On Friday, the Canadian women‘s national soccer team fought Sweden in 120 minutes of play and six thrilling penalty rounds to win their first Olympic gold medal 3-2. It was foreseeable for a long time. After winning bronze medals in a row in 2012 and 2016 – and a surprise loss to the United States in the London semifinals – the sport’s lowest superpower finally has some championship hardware.
If today’s result came as a shock, you may not have been paying attention. Canada and Sweden have spent the last two weeks putting in excellence after excellence, playing the best football of their careers and ruthlessly punishing those who failed. Nobody else did both, including marquee teams like the Netherlands and the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), which were expected to make big profits. The Netherlands – finalists of the 2019 World Cup – scored 23 goals during the tournament but failed to beat the US to advance to the semi-finals. For its part, the USWNT didn’t look like the most victorious team in women’s football history. They just didn’t play as well as their opponents, so they lost their chance at gold and went for bronze instead.
But it’s ok like that. International women’s soccer tournaments have only been around for about 30 years, and during that time few teams have meaningfully or consistently challenged the United States. (I would know – I grew up with the idol of the USWNT and have obsessively watched almost every game they have played since the 1996 Olympics.) Nowhere is this more evident than in the Games. The 2020 Olympics are only the seventh to feature women’s football, and the US has won a medal in six of them: four gold, one silver and now bronze.
As impressive as it is, the USWNT’s largely unchallenged dominance is not as positive as it may first appear: it is actually bad for players, fans, and the sport as a whole. A crooked box can indicate that one program is receiving significantly more resources, investment, and opportunity than the other, which is not only unfair – it is boring. If you already know who’s going to win, why watch?
From the jump, however, it was clear that predictability wouldn’t be an issue in Tokyo. At no point did either of us have any idea how a particular game would turn out. You may have guessed that Zambia would lose their Group F game to the Netherlands, but did you predict a 10-3 bottom line with a hat-trick each from Barbra Banda and Vivianne Miedema? How about this 4-4 banger between China and Zambia with one second Banda hat trick? (Don’t sleep on Barbra Banda.) Perhaps you felt like Vivianne Miedema was going to win the Golden Shoe, but you thought she’d make it by scoring 10 goals in her first Olympics – as many as soccer star Carli Lloyd ? shot in four? Probably not, which is precisely why this tournament was so much fun. It’s always a pleasure to watch young players announce themselves to the world, and this year’s excellence has been particularly impressive. Wherever their prosperous career takes them, fans are sure to follow them.
Wild excitement and outrageous goals are always fun, but they were also of great importance in this tournament. In a sport so strongly dominated by Team USA for so long, they were a clear sign that the rest of the world was finally catching up. Sure, this isn’t the first time an underdog has won Olympic gold, but as someone who has followed women’s football for as long as it has been on TV, I tell you – it feels different this time.