Ever since the British Olympic Association announced that Team GB would again be fielding a women’s football team I have been counting the days until the Games begin, and at the time of writing we are fifty-three days away. Last Thursday I had the pleasure of being part of the team’s media day, along with the great and the good of women’s football journalism in the United Kingdom.
Hege Riise had the unenviable job of selecting eighteen players for what will be a minimum of four games, beginning with a friendly in the UK before the team flies out to Japan. There weren’t too many surprises in the squad with much of the conversation been about who was left out. The biggest omissions were Arsenal’s Beth Mead and Jordan Nobbs, Man City’s Alex Greenwood and Chelsea pair Erin Cuthbert and Beth England.
Arsenal’s Leah Williamson said, “It’s really difficult. Me, Kim and Lotte have all been given a fantastic opportunity which obviously the other girls are very happy for us, but it does weigh you down, it’s something you all want to experience together. I think it shows how strong a squad it is, especially the competition in the area that those girls play in, but all over the pitch to be fair, because I bet there’s loads of people out there that would have the people that have missed out in their starting XI, let alone their squad. So I think it shows once again how strong the team is. I think if we’re leaving players out like that who are, in my opinion, world-class, then yes we must have something good.”
Everton’s Jill Scott added. “I wouldn’t have liked to have had the job of picking the squad. There was only ever going to be twenty-two going so there was always going to be great players missing out. In terms of what I expect, we want to go there and win this tournament. We have such fantastic players. Looking at the midfield, because I am a midfielder, Caroline Weir, Kim Little, Sophie Ingle, Keira Walsh, they’ve all had fantastic seasons at club and their call ups are really deserved.
“I’m excited. I always say to Caz Weir, she’ll tell you, that I’m her biggest fan. I watch her in training and some of the stuff she does with the ball is absolutely incredible so I’m so happy for her to get this opportunity to go and express herself at an Olympic Games.”
Scott is one of five players including Karen Bardsley, Steph Houghton, Ellen White and Kim Little who return to the squad after previously representing Team GB during London 2012. Their experience is something that appears to be important to Riise. She said, “Being in an Olympics is special. Having players with experience of it that can be almost coaches on the field, in training, in the meetings is important.
“When you look at history it is the experienced player that will show the young ones, inexperienced players, how things work. The mix we have now, the eagerness of the young players that want to do everything, and then the experience players that can say when it’s not a good idea to do something and help to advise them to make the best decisions is really good. I’m comfortable that the experienced players know what to do and how to help the younger players.”
Karen Bardsley’s inclusion has split fan opinion and I fully understand why, Bardsley’s playing time has been minimal in the last couple of years and her recall to the Lionesses squad was marred by a mistake which resulted in a goal for Canada in a 2-0 loss. On her inclusion, Riise said, “She’s moved to the US and is playing for a club team there. She’s getting the playing time that is needed and she has the experience. So the 45 minutes against Canada wasn’t representative. In the meeting with the group she was great and that is why she was picked for this Olympics.”
However, in the 83rd minute of OL Reign’s 1-0 defeat to Washington Spirit on Sunday, Bardsley went down in what appeared to be a non-contact injury and had to be helped off the pitch. This could lead to Everton’s Sandy MacIver being promoted to the match playing squad, although whether Bardsley would then take the place as a reserve or Riise will call up another keeper, perhaps Hannah Hampton or Mary Earps, we just know yet.
The youngest player in the squad is Manchester City’s Lauren Hemp, a player who deservedly appeared in many football writer’s WSL Team of the Year. Hemp doesn’t believe her young age will be an issue, saying “I feel like I am still quite confident going into the Games – I’m ready to prove why I should be there. I’m alongside some talented players and hopefully we’ll go on and achieve big things.”
She also shared what qualities she thinks that she can bring to the team, “I’d probably say I’m quite confident on the ball. I like to take players on, run with it, I’m quite quick. I think everyone here offers something different and versatile, which is great. We’ve got such a talented squad that I know we can go on and beat anyone we want to. You have to beat the best to be the best, and it’s going to be a tough group stage as well, and I know we are going to prepare in the best way. I’ve just got to use what my strengths are and hopefully I can help the team as much as I can.”
Hemp also hopes that this side can emulate the London 2012 side and inspire further participation in women’s and girl’s football, “I think it’s really important. I’m really proud to come from the area I do [Norfolk], and sadly there isn’t a WSL or Championship team round there. I had to move away from home at a very young age. I think it’s good having someone from that area that is going on to compete in an Olympics, and I just hope that I can inspire the next generation of young girls and boys wanting to play football when they are older.
“I knew when I was watching the London 2012 Olympics that I wanted to be just like those girls playing. I’m hoping I can inspire some of those girls to hopefully want to play professional football, and I think it’s massive for the game and massive for young girls wanting to play football when they’re older. It will definitely help the growth of the women’s game.”
Personally, I would have liked to have seen more representation from the other home nations. As a big Erin Cuthbert fan, I’d have her in the squad but then I’d struggle to come up with a compelling case of who should miss out. This shows how difficult Riise’s job was and how much quality is available to her.
Northern Ireland’s Liverpool midfielder, Rachel Furness, was disappointed that her teammates weren’t given more serious consideration by the selectors. She tweeted, “Congratulations to everyone that has been selected for Team GB, what an achievement, with so much talent to choose from as well. I do however feel what we’ve recently achieved as a nation with Northern Ireland has been overlooked somewhat. I’ll always back my teammates.” Presently I don’t believe that there are any players within the Northern Ireland squad who should have been named in this squad but I hope that this changes in future.
Chelsea and Wales’ Sophie Ingle is one of three non-English players in the squad. With regards to her Welsh teammates she said, “I’m gutted that I won’t get to share this experience with another Welsh teammate or a few Welsh teammates but I know they’re really proud that I’m going to be here representing them and they’re always really supportive, which is the main thing.”
Ingle added that Riise has began to acquaint herself with the squad. “She started our Zoom call by explaining how she had won a gold medal before and it was just amazing to hear that story. I obviously knew she had won gold but she went through the games of how she actually got to the final and what happened in the final. That was really inspiring for me to hear, that now that’s going to be my manager leading into the summer, and she’s already experienced such amazing things and has a gold medal. And that’s all we can hope for and dream of.”
Team GB has been drawn in Group E and will face hosts Japan, Chile and Canada. Their campaign will kick off against Chile on July 21st, they will play Japan on July 24th and finish the group stage against Canada on July 27th. Rest assured that we shall be following the whole competition on the website and via our podcast.