IIt might be a hackneyed expression, but there are certainly no easy games at the Women’s Olympic Tournament. Only 12 nations are participating in an event which has only been included in the Games since 1996, and the standard is extremely high.
Since the GB team do not usually play together, it was agreed that in order to qualify for Tokyo, a home country had to finish among the top three European teams at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. So despite losing to to Sweden in the bronze medal match, England clinched last place for the GB team in Japan. This is the level of competition that France, host of the 2019 World Cup and one of the favorites, and Germany, the reigning Olympic champion, have missed. The Netherlands qualified after losing to the United States in the final.
In that sense, going to Japan is a feat in itself. However, if the GB team failed to progress and win a medal, the players would see the Olympic campaign as a failure.
Yet after a year of delay after the postponement of the Games, the mountain is even higher. The English players, who make up the bulk of the British squad, have not played any competitive international football matches since this World Cup, having automatically qualified for the Euro postponed next summer as a ‘hosts. Having to rely on friendly matches has become impossible because the pandemic has set in and non-competitive international matches have been excluded.
The team have an unexpected manager after the departure of Phil Neville, who was offered the position of head coach of the Inter Miami men’s team in the United States. With Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman not due to take England’s post until after the Games, the FA have landed on their feet. Former Norwegian World Cup, Olympics and European Championships winner Hege Riise had been hired as a temporary assistant for England alongside former Canadian Olympic bronze medalist Rhian Wilkinson and Riise will now coach the GB team in Tokyo.
If anyone understands what is needed to participate in an Olympic football tournament, it is Riise, who, in addition to winning gold in Sydney 2000 as a Norwegian player, was an assistant to the States team. United who won gold in London 2012.
Olympic football is an unusual beast. In the men’s tournament, the Under-23 teams compete against each other, with three older players allowed. In the women’s tournament, the senior national teams participate. The seniority of the women’s competition is reflected in the venues for the final, with the women’s competition taking place at the National Stadium, Tokyo’s main Olympic venue, while the men’s competition will be played in Yokohama. Each round will see each match played on the same day. Following the tournament in its entirety is a difficult task.
A special feature of this edition, in addition to the strict Covid protocols, is that the four reserve players traveling with each team will be able to be included in the teams of 18 players of the day. Wiegman has led the campaign to expand squads given the pressure on players from the pandemic. For the GB squad, that means the inclusion of Manchester United striker Ella Toone, Arsenal defender Lotte Wubben-Moy, Everton goalkeeper Sandy MacIver and Chelsea winger Niamh Charles.
The favorites for gold are the United States, which is on a 44-game unbeaten streak, dating back to a friendly 3-1 loss to France in January 2019. Americans are desperate for gold after suffering a shock against Sweden on penalties in the quarterfinals. -final stage in Rio 2016.
The pandemic meant Team GB played one game, a friendly behind closed doors victory over New Zealand in Kawasaki on Wednesday. This year England have played three times, losing to France and Canada and beating Northern Ireland 6-0. Wales, represented in the squad by Chelsea midfielder Sophie Ingle, have also played three times in 2021, suffering two defeats. Scotland, represented by Kim Little and Caroline Weir in the British squad, have played four times, beating Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Wales and losing to Portugal.
Perhaps one of the advantages of Team GB is that the entire configuration is unknown; the manager, the team, the roster and, with three rotating captains (Little, Ingle and England’s Steph Houghton), the field leadership – all unknown.
However, in the same amount of time, the United States have played 12 times, won 11 and drawn (with Sweden, which they meet in Group G). With the NWSL season traditionally starting in April / May and ending in October, the winter and spring months give the national team time to focus on building relationships on the pitch and compiling a enviable schedule of friendlies, to fine tune a team capable of competing for titles come summer.
Getting out of Group E will be a difficult task for the GB team. Canada have beaten England twice in recent years, Japan are hosting the tournament and shaped their squad for this event and Chile held Germany 0-0 in June and arguably own the best goalkeeper in the world in Christiane Endler.
However, with two of the three teams ranked third in the knockout stage, a win over Chile in the competition’s opener on Wednesday would likely be enough to move forward. It would also give players valuable breathing space and the opportunity to develop a more cohesive unit on the pitch before the tournament reaches the end of business. This is the key.
That the GB team has some of the best players in the world is undisputed. The squad includes Fifa’s Best Player of the Year Lucy Bronze, Chelsea forward and PFA Player of the Year award winner and FWA Fran Kirby, Bronze Cup winner Ellen White. World 2019, Lauren Hemp, two-time PFA Young Player of the Year. (and two former winners in her City Georgia teammate Stanway and Arsenal center-back Leah Williamson). Arsenal’s highly experienced Scottish midfielder Kim Little has one of the best midfield engines in the world. Whether such talents can click in groups on the field in Tokyo is the great unknown.