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After the clasp of teammates around Ellen White peeled away following her close-range strike against Chile that brought Team GB’s first goal in 3,277 days, the forward looked down and held her hands to her face in her familiar glasses celebration. It was muted; a world away from the exuberant uplifting celebration that became a staple of England’s run to the World Cup semi-finals in 2019.
Yet despite the lack of spectators, the Covid concern gripping the Olympic Village and the stunted preparations, the return of competitive international women’s football still felt joyous, with White’s double and a solid Team GB performance providing cause for optimism for their fans, some of whom will have been watching at home over breakfast.
Team GB had not competed at an Olympic Games since 2012 and England have not played a competitive fixture since that World Cup exit in 2019. Yet there was an air of familiarity once the ball started to roll. In the sticky heat of the enclosed Sapporo Dome – familiar to England fans as the backdrop to David Beckham’s redemption, when his penalty against Argentina earned victory at the 2002 World Cup – this was a majority England team, but one laced with the unmatched midfield drive of the Scottish duo Kim Little and Caroline Weir.
The formation of a Team GB women’s football team may be controversial but, without wanting to disrespect Scotland, who have arguably underperformed given the quality at their disposal, it is quite magical to watch Little in particular unleashed in a midfield where the pressure is lessened and there are more players of her calibre to share the burden of expectations. With Chelsea’s PFA and FWA player of the year Fran Kirby having picked up a knock, Little’s mastery mattered even more.
On 18 minutes a chipped cross from Lucy Bronze found her Manchester City teammate Lauren Hemp at the back post, Hemp headed towards the feet of White and the forward slotted past Christiane Endler, who joined Lyon from Paris Sait Germain this summer. It was deserved.
The Team GB manager, Hege Riise – an Olympic champion with Norway in 2000 – had said she wanted the side to play “with a lot energy and confidence and be brave with the ball”, and with Hemp and Georgia Stanway flanking White there was a youthful exuberance on the wings that enabled them to do just that.
A switch of wings at half-time took the sting out of Team GB but they were untroubled by a Chile team 37th in Fifa’s rankings, and the introduction of Nikita Parris reinjected some impetus.
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Shortly after, the lead was doubled as Bronze, whose gut-busting runs from deep carved out opening after opening, clipped the ball in for White to knock in with a mistimed scissor kick.
There were glimpses of brilliance in Team GB’s performance, glimpses that will surely lengthen as a team that had played only once in the buildup to Tokyo 2020 find their rhythm. Up next, on Saturday, the tricky, slick passing of Japan will provide a much sterner test.