(Teams listed in predicted order of finish.)
While they’re always in the back of people’s minds it seems, after three consecutive major tournaments without a single knockout-round victory, Brazil does not find itself among the consensus medal picks for this year’s Olympics. But maybe that’s just where the players want to be. After years of often lukewarm support from its own federation and people, Brazil has the opportunity – finally – to play in front of large and partisan home crowds and will surely try to take advantage of the opportunity.
It’s a veteran squad Brazil has put together for this competition, led by names that have seemingly been around for decades: Marta and Cristiane. At 30 and 31, respectively, they won’t need any extra motivation throughout the tournament (not to mention 38-year-old Formiga). Brazil did go through the group stages not only undefeated, but unscored upon at last year’s World Cup before being upset by Australia. Tamires and Erika played well then, and there’s no reason to believe scoring on Brazil will be easy this time around. And perhaps it will be like old times with a showdown against the United States in the semifinals.
Pia Sundhage and Sweden looked all but assured of not qualifying for its first major tournament ever, but despite not winning a game in four tries in Canada and getting destroyed by Germany, some nice breaks (and Great Britain not fielding a team) let them sneak into the European Olympic playoffs and Sweden took advantage, conceding just one goal in three games to edge out the host Netherlands.
The reprieve seems to have breathed new life into the Swedes as they have rolled through their subsequent friendlies, including a 3-0 beating of Japan a couple of weeks ago. Like Marta, Lotta Schelin has been pushed to the back burner of the world stage, but she’s always capable of the spectacular and now veteran Kosovare Asllani, Caroline Seger, and Nilla Fischer are still on the roster. But Sweden’s success ultimate success may hinge on relative newcomers like Fridolina Rolfo and Olivia Schough, who look ready to break onto the world stage.
Bruno Bini made news early this week with this quote that probably didn’t endear him to his former French players, “Maybe we are not as strong as other teams, but we work harder. To make a long sentence short, if I compare the Chinese team to the French team, Chinese women work harder and they complain much less.” The obvious question is just how far hard work will take China at the Olympics. China’s remarkable run through qualifying should not be downplayed, beating out Japan for the second Asian berth (after not qualifying in 2012).
China also picked up a rare win in the United States you may remember, 1-0 on a Wang Shuang penalty in December and were able to get to the quarterfinals in Canada last summer. As seems to be the theme in Group E, China will play solid defense and look to pick up a goal here and there, which may not be a bad strategy to advance in a tournament like this. And after that? Who knows?
Speaking of defense, it appears to be the strength of South Africa as well, as Banyana Banyana posted four straight clean sheets in qualifying (including two over Equatorial Guinea in the final round) to qualify for its second straight Olympics. South Africa, led by captain Janine Van Wyk in the back, seems better equipped this time around, as it showed in a 1-0 loss to the U.S. in a friendly last month.
Coach Vera Pauw has done a nice job putting this team together and given the format and the group they’re in, it would be a major shock to see South Africa advance with a little luck. That luck could come in the form of 22-year-old rising star Jermaine Seoposenwe, who could burst onto the world scene with a few goals and should not be taken lightly by opponents, especially in a group where goals will be at a premium.
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