THE END OF AN ERA: Did Tokyo 2020 Changed International Women’s Football For Better?

As the 2020 Tokyo Olympics comes to an end, some of its footballing stars will be looking forward to what their international career holds.

Despite there being a 66-year-old competing (Mary Hanna, Australia), football tends not to be quite so kind to its players when it comes to age. That has not stopped some of the more senior players from featuring heavily during the tournament, with Formiga (43), Hedvig Lindahl (38), Christine Sinclair (38), and Carli Lloyd (39) all playing key roles for their teams.

This has highlighted the difference between the men’s and women’s competition, where the men’s competition is mainly for under-23 players; yet, former FC Barcelona legend, Dani Alves, (38) snuck into Brazil’s gold medal winning side. These players’ decisions on what comes next will have a significant impact on their national teams, as we wait to see whether there is a shift in the traditional power structures at the top of international women’s football.

From all these older players, it was Canada’s Sinclair who got the gold medal in the end

Sinclair and Canada win Olympic gold via the penalty spot - Stumptown Footy
After 22 years of playing internationally, Sinclair has a record of 304 caps and the record for most international goals of any player (187 goals); all Sinclair was missing was the winning medal to complete her collection of league titles and individual awards.

Regardless of whether Sinclair chooses to step back from international football, it felt like she handed over the baton at this tournament to fellow teammate Jessie Fleming (23). Ever since her debut as a 15-year-old back in 2013, Fleming has been the great hope of Canadian football. So far, she has collected 90 caps, and it was really Fleming who lead Canada to the gold medal. In fact, with Sinclair having missed a penalty in the quarter-final against Brazil, the ball was handed to Fleming to take crucial penalties against the USA and Sweden.

On the other side, Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl couldn’t get the gold in what was her last game of international football. Confirming after the match that she would not compete in next year’s Euros, Lindahl had, like Sinclair, been hoping to get a crowning international achievement. Instead, this was her seventh second or third place finish at a major tournament. It was a similarly tough blow for 36-year-old Swedish captain Caroline Seger, who had the opportunity to win gold for her team in the penalty shoot-out but send the ball to the sky.

Meanwhile, the USA, the favourites for this competition since the start, and who have not been short of international success, had a very poorly Olympics’ campaign.

Thoughts on a big loss for the US women's soccer team and other sports  topics - The Boston Globe
The US Women’s National Team had the joint highest squad age alongside Brazil, with an average age of 29.3.

The US often looked static, with a number of players having had limited minutes before the tournament. Players such as Catarina Macario who have been tipped to be the next stars of the national team got limited opportunities at the tournament, too. It’s for sure that coach Vlatko Andonovski will be forced to look at if and how he rejuvenates this side for the upcoming 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Another disappointment was The Netherlands, the most recent European Champions, who seem to be facing the end of an era in a slightly different way, with iconic coach Sarina Wiegman taking up her new job with England. Wiegman did not get to bow out in the way she would have wanted as the Dutch lost on penalties to the USA, and incoming manager Mark Parsons will find he has a lot to live up to.

Having won the Euros in 2017, and finished second at the World Cup in 2019, The Oranje have established themselves as the European team to beat over the past couple of years. Yet, it remains to be seen now whether this will be true without Wiegman coaching the team.

Undoubtedly, it’s normal to see players to gradually age out of their international sides, but, Tokyo 2020 was noticeable for how central some of these older players were. Coaches will now be forced to begin to think about their teams’ identities without those players who have played through the global rise in women’s football. For many countries, these older players are and have always been the face of their women’s teams as they have gained more attention. Still, now is the time to move on; the time for countries to create new footballing stars.

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