It looked like any other fútbol game — thousands of chanting fans packed into a picturesque stadium. The constant roar of the crowd provided the soundtrack for a show, taking place below on the perfect green grass. When the camera panned the field, however, ponytails were in abundance (and, no, it was not Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Philippe Mexes, Martin Caceres and Ronaldinho kicking around).
At one end of Wembley, Kelly Smith drove a blistering full volley just wide of the post. Moments later, at the other end, Marta vehemently demanded a better ball from her outside back. The spectacle took place in front of 70,000 people in attendance.
It was fútbol. Not “women’s fútbol,” but fútbol. Women just happened to be playing it.
Gone are the days when three or four powerhouse women’s teams dominated the world stage. No longer can you bet on a semifinal round including most of the obvious contenders of the past — the U.S., Brazil, Germany, China. This Olympic tournament holds the possibility of surprises, emerging stars and conflicting styles of play.
Before the 2011 Women’s World Cup, I considered Brazil a strong contender to be the best team in the world. It has never been known for its organization or fitness, but it has some of the most talented players in the women’s game.
Among them, Marta, Cristiane and Formiga are capable of wreaking havoc on any team at a given moment. But that is what their players are: individuals. In the World Cup, Brazil’s lack of unity was its downfall. This Olympics has proven to be more of the same. Brazil’s elimination came at the hands of its antithesis in terms of style: Japan (less individually talented, but wonderfully organized and cooperative). Brazil will continue to produce talent — evident by the emergence of young players like Thais, who immediately caught my eye — but at this point, it appears that it has fallen off. It is scary to consider what more thorough preparation could produce from this group of women.
The French had a breakthrough tournament last summer. For the first time, they were included as a top team on the women’s side — displaying skill, organization and an interesting combination of methodical possession and free-flowing creativity.
In my eyes, this Olympics is a huge test. Has France established consistent quality, or was the World Cup a fluke? I think that the French have arrived. Despite a tough loss to the U.S., France was able to score two early goals against the Americans (a feat that few, if any, teams manage), which says a lot about its potency. Additionally, coming from behind against an organized and athletic Swedish team shows that the French women have a bit of grit in their approach. I do not think this French team is going anywhere but up.
Yes, it is technically a new team, although made up mostly of English players. And, yes, it is the host nation.
England did not qualify for the last Olympic tournament. For a long time, Kelly Smith was the only English player whose name could be used in the company of the world’s best. Now the team’s style and savvy throughout the lineup, and off the bench, have impressed me. The fact that Fara Williams, who I rate as a top midfielder in the world, cannot earn a starting spot in her squad, says enough. Britain’s team has depth and speed, and it moves the ball well. This tournament has added a huge confidence boost to that mix, which could be a catalyst for enormous future success.
With certain teams on the rise, and others on the decline or out of the picture for now, the United States has proved its staying power.
This team is always a strong contender for a gold medal, and I do not see that changing in the near future. I think there are areas of the game that the Americans must improve upon to stay at the top (playing through the midfield, varying the rhythm and sophistication in terms of managing a lead, to name a few), but this team has all the pieces: talent, athleticism, organization. The production rate of Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan has been deadly, and it looks as if the U.S. is destined for gold unless an opponent is able to shut down this striker twosome.
There has been a five-team turnover in the 12-team tournament from 2008 to 2012. Only one of the teams that won a medal in the 2008 Olympics (the U.S., that won gold) is still alive in this year’s tournament. This is proof of evolution. And with evolution comes progress.
This is fútbol. Women just happen to be playing it.