The age-old call of* Ludi incipiant* (‘Let the games begin!’) will ring out once more in August as the 2016 Summer Olympics get underway in Brazil. The question of which of North and Central America and the Caribbean’s national teams will battle it out for the gold medal at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament will be answered in a qualifying competition held in the USA from 10 to 21 February.
In total, eight teams divided into two groups have their sights set on a ticket to Rio 2016: USA, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Costa Rica will meet in Group A, while Group B contains Canada, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana.
Although reigning world champions and Olympic gold medalists USA and last summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup hosts Canada will head into the competition as clear favourites on paper, newly-crowned FIFA World Coach of the Year for Women’s Football Jill Ellis believes qualifying will not be a walk in the park. “It’s a tough group,” she explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “The fact that only two teams get out means there’s no safety net this year. We have to make sure we hit the ground running.
“It’s about making sure we finish top of our group, then that semi-final is a critical game,” the USA coach continued. “What I love about this team is that I think our approach is that 'nothing’s guaranteed'. We have to earn everything. That’s really where our mindset and our focus is. In 2011, our team had to go through a play-off to qualify for the World Cup, and I think that constantly sits in the back of your mind. Nothing can be taken for granted in our region. We’re playing against some teams that have been in the World Cup and have a lot of experience.”
The sides she is referring to are Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica, who had very differing experiences last summer, with the latter pair eliminated from Canada 2015 immediately after the group stage. Costa Rica headed home after drawing twice with Spain and Korea Republic before suffering a narrow defeat by Brazil, while Mexico’s stalemate with Colombia was followed by two losses to England and France.
Meanwhile FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015™ hosts Canada suffered a bitter quarter-final defeat to end their dream of winning the game’s most prestigious title on home turf. Despite this disappointment, John Herdman’s attention immediately turned to the Olympics – and he is brimming with confidence about his team’s qualifying hopes.
“Right now we’re in a position to focus on the upcoming qualification tournament and hopefully position ourselves to defend our Olympic bronze medal this summer in Rio,” the Canada coach said after his squad was announced on the Canadian Soccer Association’s website. “We had a strong group of players to select from, which made the final selection extremely challenging, but we have put together a team that will go out there and get the job done, which is simply to make this country proud by qualifying for Rio 2016.”
In contrast, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guyana – ranked 108th, 76th, 48th and 89th in the world respectively – have significantly less tournament experience under their belts, as their standings in the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking suggest. None of these four teams have ever competed at the Olympics or FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Nevertheless, none of these sides should be underestimated, as Puerto Rico midfielder Nicole Rodriguez made clear on the CONCACAF website: “It’s about working with our minds, knowing that we are in this tournament for a reason and are not here by accident. We’re able and willing to compete with the best.” Trinidad and Tobago coach Richard Hood also believes in his team, saying: “We believe that we have a realistic chance of attaining success in this tournament.”
The bigger sides have officially been warned – and with only two starting places available at this summer’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, they cannot afford to give the underdogs any room for manoeuvre.