Some Thoughts Before Olympic Women’s Football

This week Olympic football will begin.  Because the competition is so long, preliminary matches begin prior to the Opening Ceremonies.  The run-up to the men’s tournament has been more perfunctory than excitement (especially in the United States as our team did not qualify).  The Olympics is not on the men’s calendar and thus clubs are not forced to relinquish players the way that they are for other international tournaments and friendlies.  The men’s tournament also gets little attention–especially in comparison to the World Cup–because most of the world’s best players do not play.  The tournament is for players who are under 23.  Three designated older players are allowed in the squad, but to detractors that is just adding lipstick to a pig.

According to Tim Vickery, the Brazilians see this as a halfway house to the World Cup, a way for them to refine and hone their squad before the pressures of Brazil 2014.  It is also the one competition the Brazilians have not won (especially galling as both Uruguay and Argentina have won), and they desperately want the gold medal.

In contrast, the British public see this as more of a curiosity than anything else.  This is the London Olympics, and London is the capital of the United Kingdom.  While in football, the individual nations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have their own teams and identities, in the Olympics, they compete under one banner.  As a British team automatically qualified by virtue of being the host, the Home Nations were in something of a bind.  Desperately afraid of being forced by FIFA to give up their individual identities, the FAs of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland refused to have anything to do with the competition.  As a result, the men’s team is England plus five Welsh players (and no David Beckham) while the women’s team is England plus two Scottish players.  And no one seems to know quite how to react to Team Great Britain because the team lacks history, identity, and continuity.

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In contrast to the men’s competition, the women’s competition is extremely important.  Only the World Cup is a bigger tournament, and the argument can be made that more people will watch the Olympics (although perhaps not the women’s football part).  For the American women in particular, the Olympics has always been a chance to reestablish both visibility and dominance.  The 1996 Olympics and not the 1999 World Cup is what first brought the USWNT to the national consciousness.  In 2004 and 2008, the USWNT soothed the wounds of two consecutive third place finishes at the World Cup with Olympic gold medals.  The only Olympic gold medal the USWNT has not won was in 2000 (silver medal to Norway), the year after the great 1999 victory.  The Olympic Games is shorthand for USWNT redemption.  In the wake of the loss to Japan in last year’s World Cup final and the collapse of the WPS the Americans are again seeking a redemptive gold medal to reestablish their dominance.

But the US is not the only team with a message.  Nor are they the only team looking for redemption (Canada? Brazil?).  The women’s game has never been stronger, and each tournament has gotten more competitive and better.  If the trajectory continues, than this could well be the best tournament in the history of the women’s game.

If we were to look at the shift of power in the women’s game since the first World Cup, change has been remarkable.  Norway has fallen and most likely will never return.  China appears to be on the same path, a true loss for the nation that gave the world Sun Wen.  Japan won the last World Cup in spectacular fashion, Brazil (the nation of Marta) constantly threaten but have yet to break through, while stylish France figure to be the team of the future.  Of the original major powers of the game, only the US, Sweden, and Germany are still anywhere near the top.

The surprise of the tournament is not so much who is playing, but rather who is not, and at the top of that list is Germany.  Unlike fellow absentees China and Norway, Germany are still a dominant force.  Only the top two Europeans teams from the World Cup (and Team GB) qualified for London.  Germany, already faltering under the weight of expectations, ran into an inspired Japan side too early in the tournament.  Had Germany not won its group, than it is entirely possible that they would have been at the Olympics rather than France or Sweden.

Australia are a rising world power who did not make the Olympics.  The Matildas came in third place in a qualification system in which only the top two advanced.  Japan and perennial group-stage-only North Korea advanced.  Japan will delight, and North Korea will bore.  (North Korea has been disqualified for the next World Cup, so in three years we will not be forced to watch their stifling defensive play.)

The other major shocking absence, perhaps the biggest shocking absence, is Nigeria.  While Nigeria have not dominated the world scene, the Super Falcons have dominated Africa.  Nigeria have been to every Olympics and World Cup since 1991, save for the 1996 Olympics when no African team played.  Only Ghana and Equatorial Guinea (who were disqualified from Olympic qualification) have also competed outside of Africa.  This year though there are two completely new faces.  Cameroon and South Africa are making their first international tournament appearances.  Cameroon eliminated Nigeria and Ghana did not make it to the final four.  I am completely unfamiliar with both Cameroon and South Africa and look forward to seeing both.

The other two nations I am most excited about (aside from the US) are Brazil and Japan.  Brazil desperately need a title.  Every year they get so frustratingly close, and then it falls apart.  Marta may go down as the greatest player never to have won an international title, a sort of Brazilian George Best or Alfredo DiStefano.  Brazil need a title to establish credibility at home.  Women’s football is at best an afterthought in Brazil, especially under the stweardship of the greedy, corrupt former CFB head Ricardo Teixeira.  Santos shut down its wildly successful women’s club team just so that it could save money to pay O Fauxhawk, who will no doubt leave for Europe very shortly.

Japan’s women’s team are (or were) heroes at home.  Following the World Cup win last year, they were everywhere, and no one more so than the great Homare Sawa.  Yet the Japanese women too are fighting an uphill battle against sexism.  How shameful was it that the Japanese women’s team, the world champions, were forced to sit in economy class seats for their flight, while the men (again an U23 team) were given business class seats.  The Japanese FA should be publicly shamed.  I would also urge the Nadeshiko to consider doing what the USWNT team did when it felt unappreciated by the USSF, go on strike.

One hopes Canada does well at this tournament.  The 2011 World Cup was a debacle and a tragedy.  Had Canada been in any other group, that would not have happened, but luck was not with them.  This year they got Sweden and Japan in their group, which is not very comforting.  Hopefully Christine Sinclair’s nose will remain unbroken.

Sweden, I have not seem much of.  Do they still do that stupid goal dance?  They have Lotta Schelin who is an incredible talent, and very exciting to watch.  Their match against Japan will be (along with US v. France) the match of the group stage.

New Zealand is everyone’s second or third team.  Another team on the verge of breaking through, not so much in terms of winning titles, but finally winning a match.  Maybe against Cameroon?  Two third place teams will advance to the quarterfinals.  Perhaps this is finally New Zealand’s year.  I hope so.  Unlike the Swedish goal dance, I love seeing the haka.

Is it my imagination or do the US and North Korea always get drawn together?  It’s as unavoidable as death and taxes.  The US plays North Korea and Colombia in the group stage.  Substitute Sweden for France and it is the exact same World Cup group stage from a year ago.  I am beginning to think the draw is rigged.

Colombia, like Brazil, is fighting a sexist tide in their country.  Last year there were flashes of inspiration, but those flashes were few and far between.  Yoreli Rincón, who has publicly announced her desire to be the next Marta, was supposed to be the revelation of the World Cup, but instead disappointed and barely played after her first match.  Now a year later she too has a chance for redemption as does the entire Colombian team.  Hopefully they are more interesting this year.

And finally Team GB.  I am just hoping two things: (1) they do their nation proud, and (2) they do not lose in penalties.

All matches are on the same day.  There is no way I can watch 6 matches a day, but I will try to write whenever I can.

Predictions:  After the World Cup, I should shy away from predictions but here goes.

Group E (there is no A,B, C, or D.  Those are in the men’s draw): (1) Brazil; (2) Great Britain; (3) New Zealand; (4) Cameroon

Group F: (1) Sweden; (2) Japan; (3) Canada; (4) South Africa

Group G: (1) United States; (2) France; (3) Colombia; (4) North Korea

Quarterfinals: Brazil v. Canada; US v. New Zealand; Sweden v. France; Great Britain v. Japan

Semifinals: Brazil v. US; France v. Japan

Finals: US v. France

Gold: US

Silver: France

Bronze: Japan

Watch as North Korea wins the entire thing.

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