Women’s Game on the UpswingOlympic soccer continues trend of technical and tactical improvements
by Ken Sweda | Thursday, August 02, 2012
The 2012 edition of the Summer Olympics is serving to confirm a trend seen in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and a positive trend at that.
Women’s soccer is improving on perhaps the most important front: the game is finally, and consistently, moving away from the less sophisticated, athlete-based and direct style favored by so many teams in their first forays into the game on the women’s side. While some countries cling to the old ways, many more are starting to find the real game.
Indeed, just two days ago, Team GB’s ladies defeated perennial fan (and title) favorites Brazil 1-0 before a raucous home crowd.
In the past, if a British team (men or women) defeated Brazil, it would be a stunning result, certainly, but it would usually mean the Brits had “roughed up” their counterparts and probably gotten lucky on a set piece. In short, it would be the exception that proved the rule, confirming only that nothing had really changed.
However, on this occasion, it was the way in which Britain’s women played the game that was the story. The performances seemed almost a complete reversal of the norm. Where Brazil is usually known for their impeccable ball mastery, inventiveness and attacking bravado, British football has traditionally been hard and direct, and even the Brit women have tended to favor a dose of those elements. On this day, though, and so far in these Olympics, Brazil has lacked their usual crisp possession and flair, while GB handled the ball with composure and decisiveness, driving the play and frustrating Brazil.
Indeed, I and others in the coaching community noted via social media that GB’s ability to possess the ball and find clever attacking sequences oftentimes surpassed their rather direct and staid men’s squad.
This has been a development in the making for some time and follows the same arc as the experiences of France, Japan, Spain and a few others.
What explains the rise of technically adept, tactically sophisticated play on the part of an increasing number of women’s teams? Largely two things.
Increased Resources From Increased Acceptance
National Federations around the world have finally begun putting resources into the women’s game, in both money and (wo)manpower. Ironically, one of the things that most readily confirms this is the fall in stature suffered by both Brazil and China, where support has waned substantially in recent years. The sport is a religion is most of the world, no more so than in Brazil, but the dual-edged sword is that the men’s game is the established religion there, and the women’s game still suffers from a lack of acceptance and support. The Chinese fall, on the other hand, appears to be the result of a bigger emphasis on individual sports by the sporting federation leadership, and therefore the support has simply been moved to other pursuits in the female sporting spectrum.
Technical Investment vs Physical Shortsightedness
Second, and equally importantly, the women’s programs in the most quickly improving and promising countries have followed the developmental lead of their men’s programs, rather than choosing to emulate traditional powers like the US and Sweden who have focused more on physical qualities since the early days, and largely still do.
Japan, for example, completely retooled their process, and established a foundation of ball mastery and technical dominance, using among other things a well-known technical skills development company. That foundation of technical ability is at the core of their men’s program and is a direct response to their acknowledged physical disadvantages. It has produced a rapid ascent in the women’s ranks, culminating as we know in a Women’s World Cup title in 2011. Their ability to possess the ball has become their biggest offensive, as well as defensive, advantage and has helped them neutralize the size, strength and fitness of opponents that have traditionally posed the biggest challenge.
It should be noted that Japan refashioned its ladies’ program from the ground up, building, virtually from scratch, a player pool of approximately 25,000 youth and young adult female players. By contrast, there are approximately 250,000 registered female players in the state of California alone. The age-old maxim of quality over quantity has certainly been proven valid once again.
France rose in a similar fashion, and although not as precise in their style as Japan, they, too, took the lessons from their men’s program and applied them to their own side. Technical competency is important to their game, but their play is more open and displays more flair than Japan. France’s use of the ethnic diversity in its immigrant population, and the creativity that fosters, also mirrors the changes we saw in France’s celebrated men’s sides of the 1990s. It comes as no surprise that the bulk of France’s women’s team comes from the club side Lyon, winners of the last two Women’s Champions League finals in two of the most well-played, technical and accomplished displays of women’s soccer I have ever seen.
On the North American women’s sides, midfielder Megan Rapinoe, by far the USA’s most technical and tactically astute player, has finally been given consistent starting assignments, producing some of the most sublime play in the ladies’ tournament. It is encouraging to say the least, and hopefully a sign of things to come for the Americans, especially if they want to continue dominating the female side of the game as it becomes more skill-focused. And dynamic Canadian midfielder Diane Matheson, barely 5 feet tall, also continues to prove that skill and vision, not purely physical qualities, are at the heart of a true footballer.
The Olympics have shown that even teams which were not expected to challenge for medals in these Olympics have given these up-and-comers a hearty challenge. The results may not be measurable, but they are noticeable.
These are all great signs that the women’s game continues to grow in the right ways. The Gold Medal winning side at these Olympics may not come from among the ever-growing number of progressive footballing nations, but the day is coming when those teams will consistently take their place on the highest stand of the podium.