Many athletes dream of competing at the Olympic Games, but only a select few get the chance to experience its unique atmosphere first hand. Martina Voss-Tecklenburg became one of them when she took part in the inaugural Women’s Olympic Football Tournament with Germany in 1996. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, she recalled what it was like “to sit on a plane with umpteen other sportsmen and women, meeting and chatting with everyone from hockey players and shooters to fencers and handballers.”
Twenty years later the now 48-year-old has another chance of making it to the Olympic Games as Switzerland’s coach, but her team still face a long road ahead. With only one place still available to European teams, Voss-Tecklenburg and her charges face hosts the Netherlands as well as Sweden and Norway in a mini-tournament from 2 to 9 March. “We want to give it our very best and do everything to make the most of the opportunity we’ve been given,” she explained. “We’re looking forward to three challenging matches at a very high level. All four teams have the same chance of qualifying for the Olympic Games. It will be extremely close and very exciting.”
Looking at the contenders on paper, the two Scandinavian sides’ vast FIFA Women’s World Cup and Olympic experience makes them favourites to snatch the final spot in Rio. Could this work in Switzerland’s favour? “If you look at recent performances, particularly those of the Netherlands but also ours, and see the results we’ve achieved in European qualifications and the Dutch have managed in friendlies, neither Norway nor Sweden will underestimate us in any way,” Voss-Tecklenburg said.
“I think the Netherlands are very strong on home turf, and playing the first match with almost 15,000 fans behind them will be an exciting prospect for the hosts. They’ve generated a real buzz in their homeland, so I think all the other teams will have huge respect for them,” the head coach said, evaluating the competition before emphasising how important these games will be for her team’s development. “There’s something at stake here. It’s not like the Algarve or Cyprus Cup, where you want to play well but the result is of secondary importance. This is about qualifying for the Olympics.”
Drawing on World Cup experience
The Swiss know how to qualify for a major tournament, having made an impressive FIFA Women’s World Cup™ debut last summer. The team can now put what they learned in Canada to good use.
“We’ve changed our system a little and analysed everything in depth with the entire team after the World Cup,” Voss-Tecklenburg explained. “We included all the players in the process, asking questions such as ‘What can we take from this World Cup? Where did we excel? Where did we struggle? And what do we need to do to continue our development?’ One point we picked up on was that we want to be more flexible with our playing systems to be more unpredictable, consistent and ruthless in front of goal. We weren’t able to do that at the World Cup. Despite scoring a huge number of goals in qualification, we often couldn’t strike the final blow at the finals,” said the four-time European champion.
“We want to try to be more efficient, but that’s easier said than done,” she continued. “We also know we’ve got to minimise our mistakes against very strong opponents and be more precise when passing from midfield to attack. Going toe to toe with sides like Japan helped us to believe in ourselves, become more mature and make the right decisions out on the pitch. It’s great to see this team develop and we haven’t finished this process yet.”
Out to make history
Last Friday the Duisburg-born coach stated her intent to continue influencing and steering Die Eidgenossinnen’s development long into the future by extending her contract by two years to summer 2018. Qualifying for Rio 2016 would further cement both her success and the team’s place in history.
“It would really be a milestone if we were to qualify,” Voss-Tecklenburg said. “It’s always worth noting that there are few Olympic sports with a qualification process as tough as that found in women’s football. You’ve got to be one of the best three European teams at a World Cup, which is hard enough when 12 take part. New Zealand and other countries have it easier in that respect. If we were to make it, it really would be something unique.”
Switzerland’s overriding priority between now and their opening match against the hosts in The Hague is to remain injury free. “We’re counting on having all our players in top form with no injuries,” Voss-Tecklenburg said. “We need energy from the bench. The depth in our squad has improved, so I’m hoping our top players like Lara Dickenmann, Martina Moser, Ramona Bachmann and Ana Maria Crnogorcevic can stay fit. With Caroline Abbe and Rahel Kiwic we also have two central defenders who can play all their games at the highest level, and we need that. If all that comes together we’ll be able to deliver strong performances and make it difficult for all three of our rivals to beat us.”