For Kim Little, 2012 seemed to represent something of a breakthrough year. After all, while the indisputable talent of Arsenal’s Scottish midfielder has been evident for some time, it was only over the past 12 months that it became visible to a global audience.
Starring for Great Britain at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament was an obvious highlight, with memories of beating Brazil in front of a capacity Wembley crowd still capable of producing goosebumps. But Little’s campaign with Arsenal was almost as impressive, ending as it did with her leading both the FAWSL goals and assists charts, clutching another league medal, and having scored a stunning winner in the cup final. The 22-year-old also inspired Scotland’s women to unprecedented heights, and to within a few seconds of shocking Spain and claiming a historic berth at the European finals.
And yet, asked to sum up her season towards the tail end of 2012, she opted for an unexpected adjective: “average”. However, if this seems a remarkable description for a year in which, to most observers, she excelled, it is merely because Little is hungry and ambitious enough to set herself the most demanding of standards.
As she explained to FIFA.com: “I don’t want to think that just because I finished top scorer and won another couple of medals that that’s good enough, especially when I know I can do better. It wasn’t a bad season, but I expect a lot of myself and I still feel I can perform better. Hopefully I can show that in 2013.
“Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoyed 2012. To be involved in something like the Olympics here in Britain, and see the way the team was received, was very special. But I also took a lot of pleasure from the success we had with Arsenal, and can look back and really appreciate how far we came with Scotland. There’s always room for improvement though.”
There was certainly nothing ‘average’ about Little’s experience at London 2012. The 22-year-old had witnessed with excitement her adopted city readying itself for the Olympics, but nothing could have prepared her for the way in which Britain's capital – and the country as a whole – took Team GB to their hearts. Little is also convinced that the atmosphere and unique demands of this major tournament helped raise her game to a new level.
“I’ve definitely improved,” she said. “That experience of playing at a tournament like that can’t be compared, and I learned so much, going up against those great players, especially in that kind of environment. I’d expected a lot from the Olympics, living in London, but it surpassed everything I’d hoped for in terms of the way everyone got behind us. The Wembley game especially was just ridiculous, and then there was the closing ceremony. I'm smiling just thinking about it.”
The Wembley encounter Little references, a 1-0 group stage win over Brazil, wasn’t just ridiculous – it was record-breaking. A crowd of 70,584, the highest ever recorded at a women’s match in the UK, turned out to cheer on Hope Powell’s team, and left having been thoroughly entertained. Now the female game faces a familiar challenge: maintaining in domestic football the momentum and interest built up by a major tournament. Little’s wish is that London 2012 is seen as a key milestone on that road to long-term recognition.
“I really hope that’s the case,” she said. “The reception women’s football got during the tournament was so positive, and I think there has been an impact on the coverage we’ve received since. A lot of people who would have maybe have been sceptical started to look at women's football in a different way, and that in itself is a victory.”
Little will certainly hope that fans turn out in force when Arsenal’s 2013 campaign begins in March with a UEFA Women’s Champions League quarter-final against Italy’s ASD Torres. It’s a tournament the Gunners have won once before, albeit a year before the Scot’s arrival, and they will have to do so this season without the coach who led them to the last eight.
“That was a bit of a shock but everything brings a new challenge and I’m excited about the season ahead,” she said, referring to Laura Harvey’s departure to take charge of Seattle Reign in the USA’s new National Women’s Soccer League. “I know there are lots of great leagues out there and, personally, I wouldn’t rule anything out in the future. But I definitely feel that there are exciting times ahead for Arsenal and women’s football in this country, and I’m very happy to be a part of everything that’s happening here.”