It's a cliche that each Olympic Games will be unlike anything we have seen before. But this time, after the pandemic forced a year-long delay to Tokyo 2020 -- resulting in no crowds, fragile athlete bubbles, a city still in a state of emergency, and a national population largely against the whole idea -- they will, for once, be right.
There can be no downplaying how fundamentally the pandemic will shape performances at the Tokyo Games, especially when it comes to the football. With many more moving parts and more participating athletes than most other sports at the Olympics, the football tournaments must be viewed and assessed through a lens deeply informed by the history and context of the past 18 months.
While sport is always touted as a level playing field, it never is -- especially when something like a global pandemic has exacerbated the natural and structural advantages of some national teams over others.
Group G is a tantamount example. Australia are joined in this group by New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States: three teams that have, by virtue of their resources, their player pool, their geographic location, and their league availabilities, enter Tokyo 2020 from very different starting points.
Two of the teams in Group G (Australia and New Zealand) didn't have a national team camp or international-level game for over a year, while Sweden and the USWNT were able to cobble together camps and matches throughout 2020 and 2021. By contrast, even though he formally started his role in January, Matildas head coach Tony Gustavsson didn't meet some of his players face-to-face until June.
To Football Australia's credit, the Matildas were able to play a series of friendlies against top-ranked opponents in the months leading up to the Games, allowing Gustavsson and his players to re-introduce themselves to each other before they take the pitch for one of the biggest tournaments of their careers.
Tokyo 2020, then, carries with it an enormous asterisk. These wider, uncontrollable circumstances have affected different teams in different ways, and it is likely that the pointy-end of the women's football tournament will be filled by those nations who were able to wiggle their way through the various lockdowns and suspensions with their squads and systems intact.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the three teams Australia will be facing in Group G and how far each of them could go.
Alex Morgan focused on bringing home the gold medal
USWNT star Alex Morgan discusses what it is going to take for the team to bring home gold at the Olympics in Tokyo.
When vs. Australia: Wednesday 21 July, 9:30pm (AEST)
Where: Tokyo Stadium
Head coach: Tom Sermanni
FIFA rank: 22
Key players: Abby Erceg (North Carolina Courage), Ria Percival (Tottenham Hotspur), Ali Riley (Orlando Pride), Annalie Longo (Melbourne Victory)
History: Despite their decade-long dominance in the Oceania Football Confederation, New Zealand have never made it past the quarterfinals of an Olympic Games or senior Women's World Cup. However, they have performed admirably over the past few years under the watchful eye of former Matildas and USWNT head coach Sermanni, most recently finishing fourth in the 2020 Algarve Cup after defeating Belgium on penalties and narrowly losing to Norway 2-1 in the semifinals.
When it comes to major tournaments, though, things look a little different. The Football Ferns finished third in their group at Rio 2016 following a win over Colombia, but their inferior goal difference saw them bundled out of the "best third-placed team" spot behind Sweden and Australia, both of whom advanced to the quarterfinals from other groups.
In France in 2019, New Zealand were also knocked out at the group stage, though they did put up a fight against eventual runners-up Netherlands (losing 1-0) and Olympic dark horses Canada (losing 2-0), while also controversially losing to Cameroon 2-1 in the 95th minute.
What is pleasing for New Zealand, unlike the other teams in their group, is the promise of their next generation. The Kiwis finished third at the 2018 Under-17 Women's World Cup, sensationally defeating youth powerhouses Japan on penalties and then beating Canada 2-1 to claim bronze.
Some of those players -- including goalkeeper Anna Leat, Marissa Van Der Meer, and striker Gabi Rennie -- have all been included for Tokyo, while the head coach of that triumphant campaign, Leon Birnie, is Sermanni's assistant.
New Zealand's Olympics run, then, can be seen in a similar vein to Australia's: laying the foundations and introducing the next generation for a stronger showing at the 2023 Women's World Cup, which the two nations will be co-hosting. With the promise of home-ground advantage and a squad of impressive emerging players, it's that World Cup, not the Olympics, that the Kiwis are building towards.
Prediction: While they have been on the cusp in a number of major tournaments, New Zealand are one of the Tokyo sides whose pandemic-affected circumstances seem just too difficult to overcome.
With players already scattered across the world, border restrictions and suspensions have made it nearly impossible to organise full-team camps and international-level friendlies to the same extent as their Group G rivals. In fact, their first and only friendly of 2021 came just last week, where New Zealand lost 3-0 to the Great Britain squad.
In addition to their lack of preparation, which will likely manifest on the pitch in technical rustiness and international-level fitness, New Zealand are also missing key players such as defender Rebekah Stott and striker Rosie White, both due to illness.
Aside from defending their way to a best third-placed finish, it would be miraculous for New Zealand to get out of their group. Getting through their three games without any major injuries would be a success; anything else is a bonus.
When vs. Australia: Saturday 24 July, 6:30PM (AEST)
Where: Saitama Stadium
Head coach: Peter Gerhardsson
FIFA rank: 5
Key players: Hedvig Lindahl (Atletico Madrid), Magdalena Eriksson (Chelsea FC), Kosovare Asllani (Real Madrid), Stina Blackstenius (BK Hacken)
History: Sweden are a team designed for major tournaments. Outside of the United States and Germany, they are one of the most successful national teams across Olympic Games, European Championships, and World Cups -- even though they have never won the top gong in any of them.
They were runners-up in Rio, losing to Germany 2-1 in the gold medal match after sensationally defeating both the U.S. and Brazil on penalties earlier in the tournament. They finished third at the 2019 Women's World Cup after defeating a fancied England; a result that doubled as both teams' qualification for Tokyo 2020.
Sweden also have the benefit of being an older, wiser, and more weathered playing group. The majority of them went to France and to Brazil for the past two major tournaments, and as Swedish football journalist Mia Eriksson told The Far Post podcast recently, there has not been as much player turnover or introduction of new blood as some other national teams in Tokyo.
Given the unpredictability of the tournament, this may play in Sweden's favour: these are players who are highly familiar with each other (both at national team and club level) and with big tournament experience.
Captain Caroline Seger alone has 214 caps to her name, becoming Europe's joint-most capped player in history against Australia last month. Seger is joined by players currently working at some of the world's best clubs including goalkeeper Lindal (Atletico Madrid), Eriksson (Chelsea FC), Asllani (Real Madrid), and Sofia Jakobsson (Bayern Munich); all of whom have been playing together at national team level for several years.
This is a team, then, that knows the toll that high-intensity, high-turnover tournaments like the Olympics can take. Having played several more games over the course of 2020 than their other Group G opponents, including both friendlies and competitive European Championship qualification matches, Sweden are not just more willing but also more prepared -- physically, tactically, and psychologically -- to take it on.
Prediction: Australia have more of an edge over other teams in Group G when it comes to Sweden, having played them most recently in a 0-0 friendly in June. However, Sweden weren't fully stocked that day, missing or giving limited minutes to a handful of key senior players who have been included in the Tokyo squad.
Their recent record is particularly impressive: Sweden haven't lost a game since March of last year, a run that has included a 1-0 win over traditional rivals Norway and a 1-1 draw against gold medal favourites, the U.S., in April.
Experience, consistency, talent, fitness: Sweden are unquestionably capable of a podium finish at Tokyo 2020. They will likely finish second, if not first, in Group G -- but just where they finish up in the tournament overall will depend on which opponents fall their way in the knockout stages. If they can get past these early hurdles, they'll have proved themselves worthy of a medal even before the big day arrives.
When vs. Australia: Tuesday 27 July, 6:00PM (AEST)
Where: Ibaraki Kashima Stadium
Head coach: Vlatko Andonovski
FIFA rank: 1
Key players: Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns), Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Rose Lavelle (OL Reign), Christen Press (unaffiliated), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride)
History: They're already the winningest national team in the history of the women's game with four World Cups (1991, 1999, 2015, 2019) and four Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012) to their name. And yet, despite winning all there is to win, the USWNT are still out to create more history at Tokyo 2020 in potentially becoming the first team to win gold after also winning a World Cup the previous year.
Of all the teams competing at Tokyo 2020, this is certainly the one capable of doing just that. The U.S. come into the Olympics on an extraordinary 44-game unbeaten streak, with their last loss being delivered by France in January 2019. Since then, they've played out just four draws, three of which came against teams they could potentially face in Tokyo's latter stages (Japan, England, Sweden).
Like Sweden, the U.S. have a squad overflowing with big game experience. All but three of the Tokyo roster went to the 2019 Women's World Cup, while majority -- including veterans Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Morgan, Ertz, Sauerbrunn, and Kelley O'Hara -- also went to the Rio Games, a tournament that still haunts them after their shock elimination by Sweden in the quarterfinals (the first time the USWNT failed to medal in an Olympic Games).
The talent and experience of the squad itself aside, the U.S. have also been playing consistently (both at club and national team level) throughout the pandemic, including 12 games in 2021 alone. Across those 12 games, which featured a mix of top 10 and lower-ranked sides, the USA scored 37 goals and conceded just once (against Sweden), with goal-scorers coming from all over the park.
At club level, all the players have received game-time either in their very own National Women's Soccer League or across the pond in England's FA Women's Super League throughout 2020. Those with more recent European experience, too, such as former Manchester City players Lavelle and Sam Mewis, will likely draw upon those valuable months of technical and tactical insight if they find themselves face-to-face with their old team-mates or club-based opponents.
Alongside Sweden, the U.S. are the other team in Group G who have been able to navigate the various spanners COVID-19 has thrown at them. And of all the teams competing at Tokyo's women's football tournament, it's the USWNT who have the resources, the talent, the preparation, and the determination to make the kind of history that a team like them are worthy of.
Prediction: It's not often you say that the USWNT have a point to prove, but the 2016 Rio Games is the albatross this team are determined to shake from their necks. Tokyo is the U.S.'s chance to return to the summit of the Olympics, fuelled from within by a core group of experienced players who know what it takes to get there.
This is, however, Andonovski's first major tournament as a national team head coach, having replaced Jill Ellis after the 2019 Women's World Cup. How well he deals with Tokyo's pressure-cooker environment and manages his squad could determine how far they go. If he does it well, they are undoubtedly gold medal favourites. Anything less, given the players at his disposal and their recent history, will be a disappointment.