Pitched battle: GB get another shot at football gold after nine-year wait
There have been so many hurdles in the way of Team GB football success in Tokyo that their followers would be forgiven for feeling pessimistic about the team’s medal chances. On Tuesday 27 July they play their final group phase match, against Canada, and fingers will be crossed it is not their final game of the tournament.
Just getting this far has been an achievement. Gaining agreement among the home nations for the existence of the team beyond London 2012 has not been easy and there was no team at Rio 2016 as a result. The pandemic has not only extended the absence of a Team GB women’s football team but it has also ensured that plans have had to be torn up and started from scratch over and over. Chaos has reigned.
The former England manager Phil Neville had been charged with leading Team GB at the Games and then the Lionesses into a home Euros in 2021 but with both tournaments delayed he cut his time short. He was still expected to be unveiled as Team GB manager but when David Beckham’s Inter Miami came calling he shifted his attentions. The FA turned to Norway’s former Olympic champion, European champion and World Cup winner Hege Riise, who they had employed as a temporary assistant coach.
Preparations have been complicated. Team GB have not played a competitive or friendly fixture for nine years. The world player of the year Lucy Bronze put a kind spin on it, joking that they were undefeated in nine years, but the reality is that while 19 of the 22 players heading to Tokyo are England internationals, England have played only three times in 2021. Contrast this with the preparations of the world champions, the US, who have played 12 games in 2021 as they gear up for the Games. The World Cup runners-up, the Netherlands, and bronze medallists Sweden, have played six times each. Team GB group opponents Japan, Canada and Chile have played five, seven and four times respectively.
It has been confirmed that the four reserve players that each of the 12 teams is taking to Tokyo will be able to be included in match day squads. The addition of the four extra players will be welcome, however Team GB’s decision to pack the reserve list with young players — albeit very talented ones who could have staked a legitimate claim for an outright squad place — now looks to have been a mistake, with players such as Arsenal midfielder Jordan Nobbs, Chelsea forward Beth England and Manchester City full-back Alex Greenwood having missed out on the 18-player squad and youth favoured to travel as reserves for some much-needed tournament experience.
Despite all this, there will be optimism and hope. Team GB’s group is tough but with eight of the 12 teams progressing a win against Chile in their opening fixture will put them in a good position. Japan followed on Saturday before today’s encounter with Canada.
Most eyes will be on Group G, where the US will play Sweden, who knocked them out at the quarter-final stage in 2016, and Australia and New Zealand.
Team GB will need a heavy helping of the luck that has eluded them in the last two years and need things to click quickly but there is the talent in the squad to do something special. Equally, if things fall flat, the effect of the last year and half on preparations can not be overlooked.