporters.
"But I also have to say a big thanks to everyone who has helped me -- the medical staff at my club, the coaches both at club level and here. They kept believing in me and they gave me the opportunity to be here.
"I've become very dangerous now, like in the past. It wasn't the case for quite a while because I was injured."
Watching Popp play on Wednesday, it was easy to think of the "what ifs." She has 119 Germany caps and 59 goals. She has won Olympic gold and the Under-20 World Cup, where she won the Golden Ball and the Golden Shoe. At club level, she has won the Champions League three times, the Frauen Bundesliga five times and the German Cup eight times. Twice she has been named Germany's Footballer of the Year, and this was all while recovering from three major injuries. Many other players would have given up or at least considered retirement, but Popp has preferred not to dwell on what could have been.
"Not now, to be honest. At the time, I did of course. In 2013, we became European champions, so maybe I would have had that on my CV already. That would have been nice," she told Deutsche Welle ahead of the tournament.
"It's no use thinking about it for years, dwelling on it, so to speak. I have to accept things as they are. I have also met it head on with a fighting spirit by standing right here and being able to play in this European Championship. I'm very proud of this at the moment."
When the final whistle went on Wednesday, Popp fell straight onto her back, breathing heavily and looking emotional. Her team didn't let her have a moment for long, quickly piling on top of their captain and sharing in her moment. Her back was slapped, her head was patted and everyone knew that this was her moment. After all the pain, after all the mental struggles she had to go through, she is finally going to a Euro final.