Olympic dream gives Wiegman extra fuel for England’s Nations League tilt

When Sarina Wiegman describes the possibility of coaching Team GB at next summer’s Paris Olympics as a “great honour” and “a privilege”, she means it. England’s manager is an expert at concealing her emotions and giving precious little away but introduce the word Olympics to the conversation and Wiegman suddenly animates. “They’re very special,” she says, eyes sparkling. “They’re one of the very biggest stages for women’s football.”

Should Wiegman’s Lionesses reach the final of the Nations League next spring – or, if France make the final two, finish third – she will be placed at the helm of Team GB. That potential prize explains why she was delighted to see a rather unconvincing England squeeze past Scotland at Sunderland on Friday night, registering a 2-1 win. Another victory against the Netherlands in Utrecht on Tuesday would put England in pole position to top an initial group also including Belgium.

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As a child growing up in the Hague, Wiegman was glued to televised coverage of the Olympics and that habit continued as she combined a career as a PE teacher with establishing herself as one of the Netherlands’ key midfielders. Now the prospect of spending late July and early August at a tournament featuring matches in not only Paris but Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice and Saint-Étienne promises to compensate for Wiegman’s disappointment in Japan two years ago.

She had delayed her installation as England manager to coach the Netherlands at the postponed Olympics but ended up regretting boarding the flight to Tokyo. “It was a big dream of mine to go,” says Wiegman, whose side exited on penalties to the USA in the quarter-finals. “But it wasn’t normal. Because it was the time of Covid it was a little disappointing. It felt like being in jail.”

If Japan’s pandemic restrictions proved oppressive, the empty stadiums depressed a coach who turns 54 next month. “Football’s about bringing people together,” says Wiegman. “It unites but that connection was not there in Japan.”

Team GB, then under the interim charge of Hege Riise, also bowed out of the competition at the same stage after losing to Australia but they would kick off Paris 2024 harbouring realistic gold medal ambitions. “We know the importance of what we’re competing for,” says the England defender Jess Carter, her eyes firmly on a prospective Team GB place. “We know what we’re aiming for.”

Martha Thomas dribbles away from Jess Carter during England v Scotland in the Nations League.
England’s Jess Carter closes down Scotland’s Martha Thomas during their clash in the Nations League. Photograph: Will Matthews/PA

Much as an improving Scotland were disappointed not to overcome England at the Stadium of Light, their leading players, most notably the Aston Villa winger Kirsty Hanson and the Real Madrid attacking midfielder Caroline Weir, auditioned strongly for a potential Team GB squad.

They can only trust that fatigue does not derail England’s Nations League progress. Wiegman’s unhappiness at her European champions being asked to play again barely a month after losing the World Cup final to Spain in Sydney is echoed by Carter. “It’s definitely really tough to recover from a tournament of that intensity and be ready to go again so soon,” she says. “It’s really difficult and something everyone’s trying to manage in their own way.

“The World Cup was both mentally and physically exhausting, so coming home and then some players only having a week off [before going into pre-season with their clubs] and others having two weeks off is ludicrous. It’s really tough to reset and get ready to get back to top level in that timeframe. We just had to get through the game against Scotland.” Pedro Martínez Losa’s side did not make it easy for them. Hanson says: “We’re closing the gap. We’re definitely building something.”

Given the manner in which Hanson terrorised England’s Barcelona right wing-back, Lucy Bronze, on Wearside, WSL defenders should be wary of one of Villa’s key players when the season kicks off on Sunday. Although Bronze scored England’s opening goal at Sunderland courtesy of a brilliant blindside run and header, there were moments when she struggled to cope with Hanson’s speed and trickery.

As the most swashbuckling of overlapping full-backs, Bronze has been an England mainstay since the 2015 World Cup, winning 114 caps. But with her 32nd birthday beckoning next month, it seems the legacy of six knee operations may finally be catching up with a player who can no longer always rely on pace to get herself out of defensive trouble.

Bronze still has an awful lot to give England but against Scotland there were times when it seemed an awful shame that Wiegman’s predecessor, Phil Neville, did not succeed in his repeated attempts to convert her into a central midfielder. Neville envisaged Bronze following in the footsteps of Germany’s Philipp Lahm, who transformed from world-class right-back to anchoring midfielder under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage at Bayern Munich.

Bronze said she felt uncomfortable in midfield but, at a juncture when she is no longer the world’s best right-back, switching to a central role less reliant on strength and speed could prolong her international career. As she executed a sublime Cruyff turn in Scotland’s area on Friday night it felt impossible to imagine England without her.

Yet if Wiegman really wants to win gold with Team GB, a distinctly unsentimental coach long noted for ruthlessness may need to succeed where Neville failed and persuade Bronze to relocate.