- Ifeoma Dieke starred for Great Britain’s women in inaugural Olympic appearance
- Scottish centre-half was one of just two non-English players in the squad
- Dieke discusses the 2012 experience and which Scots might star in Tokyo
She was born in the US, earned a scholarship at Florida International University, played professionally in Chicago and Boston, and now coaches in Miami. But when the call came in 2004 to join up with the world’s most successful women’s national team, Ifeoma Dieke did the unthinkable. She turned down the USWNT.
Explaining the seemingly inexplicable begins with her first few words, uttered in a thick and unmistakable Scottish accent. Dieke goes on to make clear that, for all those American links – not to mention her Nigerian parentage – she feels “everything about her” is Scottish. That sense of belonging, to a country in which she grew up from the age of three, easily outweighed the status and success that would have doubtless have come with answering the USWNT's call.
“I’ve no regrets about that. None at all,” Dieke told FIFA.com. “I can still remember that build-up to that US camp after being called up. Although I knew what a huge privilege it was – and all the opportunities it presented – I wasn’t at all excited. I kept asking myself why that was and eventually I realised it was because, although I was born in America, I just didn’t feel American.
“It just didn’t feel right; it didn’t tug at my heart-strings the way playing for Scotland always has. People thought I was mad at the time, and it took me a couple of days just to work up the courage to tell my coach that I wouldn’t be going. But I’ve honestly never regretted it for a second. It was a decision I made with my heart, for the right reasons, and I’m so proud of the international career I had.”
Having won over 120 caps, become the first black woman to captain Scotland and helped the team qualify for its first major tournament, that pride is fully justified. But despite those achievements, Dieke is perhaps best remembered for another international feat.
That came in 2012, when she was one of just two non-English players selected in the first-ever Great Britain women’s Olympic squad. And while the tournament ended prematurely and painfully, with a ruptured ACL in Team GB’s second match, ‘no regrets’ is once again her mantra.
“I remember feeling a bit sorry for myself at first because you know those injuries can end your career,” she said. “But when I was stuck in bed recovering, I was watching the Paralympics on TV, seeing people with no arms and legs competing, and it really inspired me and put things in perspective. In the end, I actually think that injury prolonged my career because I learned a new way to train and condition my body, and having always thought I’d retire at 32, I ended up playing on until 37.
“I still remember getting the call from Hope Powell telling me that I’d been selected. It was a real ‘wow’ moment for me because I absolutely loved watching the Olympics, although it was all about track and field for me. To think of myself becoming part of that just blew my mind. Even now, I struggle to think of myself as having been ‘an Olympian’ because, to me, the athletes I have in mind are just in a different stratosphere.
“The build-up to it, knowing we were the first GB women’s team to compete, was so cool. Then you play the first game at the Millennium Stadium in front of 30,000 people, and win. It was just a blur. Real euphoria. Even though I picked up such a bad injury during the tournament, I’d do it all again.”
This declaration is all the more striking as Dieke’s Olympic ordeals did not begin and end with ruptured ligaments. She and fellow Scot Kim Little also faced furious front-page headlines for declining to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, the national anthem of both England and Great Britain.
“Kim and I were both in total agreement on not singing it,” the former centre-half said of an anthem that includes a verse referencing the “crushing” of “rebellious Scots”. “We’d talked about it and, for us, there was just no way. The funny thing was that, in the first game, they played the anthem on until the second verse – and none of the English players knew it! (laughs)
“There was some stick about that too, them not knowing the words, and I remember someone bringing round sheets of paper with the lyrics that night at dinner. They gave them to Kim and I too, but again there was only really banter about it – no-one in the squad or the staff pressured us to sing.
“Being the only non-English players in the squad had been a bit daunting, although I was lucky that I’d been team-mates with Kelly Smith, Alex Scott and Karen Carney. And the others were really good too. The biggest adjustment was on the field – adapting to, essentially, how England played. But I think the fact that Kim and I both started the matches speaks for the fact that we slotted in pretty well, and hopefully enhanced the team.”
Team GB didn’t concede in either of Dieke’s appearances, while Little – an ever-present at London 2012 – is now 30, fit again and among the most prominent non-English contenders for Hege Riise’s 2020 squad. But which other Scots could we see making an impact in Tokyo?
“Erin Cuthbert for sure,” said Dieke. “For me, she’s going to be up there with the best in the game for the next decade and more. She’s still young, but with loads of experience, has a brilliant attitude and can play – and play really well – in a multitude of positions.
“Caroline Weir would be there for me too. It’s been great to see her development because she’s always had the talent – there aren’t many better technically – but her fitness capacity has come on so much. And Kim will surely be there again. The quality she has is just huge – she’s still up there with the very best in my view.
“After that, it will be interesting to see what the coaches are thinking. Would Beatts (Jennifer Beattie) get in, for example, given she’s played in England for a long time and had a good partnership at club level with Steph Houghton? That might give her an edge over Rachel Corsie. It’s all about the balance, on and off the pitch, and I can imagine it won’t be an easy squad to choose.”
Dieke in her prime would be near-impossible for Riise to ignore. As it is, this proud Olympian will be cheering from her Miami home as Britain’s second group of football hopefuls head to Japan on the hunt for medals.