Tokyo 2020: Team GB learn the hard way with Olympic heartbreak
There were mistakes. There was misfortune. But there are also lessons for Team GB from this Olympics, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
It would be foolish to say that sport was never about luck. Turn on any event at the Olympics and you will see athletes winning and losing by the tiniest of margins. Margins where you know that if the event was played out again, the result could go in the totally opposite direction. And ultimately, even if we want to feel hard done by the result, luck is not something that has no influence. To put yourself in a position when the margins matter is determined by a myriad of factors: talent, ability, mentality.
So it becomes hard to sum up the painful moments in extra time that saw Team GB lose 4-3 to Australia in the 2020 Olympics quarter-final. Going from Caroline Weir’s weak penalty being well-saved by Teagan Micah, to Mary Fowler’s hopeful shot deflecting off Lucy Bronze’s boot and into the top corner, it was one of those time periods in football which ultimately just defy logic. Everything that you thought might happen changes instantly. From that moment, it felt like it was going to be hard for GB to come back.
The decision for Weir to take the penalty was a surprise from within the GB team. Steph Houghton and Nikita Parris have taken England’s penalties in the past, whilst Kim Little, who had already been substituted, is the GB squad member who had taken the most penalties in the WSL this season. Weir had taken one and failed to score, but with Houghton and Parris having faced their own problems, there was not one outstanding penalty taker on the pitch.
The other surprise had come with the line up; most notably the decision to start Leah Williamson ahead of Millie Bright in central defence. It was a selection that Sam Kerr remarked after the game was a “mental win” for her, and Bright was brought on after 58 minutes. The rotating centre-backs earlier in the competition seemed to be leaving at least Ellie Roebuck unsettled, and it showed in the match.
If extra time seemed to come down to some moments of misfortune, the fact that Team GB ended up there was purely their own lack of organisation. It is a foolish defence who leaves Sam Kerr with space in a penalty area at the best of the times, but to do it when it is the 89th minute and you have one foot in the Olympics semi-final is pure idiocy. With Millie Bright left to go up for the header against Emily van Egmond, Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton backed off from Kerr as the ball fell to her. As Kerr cooly set herself to finish, Houghton and Bronze must have felt a familiar sense of deja vu from their league season.
The nature of Team GB is that it will always be hard to pass fair judgement on a group of players who were brought together only a couple of months ago. Whilst the bulk of them are English, Hege Riise has emphasised bringing them together as a unique group, and that will create a different effect on the side. Yet even beyond the difficulties of bringing together a set of footballers from different national sides, the build-up has been problematic. From the uncertainty surrounding who would manage the side, to phoning players to tell them they had been cut before matches, there has been the distinct sense that the FA has not really focused on giving these players the best opportunity to perform at this competition.
Now though, they must draw a line under the whole period as all three of the nations represented within the Team GB squad try to begin new cycles. With Wales, new manager Gemma Grainger has now been in charge for a couple of months, whilst Scotland have just appointed former Arsenal manager Pedro Martinez Losa. Both will be looking to get over the disappointment of failing to qualify for the 2022 Euros in England.
That Euros will heap even more pressure on England as Sarina Wiegman comes in to take charge having seen her Dutch team knocked out at the same stage by the USA. Wiegman will be the first established manager England have ever had, and the expectation will be appropriately high. Her first job will be to help this side get over their disappointing exit. Her second will be to turn the misfortune and mistakes into lessons.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph
The idea of such top defenders as Bronze and Houghton leaving Kerr unmarked is beyond startling.
Nonetheless, as Champions League clubs, inspired by the success of the US team, lavish money (finally!) on developing women footballers, Team GB will prosper, although not without stout competition from the German, French, Dutch, Swedish and Spanish teams (Italy being a laggard in helping women). Ironically, the US will not be able to match the competitors it has inspired.