The Olympics, I believe, have a split personality. Partly the Olympics are about the beauty of competition: the lovely narratives of individuals who triumph over overwhelming odds and exquisite examples of sportsmanship and sporting brotherhood and sisterhood. But the Olympics are also about flag-waving patriotism. I have to admit when the U.S. faces other countries, my default mode says, “Root for the ol’ Stars and Stripes.” I believe that’s why the women’s soccer tournament is more interesting and exciting for many people in this country. While the U.S. did not qualify for the men’s tournament, the US women are viewed as favorites and have done nothing to change that through the opening round.
The powerhouses advance
The women’s tournament is shaping up according to script. The quarter finals (final 8 teams) will be the domain of the highest ranking teams in the world. The United States, Japan, Sweden, Brazil, France, Canada, England (the Great Britain team is composed of almost all English players and two Scots) are all ranked among the world’s top 10. Only New Zealand, ranked 23 in the world, is considered an upstart. But the team that has looked the best has been the United States. In their first match against France they received a shock when French team scored two early goals. The U.S. regained their composure and scored four unanswered goals and then went on to defeat Columbia (3-0) and North Korea (by a completely misleading 1-0 score-line).
There are intriguing matches in the quarter finals set to be played today, August 3. Brazil, a traditional power will play the defending world champions Japan. Another interesting fixture is Great Britain and Canada, both countries that accept the Queen as their sovereign. The U.S. will play New Zealand, and Sweden will face France.
The world’s best players are playing like, well, the world’s best. For the Americans, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach have maintained a formidable combination as forwards, scoring goals and dishing out assists to each other. Marta, the Brazilian maestro who has been 5-time world player of the year, has led her side to second round qualification, while scoring a couple of goals.
Some new names are emerging, too. Melissa Tancredi of Canada, for example, scored four goals in the opening round (including both goals in a 2-2 draw with Sweden, in which Canada needed a tie to advance). A second player to burst onto the international stage is Stephanie Houghton from Great Britain who has scored three goals from the fullback position, including the game winner as the Brits defeated the favored Brazilians.
Does language matter?
Four of the final eight teams to advance to the quarter finals come from countries that are predominantly English-speaking. Is this a strange coincidence? I would argue that this is not a fluke but the product of history. Each of these countries shares a political heritage with England and its belief in the rule of law and the importance of individual rights. In these countries women have been given (through protest in some cases) access to voting, education and sports (such as soccer) at higher levels than in many other countries. For example, in the United States Title IX has given women more opportunities to play college athletics than they previously had.
Going into the Olympics, the United States was favored to win the gold medal, and they have done nothing to jeopardize their position as the team to beat. Therefore, I expect them to bring home their fourth gold medal in five attempts. And when the U.S. plays I will be watching with all the neutrality of a true patriot, cheering every great play and angry with the officials over every call that does not go our way, while wear some sort of clothing with an American flag on it!
But who will challenge our team? The two biggest challengers, Japan and Brazil, will meet in the quarter-finals. Whoever wins that match stands a good chance to make the gold medal match.
Great Britain is my choice to win the bronze on their home soil. The quarterfinals will be held on August 3, the semis on August 6 and the gold and bronze medal matches will be held on August 9.
Greg Olson has taught history for 13 years at Baymonte Christian School in Scotts Valley. He has played soccer for more than 30 years and coached for nearly 20. He earned his doctorate in history from Claremont Graduate University in 2008.