Big Lang Theory: In praise of the women's Olympic football tournament



To cynics and luddites, women's football is - to bastardise a phrase of Gary Lineker's - a simple game; 22 women chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the USA wins. A quick glance at the medal podium at Wembley on Thursday did little to undermine this view: the USA won their fourth Olympic title in a row, and the fifth since the women's competition began in 1996.

It would be foolish, however, to write off the tournament - and the women's game more generally - so swiftly. Over the last fortnight, fans have been treated to a thrilling spectacle, with the level of competition higher than ever before.

Until the final, unpredictability was the name of the game. France smashed home six goals in their final two group games but succumbed to a ruthless Japan side. Team GB stormed through a group that included the much-revered Brazil, but exited with a whimper in the knockout stage. Canada, who only just snuck out of their group, went on to waltz their way past Team GB before losing to the USA in a truly thrilling semi-final showdown. That match - in which the favourites were rattled before finally finding the resources to fight back - showed how level the playing field was this summer.

Few, though, would deny that Team USA were worthy winners. Theirs is a side that boasts quality in all areas of the pitch: from commanding goalkeeper Hope Solo to the evergreen Christie Rampone in defence; from the slick midfield promptings of Carli Lloyd to the chalk-and-cheese attack pairing of Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach. They also had the grit to grind out a result in the final, even when under siege from the never-say-die Japan.

Interest levels also surged this summer. A few years ago, it would have been almost unthinkable that Wembley could be approaching capacity for a women's match, yet over 80,000 people cheered Team GB to victory against Brazil. With the men's game continuing to frustrate with its petulance and politics, the women's tournament seemed to have found a niche among those seeking the amateur spirit of the Olympic movement.

The stars of the women's game, too, are almost uniformly likeable. There's the silky Marta, whose commitment to the Brazilian cause often came at the expense of her own attacking returns. With her side often failing to control the midfield battle, she dropped deeper and deeper as the seleção's campaign wore on, desperately trying to reignite a flame that was eventually blown out by Hope Powell's girls. Homore Sawa, who put an end to Marta's World Player of the Year hegemony last year, was even more impressive, pulling the strings for Japan with grace and subtlety.

Other players also came to the fore for different reasons: Hope Solo, for her wide-eyed love of the game and boundless athleticism; Steph Houghton, for the marauding surges from left-back that defined Team GB's brave campaign; Christine Sinclair and Melissa Tancredi, for their amazing goalscoring exploits in the red of Canada.

While the men's competition has largely been defined by the failures of two of the three pre-tournament favourites (I'm looking at you, Spain and Uruguay), its female counterpart was toughly contested, diverse and dynamic. Unlike the men's competition, it can also claim to be the pinnacle of the sport; the Olympics tournament revered above the Women's World Cup by many.

The last fortnight of action deserves to have brought the women's game to the attention of a wider audience. If you missed it, you missed out.

Read more columns from Jack Lang HERE.