Tokyo 2020: Curtain coming down on Olympics spells changing of the guard for women’s international football teams

It’s the end of an era for some of the game’s global superstars but the future’s bright, insists Jessy Parker Humphreys

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As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics comes to an end, a year later than planned, some of its stars will be contemplating what their future holds. Despite there being a 66-year-old competing (Mary Hanna, an Australian equestrian), football tends not to be quite so kind to its players when it comes to age.

That has not stopped some of the more senior players from featuring heavily during the tournament, with Formiga (43), Hedvig Lindahl (38), Christine Sinclair (38), and Carli Lloyd (39) all playing important roles. This has starkly highlighted the difference between the men’s and women’s competition, where the men’s competition is ostensibly for under-23 players – though Dani Alves (38) snuck into Brazil’s gold medal winning side. These players’ decisions on what comes next will have a significant impact on their national teams, as we wait to see whether there is a shift in the traditional power structures at the top of international women’s football.

Of all the older players, it was Sinclair who got her swansong. After 22 years of playing internationally for Canada, with 304 caps and the record for most international goals of any player, all Sinclair was missing was the winning medal to complete her collection of league titles and individual awards. The fact that the Olympics win was both unexpected and included knocking out the USA will surely have only made the victory sweeter.

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Regardless of whether Sinclair chooses to step back from international football, it felt like she handed over the baton at this tournament to 23-year-old Jessie Fleming. Ever since her debut as a 15-year-old back in 2013, Fleming has been the great hope of Canadian football. Astoundingly she has collected 90 caps since then, and it was really Fleming who hauled Canada to the gold medal. With Sinclair having missed a penalty in the quarter-final against Brazil, the ball was handed to Fleming to take crucial penalties against the USA and Sweden.

For Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl, however, her last game of international football was not quite so sweet. Confirming after the match that she would not compete in next year’s Euros, Lindahl had, like Sinclair, been hoping to get a crowning international achievement. Instead, this was her seventh second or third place finish at a major tournament. It was a similarly tough blow for 36-year-old Swedish captain Caroline Seger, who had the opportunity to win gold for her team in the penalty shoot-out but fired over the bar.

Unlike Sinclair and Lindahl, members of Team USA have not been short of international success – but this still might have represented a disappointing end to some almost unbelievably glittering international careers. The US side had the joint highest squad age alongside Brazil, with an average age of 29.3. Many of their star names are now well into their 30s, and whilst they tend to still be guaranteed to make the team sheet, some of the US performances at the Olympics have suggested they should not.

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The US often looked sluggish and slow, with a number of players having had limited minutes before the tournament. Players such as Catarina Macario who have been tipped to be the next stars of the national team got limited opportunities at the tournament, too. Vlatko Andonovski will be forced to look at if and how he rejuvenates this side ahead of the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands are facing up to the end of an era in a slightly different way, with iconic coach Sarina Wiegman taking up her new job with England. Wiegman did not get to bow out in the way she would have wanted as the Dutch lost on penalties to the USA, and incoming manager Mark Parsons will find he has a lot to live up to. Having won the Euros in 2017 and finished second at the World Cup in 2019, the Netherlands have established themselves as the European team to beat over the past couple of years. It remains to be seen whether this will be true without Wiegman at the helm.

It is normal in international football for players to gradually age out of their sides, but this tournament was noticeable for how central some of these older players are. Managers will now be forced to begin to think about their teams’ identities without those players who have played through the global rise in women’s football. For many countries, these older players are and have always been the face of their women’s teams as they have gained more attention. Yet as time moves on, it is important for countries to create new legends.

Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph

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