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The Bend it Like Beckham timeline of women’s soccer

Jess Bhamra and Jules Paxton were destined to be great.

Soccer event held in conjunction with the release of the movie “Bend it Like Beckham” Photo by Jeff Snyder/FilmMagic

Bend it Like Beckham is a gem of a film, for a multitude of reasons. It wasn’t just a movie about a girl who wanted to play football - it was specifically a story about an Indian girl dealing with all the intersections of her identity. (Fun trivia fact - Jess and Jules were originally supposed to have been romantically interested in each other, but writer and director Gurinder Chadha decided it would be too much “otherness” for one movie at the time.) It made back over 10 times its paltry $6 million budget and is a genuine cultural landmark in film, filled with quotables and timeless, heartfelt moments. It’s also a bit of an ode to a past era; there’s an inevitable cringe of sadness for many fans watching this film, as Jules excitedly shows Jess a highlight video of clips from WUSA. The film, made in 2001, couldn’t have known the fate in store for the Women’s United Soccer Association.

But Jess and Jules can live on forever in our imaginations, from their budding careers as college players at Santa Claaahra to the promising future that most certainly would have included the national team.

Let’s go back to the beginning: two girls playing for a local club that doesn’t seem to have more than 13 players, including their one goalkeeper. On sheer skill (and maybe a little prodding from their club coach) both of them get recruited to a D-I university that, one year before, had won the national championship. Where did they go from there?

Freshman year (2002-2003): This was a rough transition for both of them. For Jess, after a lifetime of close familial support and supervision, she would go to class, practice, sleep, and repeat, once again a little shy around teammates who were all the best players on their club teams. Extrovert Jules would probably make friends very quickly, leaving Jess feeling like her one life raft in this new world was leaving her behind. There was a lot of home cooking as Jess tried to find some normalcy, thanks to a mother who insisted on her learning how to make a full Punjabi dinner, meat and vegetarian. Meanwhile, Jules had problems learning to take care of herself after leaving behind parents who doted on her.

Getting recruited to Santa Clara also put them on the radar for England, who needed a squad for the U-19 2002 Women’s World Cup early that fall. Would both of them make a roster? It’s clear they were better when played together - Jules as a pure 9, and Jess as a pacey, tricky-footed winger. Jules had the better soccer “pedigree” as a longtime club player, but Jess was a genuine phenom, someone who went from playing in the park to joining a national championship NCAA team in less than a year. Yes, they both would have gone, and though in our timeline England ended up getting a 5-1 pasting from the United States in the group stage, and were ultimately knocked out 6-2 by Canada in quarterfinals, in the Jess and Jules timeline, they at least came out of it with a better goal differential, if not the W.

Then the return to Santa Clara, where after the highs and lows of the World Cup, they struggled to adjust. Jules would eventually become a bench player as her perceived lack of success got in her head, while Jess cemented her place in the starting XI, further driving a rift between them. Santa Clara would make the playoffs that year, but Jess’ scoring wouldn’t be enough to bag them another championship as 2002 was a season of destiny for a young Canadian at Portland.

Sophomore - Senior Years (2003-2006): Jess and Jules would remain frosty throughout the spring and into summer break, where their families were confused by their distance. Jess would retreat to best friend Tony, ultimately breaking up with Joe over her guilt that he might side with her, thus leaving Jules no one to confide in. Jules would spend hours in the back yard juggling, playing wall ball, and being surly, convincing her mother that once again, that Jess girl had broken her daughter’s heart.

Their return to Santa Clara for sophomore year was interrupted in September by the folding of WUSA. The loss of a life goal both of them had been aiming for was shattering, and they would eventually apologize to each other, resuming their stunning partnership on the field. Alas, fall of 2003 would see yet another championship slip through their fingers, although the disappointment was leavened by invitations for both of them to England senior team camps, but 2004 was their year with Santa Clara. 2005 was close, but not meant to be, as they would once again be thwarted by a player who would end up becoming Jess’ longtime nemesis on the field and on the goalscoring charts, one who brutally put five goals past them for Canada at the 2002 U-19 World Cup.

Jess would receive her first cap for England during this time, breaking through to the senior team first, followed quickly by Jules, who by now was learning to make peace with the fact that she would probably always lag a little bit behind Jess on raw talent. Jess would begin her remarkable tally of international goals, scoring her first in World Cup qualifying in 2005.

Pro careers (2006-2008): With WUSA dead, Jess and Jules spent senior year pondering their futures. Jess’ family encouraged her to take her very fine university degree and come home, where she could begin studying to become a solicitor. Jules knocked on every door, called or emailed every connection, and spent every waking hour of their final semester at Santa Clara sniffing out professional opportunities in Europe. Old coach Joe set her up with a trustworthy agent, a mate of his who wasn’t all that experienced, but respected the women’s game. Arsenal Ladies was Jules’ primary target, given their near-total dominance at the time. Unbeknownst to Jess, Jules would only negotiate for the two of them to come as a pair, and when Arsenal said yes, it was the nudge Jess needed to once again pick football over her parents’ desires for her future. They joined Arsenal - Jess with some reluctance, as her friends from the park and fellow Manchester United supporters teased her relentlessly - and enjoy a dominant run, the two of them combining for an astonishing 61 goals between them in league competition, with a Champions League (then UEFA Cup) trophy to boot.

In 2007, the rumors of a new American league reached them, but their biggest focus was the World Cup. Their roster spots were assured after their whiz-bang performances during qualification, and they were one of the highlights of Group A play. But reminiscent of a long-ago game with the Hounslow Harriers, they ended up getting beaten by Germany, coming second in group, seeding them against the United States. Though they would get on the scoreboard after arduously breaking down a defense that included Christie Rampone and Kate Markgraf, Jess ended up getting pushed to the margins by a dogged Leslie Osborne and Shannon Boxx teamup, and they would go on to lose after a Kristine Lilly dagger.

WPS years (2008-2012): Soothing their World Cup disappointment was the announcement of a new, totally professional league in the United States in 2008. Arsenal offered them improved contracts, knowing they couldn’t afford to leave two players who accounted for 50% of their scoring, but it wouldn’t be enough. Both Jess and Jules would put their names in for the league’s international draft, joining Homare Sawa, Marta, Formiga, Sonia Bompastor, Kelly Smith, and others. Both of them knew they would likely get split up for the first time in their careers, but after six years playing together, they agreed it would be good for them to get experience playing with other people. Jess went in the third round to the Chicago Red Stars, while Jules went in the fourth to the Los Angeles Sol. Their focus on transitioning to the US would have been particularly intense after the disappointment of England being ruled out of qualifying for the 2008 Olympics, due to not having its own Olympic committee. Once again, they would pack up and head to the States but separately, this time without the comfort of having a piece of home with them. Jess’ parents in particular would fret, her mother worried about her daughter all alone, her father about the potential of yet another disappointment if the move didn’t work out.

2009 was a topsy turvey year for them as Jules’ Sol rocketed to the top of the standings while Jess’ Red Stars languished in the bottom half. But then the Sol folded after only one season, and in the dispersal draft, Jules ended up at FC Gold Pride, which was poised for a resurgence after a very rough first season. Unfortunately for Jules, she was asked to play a supporting role to a familiar face - none other than Christine Sinclair - although winning a championship together helped smooth over any resentment. Also unfortunate for Jules, FC Gold Pride would fold after the 2010 season, and once again Jules was on the move. At least this time Jess was in a similar boat, as the Red Stars had decided to step down a league to the WPSL after not being able to make a payment to stay in WPS. The two of them agreed that it would be best if they sought a team together once again, especially as the 2011 World Cup was looming, they knew their greatest value to England was as a functioning pair, and they hadn’t been at their sharpest during qualification after years apart. Unfortunately, the only team that had two open slots for starting attackers and could afford their international price tag would end up being the notorious magicJack.

The 2011 World Cup was a good distraction from troubles at their club. They handily won Group B, took out France in the quarterfinals, and once again met the United States in the semis. The Americans were tired after being pushed to their limits against Brazil in the quarterfinals, and they were forced to the brink by England, who took them 2-2 to extra time, only to have it all be undone by another young phenom in stoppage, one named Alex Morgan.

FAWSL Years (2012-2015): As WPS collapsed around them, Jess and Jules once again fled home, although this time it was a much softer landing with the FA Women’s Premier League already up and running. Yet again there were rumors of a new US pro league, but after years of bouncing around the States, both of them would just want some stability. Arsenal welcomed them back and they kept the good times rolling after the club’s leading scorer, Kim Little, left for the newly-formed National Women’s Soccer League. NWSL did seem alluring, but Jules was burnt out and Jess missed her family. It was also good to be in London for the 2012 Olympics, where they played for Team GB. Once again they came face-to-face with old foe Sinclair in the quarterfinals, but this time the goals would be on their side, and they would advance to semis - abruptly running into the massive roadblock of the United States. It was an extraordinary performance from Jess Bhamra, turning her into a household name overnight as she took it to the Americans twice, and they equalized twice. But as Team GB lived by their offense, they died by their defense, again succumbing in extra time. They played France for the bronze medal and won it with a gritty, if unglamorous, performance, leading to a minor media frenzy over Jess as England’s top scorer.

Jess and Jules would go on to collect two regular season wins with Arsenal, and one more Champions League title. They entered the 2015 World Cup in Canada as seasoned veterans, expected to lead England deep into knockouts. France was out for payback, though, and dropped them to second in group, seeding them against Norway in the Round of 16. Jess resorted more to artistry than brute force as she could feel herself losing a step, although the highlight reel plays masked it well enough. But against Canada in the quarterfinals, disaster struck; after taking an early two-goal lead, Jess went down with an ankle injury at the end of the first half. Their old friend Sinclair took advantage of the momentum swing and got Canada level by the end, forcing extra time, then penalties. Canada advanced, knocking England out early.

Return to the US (2016-2019): With the pain (and recrimination) of such an ignominious exit from the World Cup lingering, Jess and Jules would finally give in to the call of NWSL, recruited by the Reign’s then-head coach Laura Harvey. The duo would give the Reign the edge they needed to sneak into the playoffs, with Jess being asked to play more off of Kim Little and becoming one of the top three goalscorers in the league. This would seed them against #1 Portland for the semifinals, a game they would win in extra time, before going on to knock out the Spirit for the championship. They stuck with the Reign even after Little departed - at least until 2019, when Jess made the decision to move home again after striking a deal with Manchester United’s new women’s team. She finished out the 2018 season with the Reign, not wanting to leave them in the lurch, and was finally able to achieve her childhood dream of pulling on the bright red jersey of her hero, David Beckham, complete with the #7. Jules stayed with the Reign, and the two reunited for 2019 World Cup qualifying, before heading off for France.

2003 Sundance Film Festival - “Bend It Like Beckham” Film Stills Photo by Sundance/WireImage

With both of them now 34, there would be a sense that this would be their last go-round. Group D was a battle, but they never looked likely to go out, and it was the same for R16 and quarters. This was more in line with the expectations from 2015, and there was a running theme of redemption that built in intensity as they approached the semifinals against the United States. England struggled to score until Jess played in a cross on the ground for Jules, who did not miss in front of the net and made it all level at 2-2. Extra time, with England turtling up in their defensive third against the Americans’ raw fitness. Penalties. Captain Jules Paxton to take first, to set the tone. There was some disagreement from the public on Bhamra deserving the armband, but Paxton was always the natural leader and Bhamra was the quieter generational talent. Paxton - saved. Bhamra second, her penalty a real ripper into the side netting, a defiant dare to the rest of her teammates to match her. But the one save would end up being enough for the US to advance.

Both of them would be too experienced at cruel losses to pay much mind to the handwringing in the press. They would stay pointedly neutral on questions about Phil Neville’s psychological approach to pressure and penalties, although Jules would have gotten a private email from the FA’s media officer about being more “circumspect” with her statements to the press as team captain. Jess would support her in public to the press and in private to the federation, and the two of them would go on, just as they always were.

It’s uncertain days right now. We may never know why that strange white lady took Jesminder’s shoes at her sister’s wedding, but we can be sure of at least this: there has never been a better fictitious soccer duo than Jess Bhamra and Jules Paxton.