I made my first visit to an Olympic event yesterday, to watch the final group game for the Great Britain Ladies football team as they took on Brazil at Wembley. I hadn’t been one of those who had madly tried to buy up as many Olympic tickets as possible for any event. But the football tournament was always of interest, and as well as being my Olympic bow, it was also the first time I’d watched a Women’s International game live.
I’ve got to be honest. Despite coaching a women’s football team in London for four years, whenever I’d watched the top level games (only on TV prior to last night), I’d found the game a little bit slower and of poorer quality than the men’s game, which made it quite a difficult spectator sport. As a coach, it’s completely different of course. You are constantly analysing and seeing areas to improve or work on, and gaining the satisfaction of seeing improvements in individuals and the team. On last night’s evidence though, the Women’s game in the UK is on a steep curve of improvement, as the British team gained a thoroughly deserved win against their South American counterparts.
The main nucleus of Hope Powell’s team comes from the England team she has managed for nearly 14 years. This has undoubtedly helped them build a cohesive unit for the competition, not withstanding the fact that Powell is undoubtedly a football coach of the highest order, not to mention a fine administrator (as evidenced by the amount she has done to improve the Women’s game in the UK), a passionate Brit, and with a seemingly unrelenting desire to be not just the best, but to blow all opponents out of the water. Without going into too much detail of the game itself (as I’m sure you’ll read better reports elsewhere), the GB team started strongly gaining the lead after only a couple of minutes, and continued to dominate the early exchanges as the Brazilians, whether due to fatigue or just sheer surprise at the efforts of their opponents, lacked cohesion, were frequently sloppy in possession, and were reduced to long range efforts and a more direct type of football than they are used to. In contrast, the Brits had a strong tactical plan, despite occasional errors were strong in possession, and were not afraid to mix their play up. And they were certainly more dangerous in front of goal, the 1-0 victory by no means flattering the home side. As the game wore on, I felt only an error for GB would give Brazil a share of the spoils, and the visitors were lucky to escape a second goal when Kelly Smith saw her penalty saved, and being reduced to 10 players from the same incident, only the referee knowing why Francielle was only shown yellow for her foul on Aluko when the latter was ready to shoot.
Despite a fine team performance all round, there were of course some stand out individuals. I make no apologies for the Watford bias of praising Kelly Smith, but she was undoubtedly one of the star performers, effectively on her own up front, holding the ball up well and using it intelligently and effectively. She has no doubt benefitted from her time playing the game in the US, where the women’s game has been professional much longer, and which will hopefully provide inspiration for those working in the game in the UK. Playing in an attacking midfield role was Scotland’s Kim Little, who seemed to get stronger as the game wore on. Just one look at her goalscoring statistics from her career with Arsenal Ladies show just what a talent she is, and there were a couple of moments of real quality, especially in the second half. Having seen some of the previous game against Cameroon, I’d been impressed by the two full backs, Steph Houghton on the left (despite being right footed), who has also been on the scoresheet in every game, and Alex Scott on the right, both solid at the back and an important part of the team’s attacking phases. Eniola Aluko is an interesting player, undoubtedly one of the team’s quickest and most skilful players, for me there has been a lack of end product on occasions. She still has a lot of time on her side though at just 25, and I look forward to seeing her development in the next couple of years. I should mention also the two goalkeepers on show. The position of goalkeeper has seemed to be a weak spot in the women’s game, but both custodians, Karen Bardsley for the UK and Andreia for Brazil, had solid games.
Hope Powell has been quick to play down expectation after the win. Her side face Canada in the quarter final, with the winners likely to face a strong American team in the semi finals, and the prospect of world champions Japan in the final. One thing that Powell has enjoyed over her 14 years working for the FA has been the lack of results oriented pressure that engulfs the men’s game. By increased exposure, it may well lead to more pressure for instant results. Perhaps there is something to learn from for other parts of the game, the fact that given time, a skilled individual in Hope Powell has helped develop the game to the point where it is no longer snorted at by the football public, and maybe it may increase interest from spectators and participants alike. Hopefully she will be allowed to continue the work and push towards building her dream, of an English or British team regarded as the not only as the world’s best, but the best ever. And in doing so, putting some pride back into our national game.