It may well be an overused phrase, but there certainly are no easy matches at the Olympics’ women’s tournament. Just 12 nations compete in an event which has only been included at the Games since 1996, and the standard is extremely high.
Given Team GB doesn’t usually play together, it was pre-agreed that for them to qualify for Tokyo a home nation had to finish as one of the three best European teams at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. So, despite losing to Sweden in the bronze-medal match, England clinched the final place for Team GB in Japan. Such is the level of competition that France, the 2019 World Cup hosts and one of the favourites, and the defending Olympic champions Germany, missed out. The Netherlands qualified after defeat by the USA in the final.
In that sense just getting to Japan is an achievement in itself. However, should Team GB fail to progress and clinch a medal, the players would view the Olympic campaign as a failure.
Yet after a year’s delay after the Games was postponed, the mountain is even higher. England players, who make up the bulk of the GB squad, have not played a single competitive game of international football since that World Cup, having automatically qualified for next summer’s postponed Euros as hosts. Having to rely on friendlies became impossible as the pandemic took hold and non-competitive international fixtures were ruled out.
The team has an unexpected manager after the departure of Phil Neville, who was offered the head coach role with Inter Miami’s men’s side in the US. With the Netherlands manager Sarina Wiegman not due to take up the England post until after the Games, the FA landed on its feet. Hege Riise, the Norwegian former World Cup, Olympic and European Championship winner, had been taken on as a temporary England assistant alongside Canada’s former Olympic bronze medallist Rhian Wilkinson and Riise will now coach Team GB in Tokyo.
If anyone understands what is needed to compete at an Olympics football tournament it is Riise, who as well as winning gold at Sydney 2000 as a player for Norway, was an assistant with the USA team that won gold at London 2012.
Olympic football is an unusual beast. In the men’s tournament under-23 teams compete, with three overage players allowed. In the women’s tournament, senior national teams take part. The seniority of the women’s competition is reflected in the venues for the final, with the women’s being held in the National Stadium, the main Olympic venue in Tokyo while the men’s will be played in Yokohama. Each round will see every game played on the same day. Following the tournament in its entirety is a tough task.
One quirk to this edition, in addition to strict Covid protocols, is that the four reserve players travelling with each team will be able to be included in the 18-player matchday squads. Wiegman led the campaign to have the squads expanded given the strain placed on players by the pandemic. For Team GB that means the inclusion of the Manchester United forward Ella Toone, Arsenal defender Lotte Wubben-Moy, Everton goalkeeper Sandy MacIver and Chelsea winger Niamh Charles.
Favourites for gold are the USA, who are on a 44-game unbeaten run, stretching back to a 3-1 friendly defeat by France in January 2019. The Americans are desperate for gold having suffered a shock exit to Sweden on penalties at the quarter-final stage at Rio 2016.
The pandemic has meant that Team GB has played one game, a behind-closed-doors friendly 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 the Chelsea midfielder Sophie Ingle, also played three times in 2021, suffering two defeats. Scotland, represented by Kim Little and Caroline Weir in the GB squad, played four times, beating Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Wales and losing to Portugal.
Perhaps one advantage for Team GB is that the entire set up is unknown; the manager, the team, the formation and, with three captains on rotation (Little, Ingle and England’s Steph Houghton), leadership on the pitch – all unknown.
However, in the same time frame, the USA have played 12 times, winning 11 and drawing once (with Sweden, who they meet in Group G). With the NWSL season traditionally starting in April/May and concluding in October, the winter and spring months give the national team time to focus on building on-field relations and compiling an enviable calendar of friendlies, fine-tuning a squad capable of competing for titles come the summer.
Just getting out of Group E will be a tough task for Team GB. Canada have twice beaten England in recent years, Japan are the tournament hosts and have moulded their team for this event and Chile held Germany to a 0-0 draw in June and boast arguably the best goalkeeper in the world in Christiane Endler.
However, with two of the three third-placed teams going through to the knockout stage a win against Chile in the competition’s opening game on Wednesday would likely be enough to progress. It would also give the players valuable breathing space and the chance to develop a more cohesive unit on the pitch before the tournament reaches the business end. That is the key.
That Team GB boasts some of the finest players in the world is undisputed. The squad includes Fifa’s best player of the year Lucy Bronze, Chelsea forward and winner of both the PFA and FWA player of the year awards Fran Kirby, World Cup 2019 bronze boot winner Ellen White, two-time PFA young player of the year Lauren Hemp (and two former winners in her City teammate Georgia Stanway and Arsenal centre back Leah Williamson). In Arsenal’s vastly experienced Scottish midfielder Kim Little they have one of the best midfield engines in the world. Whether such talents can click as a group on the pitch in Tokyo is the big unknown.