Quick name the first sport to kick-off the competition schedule at #Rio2016? Ok, that was an easy one. Obviously it is women's football....hence the first #TwineTime sport preview of the games right?
The competition in Brazil is going to be fierce and competitive. With 7 Top 10 teams qualifying for the tournament, this really is a wide open race for the podium. All 7 nations have legit hopes and chances to leave Brazil with a medal around their neck. Two other competing nations are ranked in the Top 16. There are really no "bingo square" games during the slate of group stage matches.
Let's quickly do a #RioRewind and look at the Olympic history behind women's football:
- 2016 will be the 6th Summer Olympics to host women's football. The first tournament took place in 1996 (Athens, GA, USA).
- To say the USA women's football program has dominated the competition is almost an understatement. They have won 5 gold medals, including the past 3. Their other medal was a silver when they were upset in the 2000 final vs. Norway.
- Brazil has lost 2 gold medal finals (2004, 2008), both to the USA. They also finished 4th in the first two Olympic tournaments (1996, 2000). They will be looking for their first gold medal on home soil.
- Is there a home nation curse? The USA won the first gold at home but since then no home nation team has made it past the quarterfinals. China (2008) and Great Britain (2012) both made the quarterfinal round only to suffer tough defeats.
- The most goals scored in one tournament by a female player is Canada's Christine Sinclair, who found the back of the net 6 times in London while leading her nation to a bronze medal finish.
Alright, let's jump away from the warm-up track and into the action. Here is the #TwineTime Rio 2016 Women's Football Preview:
2012 Podium: G - USA, S - Japan, B - Canada
USA (FIFA Ranking #1) - Without a doubt Team USA will head to Brazil as the overwhelming favourite to #4peat as Olympic champions. Their recent record alone would make them favourites, forget about historical. Since August 2015, the team has compiled an impressive 21-1-2 record in international friendlies, Olympic qualification and international tournaments. Their only loss was back in December vs. China. The two ties came against Brazil (October 2015) and Japan (June 2016). They are undefeated in 2016 and have only allowed a total of 4 goals in 15 matches...and three of those goals came in their tie with Japan! The World Cup champions will come to Brazil with a lot of confidence knowing there is no team competing along side them who they have not and cannot defeat. They will be tested though in the group stage, especially versus France. Anything less than first place in the group would be an upset though.
Germany (#2) - The Germans will look to finally break through Olympic competition in Brazil. After back-to-back-to-back bronze medal finishes in 2000, 2004 and 2008, Germany failed to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. The Germans did win back-to-back World Cup titles in 2003 and 2007. They also finished 4th at last year's World Cup in Canada. But that was then and this is now. The #2 ranked team in the world has been on a tear since UEFA Women's Euro 2017 qualifying started, having won their opening 6 games and outscoring their opponents 30-0. In 2016 alone, the Germans are 5-1 with their only loss coming against USA (March). The Germans will be in the toughest group though competing against fellow Top 5 nation Australia and Top 10 nation Canada. It won't be a walk in the park by any means but a Top 2 finish should be a guarantee.
France (#3) - Les Bleues preview could really just say see above as the comparisons between France and Germany are plentiful. Since the start of UEFA Women's Euro qualifying, France has gone a perfect 7-0 outscoring their opposition 21-0. France also saw heartbreak four years ago in London. Sure, unlike Germany, they qualified for the tournament. However, the suffered perhaps a worst fate in losing the bronze medal game to Canada on an added time goal at the end of the game. France has seen one of the most rapid improvements of any FIFA nation. This will be only their 2nd Olympic competition and they have only competed in 3 World Cups, reaching the QF last year and finishing 4th in 2011. They have really only been highly competitive since 2010 but in 6 short years have become one of the more dangerous teams in the world and one no team really wants to play in Brazil. They unfortunately draw the USA in their group stage but a strong result, a win or even a tie, could set them up nicely for an easier road to the podium. Suffer a loss and they could find themselves matched up with Germany in the quarterfinals.
Watch Out For
Canada (#10) - The defending Olympic bronze medalists will try to replicate, or better, their magical performance in London. Sure the story had a happy ending with the podium finish but sports fans really remember the semi-final game vs USA as being the true heartbreak of the tournament. A questionable awarded penalty kick and poor officiating ruling in added extra time both led to USA goals and the win. Canada was the more dominant team though and many, myself included, believed they should have won that game. Fast forward to 2016 though and Canada will be in tough to find the podium. A strong quarterfinal finish at the 2015 World Cup on home soil was nice but, again, the talk was on missed opportunities. They had a winnable QF game vs. England they let slip away. They cannot allow for similar mental mistakes in Brazil. Their record in 2016 is a very modest 10-4, including victories over fellow Olympic competitors Brazil (twice) and China but also losses to USA, Brazil and France. Their group is tough with Germany and Australia (and first-time Zimbabwe). They open with Australia so a strong result out of the gate could set up a winner take all final group stage match vs Germany. If Canada does open with a W over Australia, a loss to Germany could be a blessing in disguise as the Group F runner-up is already slotted to take on the Group E runner-up in the quarterfinals meaning a possible playoff game vs. Brazil/Sweden/China....sounds a lot better than a potential quaterfinal match vs. USA or France I would say.
Australia (#5) - Speaking of the Matildas, they return for their 3rd Olympic competition. In London they were the darlings of the tournament, reaching the quarterfinals. In fact, in the past three World Cups (2007, 2011, 2015), Australia has reached the quarterfinal stage. It is getting over that QF hump that seems to be the cause of concern. In 2016, they sport a 5-1-2 record, including victories over #2 (and failed to qualify here) Japan and New Zealand. They have ties vs. fellow Olympic competitors China and New Zealand and their one loss was to host nation Brazil. This team can compete with many of the best nations in the world but can they keep up with the top nations? This tournament will be the tell-all sign. Coupled with Germany and Canada, if they want any hope of a medal they cannot afford 2 losses in their opening games. Having to play a wild card team like Zimbabwe who could also be playing for a playoff spot in the final group stage match would be a dangerous situation to be in.
Brazil (#8) - Beware the host nation! The team itself may not strike a ton of fear in you at the beginning but when you walk onto the pitch and hear those Brazilian fans cheering and chanting, you cannot help but feel a bit intimidated perhaps. From 1996 - 2008, Brazil was considered one of the top women's nations in the world and a team on the short-list of contenders to potentially dethrone the mighty Americans. During this time span the team made two World Cup podiums (Runner-Up - 2007, Bronze - 1999) and two Olympic silver medal finishes (2004, 2008). However, recently the team has seen a dip in performance. The quarterfinal finish in London and only a Round of 16 finish at the 2015 World Cup have cast a bit of concern among the football fans in Brazil heading into this competition. Betting against Brazil on home soil is never a good idea; however, this is not the same dominant Brazil team we used to see. In 2016, Brazil sports a 5-2-0 record with both losses coming to Canada. Included in their wins are victories over fellow competing nations Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The team certainly cannot feel too slighted by the draw as they will play Sweden, China and South Africa. Topping the group is not out of the question, meaning perhaps a more winnable quarterfinal match up and easier shot at the podium. They cannot slip up early though.
The Dark Horse
Sweden (#6) - The 6th ranked team in the world as a dark horse? Really? Honestly I am just not sure what to make of this team. The ranking is high. They have strong results heading into the games, including a dominant 3-0 win over Japan just before arriving in Brazil. On the flip side, their recent international competition record is spotty. They failed to win a game at the 2015 World Cup, qualifying for the Round of 16 based on 3 group stage draws and lost in the quarterfinals in London after picking up only 1 group stage win (vs. South Africa). This team seems to draw a lot and has a tough time scoring. This could be a problem in Brazil. Similar to above though, they have the easier group to open play. They should win vs. South Africa once again and a strong result (perhaps a couple of draws?) against host Brazil and China could be all they need to advance.
China (#12) - Ummmm, see Brazil and Sweden? Ok seriously though, that is how wide open this group is. The odd thing I say it's wide open but not because I believe all three are serious medal contenders. It's almost the opposite. All three are similar and none of them are dominant so it could go either way. Substitute France or Canada for Sweden or Brazil and I would say they would be the group favourite. China has seen an even more stark decline internationally then fellow group nation Brazil. The Steel Roses were runner-up finishers at the 1996 Summer Games and 1999 World Cup but since then....nothing major to note. World Cup quarterfinal appearances in 2003, 2007 and 2015. A quarterfinal appearance at the 2008 Summer Games (as host nation). They failed to qualify for London. Their 2016 record is 9-2-4. Sure there are a few nice wins, namely over Japan in March...but who hasn't beat Japan in 2016 it seems? Concerning are the losses to France and Canada. More concerning are the ties with Mexico and Costa Rica. A quarterfinal appearance should be considered a strong finish for China. Again, they are really only in the dark horse conversation because of who they play in the group stage. Drawn into any other group and this team would be an "Others"...similar to...
New Zealand (#16) - The Football Ferns will be making their 3rd straight Olympic appearance and have seen better results each time. At their inaugural tournament in 2008 they suffered 3 straight defeats and were eliminated in the group stage. In 2012, the team collected their first ever Olympic victory (over Cameroon) and qualified for the quarterfinals. They have qualified for the past 3 World Cups as well but are yet to record a World Cup victory, being eliminated each time in the group stage. The 2016 results have been concerning with a 2-3-3 record. They have losses to Brazil and Australia as well as a tie against Australia in their final Rio tune-up match. New Zealand will be in tough vs USA, France and Columbia. Replicating the result in London might be too far a stretch this time around.
Columbia (#24) - Columbia will be making their 2nd Olympic appearance, having competed in London. Four years ago was a tough rookie campaign for the team as they suffered three straight defeats, failing to score a goal. However, there is some bright light for the team to focus on. At the 2015 World Cup, the Powerpuff Girls collected their first ever victory en route to a history making Round of 16 appearance. The 2016 record is 4-2-0 with all 4 wins coming vs. Venezuela and both losses coming to the USA (being outscored a combined 10-0). Of course Columbia once again will play USA in the group stage, along with France and New Zealand. The second match day game vs. New Zealand is the big one. Whichever nation can collect the W will have a strong shot at reaching the quarterfinals. A tie or loss could be lights out for either side (or both if a tie). Pressure will be on come August 6.
South Africa (#54) - Speaking of teams making their second Olympic appearance, South Africa will do the same in Brazil. Even more amazing, this will also be only the second major international competition for South Africa. The Banyana Banyana have never qualified for the World Cup. Don't underestimate this team too much though. In London they did draw with Japan in the group stage and of course Japan ended up with a silver medal. The team has yet to win a game on the international stage and will be in tough against Brazil, China and Sweden. However. if there was a group for them to perhaps steal a point or two from a higher ranked opponent, the draw gods have provided them with the best possible outcome. Everyone loves an upset story, could Rio be their's?
Zimbabwe (#95) - Who are we kidding? If we wanted a true upset "Miracle on the Pitch" type moment, we are all cheering for debut nation Zimbabwe right? The Mighty Warriors have never qualified for a major international tournament in the past so this is a true #growthesport type of story here. In fact, their first major international match only occurred in 2000 at the African Women's Championship, a 2-2 draw vs. Uganda. In Brazil, they will match up against Germany, Australia and Canada. #Yikes Welcome to Rio!!
Group E Group F Group G
1. Brazil (q) 1. Germany (q) 1. USA (q)
2. China (q) 2. Canada (q) 2. France (q)
3. Sweden (q) 3. Australia (q) 3. Columbia
4. South Africa 4. Zimbabwe 4. New Zealand
Brazil over Australia
USA over Sweden
Germany over France
Canada over China
USA over Brazil
Germany over Canada
Canada over Brazil
USA over Germany
#TwineTime Medal Picks
Gold - USA
Silver - Germany
Bronze - Canada