“I’m really excited. I grew up watching the Olympics; I still watch the Olympics…all the different sports are going on and it’s just such an exciting time. It’s exciting to be a part of this Team GB history and it’s one that I’m really, really proud of and one that I know comes with a lot of responsibility.”
Many an athlete will tell you that the Olympics is the ultimate competition to be involved in. To be an Olympian carries the hopes of your nation. It is an opportunity for stars from a variety of different sports to shine on a global stage, enjoy the limelight and represent their country.
For a long time, this has not been the case for footballers, certainly in the case of Home Nations players. Despite the competition being one of the biggest on the women’s side, it was for too long lumped in with the men’s game and not considered important enough to find a way around the barriers that have previously been surmounted in other sports, like field hockey.
This all changed in 2012, when the likes of Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, Kelly Smith and Kim Little captured the heart of Great Britain. While London 2012 was always seen as a one-off, it was the catalyst for the discussions between FIFA and the relevant football bodies that has finally led to another Team GB football side being formed.
The wealth of players at Team GB’s disposal has grown several-fold since Hope Powell picked her side in 2012. As Head Coach, Hege Riise, stated in her recent press conference, picking her 22 to travel to Tokyo “has been the hardest decision I ever made” but felt “really proud to have that honour”.
There was a fine balance to be found. The squad needed to be inclusive of the nations beyond England whilst also provide the team with their best chance of getting their hands on that gold medal. The players also needed to show their versatility – a team of 18 is not huge and leaves little room for injuries or error. Within the chosen squad, Riise has certainly picked with that quality in mind, with the majority able to play in multiple positions across the pitch.
And as ever, the blend of experience and youth, is vital. By including five former Olympians – Houghton; Little; Ellen White; Karen Bardsley; and Scott – Riise has ensured she has figures with the experience of playing in a tournament that is like no other. These players have had the experience of the pitfalls of 2012 where they went from the high of beating Brazil at Wembley to being knocked out by Canada just a few days later. As Jill Scott told us: “I think there’s big learnings from that tournament when I look back and probably things that would be expected from an Olympic Games. We probably played to the occasion too much….So I think there was big learnings of not letting the occasion get to us. You have the highs of playing at Wembley in front of 80,000 people and then suddenly the game is in Coventry. You can’t live off the last result because the next game is right around the corner. So, whether it’s success, defeat, you have to pick yourself up and go again.”
The omission of Jordan Nobbs and Alex Greenwood were the biggest eyebrow raisers in the selection. Greenwood missed out to Demi Stokes, who has struggled considerably with her fitness this season. Meanwhile, most fans of the game would probably have put Nobbs’ name down as one of the first on the list of 18, with her box-to-box running, football intelligence and leadership qualities.
For the players that are going, there is a deep understanding of the responsibility they are carrying, especially with the continuing pandemic situation. It will be an Olympics like no other. The aim, as Millie Bright clearly stated, is to win – “We’re a team that wants to win. We’ve got players in the squad that have got a strong winning mentality.”
It will be far from an easy task with a tough Group E ahead of them – they will face hosts Japan in the opener, before newbies Chile and old rivals Canada – a fact that hasn’t passed Scott by: “This isn’t going to be an easy group by any means and we’ve got to hit the ground running and as you know with every tournament you have to stay in it mentally and physically. It’s going to be very hot out there”. The lack of playing time will make it tougher. However, 15 England players with 3 Scottish and Welsh inclusions who all play FAWSL football might help. In fact, all of these players know each other very well, either as a team mate and opponent, hopefully improving the cohesion between them.
While the task ahead of Team GB is unlike any that other teams will have to face, the opportunity to play in the coveted tournament will no doubt drive every athlete forward. As Millie Bright summed up, “I’m pretty sure everyone’s emotion is just shock that we’re here. It’s happening. We’re going to the Olympics.”