When Karen Carney MBE played football for England, she wore a band on her wrist inscribed with her favourite saying: “Be the difference with the things that make you different.”

Her extraordinary career has included challenges as diverse as playing for the Lionesses, England women’s national football team, heading up a governmental review of women’s football, broadcasting and sports writing – and throughout, Carney has been as good as her mantra: her progressive outlook has blazed a trail through the world of football on and off the pitch.

“I come from a working-class background, and when I was growing up, my mum’s attitude was, if you work hard, you can achieve anything,” Carney says. “And my dad’s attitude was, ‘That’s not good enough – you need to be better.’

“While my mum gave me the confidence and the belief I needed to succeed, Dad reined me in a bit and kept me humble – but either way, a strong work ethic was drummed into me, and I told my mum when I was just 11 years old that one day I would play for England.”

Growing up in Solihull in a family of passionate Birmingham City supporters, Carney had football in her blood, and her talent on the field was apparent from an early age. Aged just 17, she made her debut with the Lionesses at the 2005 European Championship, where she scored the winning goal in the 91st minute, earning herself the nickname “The Wizard”.

After that stunning start, the midfielder’s career skyrocketed. Her proudest moments include competing in the 2012 Olympic Games, helping her beloved Birmingham win the FA Cup, and winning the quadruple with Arsenal in 2007.

“I don’t think the quadruple is spoken about enough – and I’m not saying that just because I was part of that team,” Carney says. “We won four trophies – our version of the Champions League, the FA Cup, the league, and the League Cup – and no English side has won the Champions League since. It was incredible.”


Since retiring from football in 2019, after a final appearance in England’s third-place World Cup game against Sweden, Carney has been working to address the inequalities that exist between the men’s and women’s games.

She moved into TV and radio, becoming the lead female football pundit for Sky Sports, and making history at the 2022 FIFA World Cup as part of the first all-women line-up to analyse a men’s football match.

“When I retired, I decided to remove my ego from the equation and move on to the next part of my career, rather than holding on to football when I was no longer the player I was,” Carney says. “Since then, I’ve never stopped learning. I earned a master’s degree in sports psychology while I was still playing because I thought that while I might lose my speed, if I was quicker in my thinking I’d still be able to beat other players.

“Presenting demands a different skill set, and the experience of failing on the job when I’d reached such heights in football was quite challenging. Luckily, you learn in sport to be resilient, to try again, to bounce back and to work even harder.”

On retirement, Carney was also approached to work as a consultant for The Second Half, a programme designed to help female footballers transition into new careers, which sparked her interest in business and leadership.

“I decided to bet on myself and did an MBA,” she says. “Then last year the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport approached me and asked me to chair the Future of Women’s Football review.

“I was commissioned by the government to speak to every stakeholder in England to find out where the women’s game is at this moment in time. I knew it would be one of the hardest things I’d done, but I wanted to try something different.”

“When I retired, I decided to remove my ego from the equation and move on to the next part of my career, rather than holding on to football when I was no longer the player I was,” - Former Lioness Karen Carney

Published in July, the review identified the elements that Carney believes women’s football needs to address in order to progress: “Women’s football is a developing sport, so we need to get the fundamentals right, especially when it comes to the players – introducing a salary floor, improving facilities and offering players better medical and psychological help.

“It’s about professionalising the leagues – because without that, players can’t have representation and discussions about issues such as maternity rights. I could have put forward a lot more recommendations, but one of my favourite sayings is: ‘If you’re built on sand, you’re always going to fail’ – I wanted to suggest the things that would make the most difference and result in women’s football being built on concrete.”

During the process, Carney learnt plenty about herself – and that female leaders need to be courageous: “I had impostor syndrome at times – ‘What am I doing? What do I know? I’m an ex-athlete’ – but actually that was my strength. People say sport can learn a lot from business, but business can learn a lot from sport too. They’re both results-oriented, but I think sport does it better and more efficiently.

“I believe progressive leadership is about diversity, and I brought that. From the moment I walked in, my main thought was, ‘I’m going to do this my way.’ As an athlete, I was given feedback from the minute I started training to the minute I left, but in the business world you don’t really see that – so I made an effort to motivate my team individually.

“Then, when we wrote up the review, I looked at it and said: ‘I’ve been working on this for eight months and I don’t understand it.’ I knew it needed to be written in layman’s terms so anyone could get it – my parents, a sponsor, a brand, a broadcaster – so I stripped everything back. The diversity of thought I brought to the team was seen as refreshing.”

“I believe progressive leadership is about diversity, and I brought that. From the moment I walked in, my main thought was, ‘I’m going to do this my way.’" - Former Lioness Karen Carney

As well as laying the foundations for growth, Carney would like to see more innovation in women’s football. “We’ve got to look at what the women’s game offers to our fans, and be absolutely world-leading in that,” she says. “Someone once said to me that women’s football is like an overgrown footpath, while the men’s game is like a motorway: it’s signposted, everyone’s moving in the right direction, it’s flowing. And I thought that was a good analogy. In women’s football, we have still got to develop our path until we reach the point where we’re a motorway, flowing seamlessly.

“And we can do things differently because, essentially, women’s football is a start-up business. For example, I’d love to see more technology in the women’s game, to bring more of it to life for our audience and our fans. Little things like putting cameras on the players during their warm-up to give more of a personal feel, or chatting to the manager on the side of the pitch to find out about their decision-making. There are lots of areas where I think we can keep driving that innovation.”

Thanks to her transformational leadership style, Carney hopes to see permanent change in women’s football – and sees parallels between the way she is evolving the future of the game, and the way all-electric cars such as the BMW i5 are changing the future of driving.

“Whatever you’re doing, you have to stand out and you have to be different,” she says. “A few years back, you might have seen only a few electric cars or charging points on the roads – it was a novelty. But it’s the way the world is going – there’s a more conscious effort to embrace future thinking and move forward towards electric.

“It’s important that we keep adapting and progressing in that space and BMW is doing that by bringing the heritage of the 5 Series together with new technologies. A car’s performance has a massive impact on the driving experience, and I love the i5’s curved display, which looks cool but is easy to navigate and offers different modes and ambient colours. The in-built entertainment system* is great. It’s ideal for keeping kids entertained – plus I’m a big kid, so it would make me happy too.”

It’s while driving, Carney says, that she has time to reflect on her next challenge: “I put my music on and I’m in the zone. When you have a car that’s comfortable and designed to enhance every journey and interaction, it makes all the difference.”