Team GB women's footballers, from l-r: Sophie Ingle, Kim Little and Nikita Parris
Credit: JOHN ROBERTSON
It was a moment that changed everything for British women’s football. Karen Carney’s low ball into the penalty area found Steph Houghton and 70,584 people at Wembley roared as Houghton’s angled shot found the back of the Brazil net. Just two minutes into the game, in front of a British women’s record at the time, Team GB had opened a country’s eyes to the women’s game at the London 2012 Olympics.
Nine years on, a new British side is ready to write their own history and three stars from three different nations of the UK sat down with Telegraph Sport before flying to Tokyo; Scotland’s Kim Little, Wales’ Sophie Ingle and England’s Nikita Parris each have very different memories of Team GB’s only previous foray into Olympic women’s football.
As part of that 2012 squad, Little was one of the first to pile on top of a mobbed Houghton in celebration of that Wembley goal. Three days earlier, she had laid on two assists as Team GB beat Cameroon 3-0 in Cardiff in their second of three group-stage victories; the first, a cute back-heel into the path of Jill Scott, before feeding Houghton for Team GB’s third goal. “They’re such great memories,” the Arsenal midfielder said. “Looking back, 2012 was a catalyst for change in the women’s game across Britain. This moment this summer can be similar, generating more exposure to the women’s game, driving it forward even more.”
Watching Little’s clever back-heel from the stands at the Millennium Stadium was a then-20-year-old Ingle, who had been selected in the preliminary Team GB squad for 2012 but did not quite make the final cut. This time, she was a must-pick. “I had to read the email a few times just to check before I told my Mum,” she said. “Being there in 2012 as a fan I was thinking to myself, ‘wow, I didn’t realise women’s football was this big’ – now nine years on it’s even bigger.”
Parris, 18 at the time and a young star for Everton, was watching on from her patriotically-decorated family home in Toxteth, Merseyside. “My Mum had all the flags up. The whole street had flags up, from lamppost to lamppost. The main moment you remember is Steph scoring against Brazil and those celebrations – it was probably the first time the nation truly got behind our women’s team.”
The 2012 Games were even more special for Parris’ family because her sister, Natasha Jonas, made history as Team GB’s first woman to win a boxing bout at the Olympics. Now exciting forward Parris, who signed for Arsenal from French club Lyon in June, is proud to be following in her sister’s footsteps as an Olympian, adding: “She really created a legacy by going to those Olympics, the first British woman to be in an Olympic boxing ring, that’s a massive inspiration for me.”
Now the Team GB class of 2021’s task is not only to inspire, but to claim a medal. Because, despite the successes of 2012, Hope Powell’s team ultimately missed out on the semi-finals as they lost 2-0 to Canada in Coventry in the last eight. Unlike the Olympic men’s football format, which includes age restrictions, women’s teams can select their strongest sides, meaning the world’s best will be in Japan, from the world-champion United States, to the European champions Holland, to the Sweden team that finished third at 2019’s World Cup.
Ingle, Little and Parris all had very different involvements in Team GB’s only previous foray into Olympic women’s football
Credit: JOHN ROBERTSON
Arguably one of the toughest aspects facing Team GB is that, unlike those rival contenders, they have not competed together as a British team for nine years. The unified Team GB squad is controversial politically for some, in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular, and Ingle admits it is tough that some fans in Wales will not be happy with her involvement as Wales’ first women’s football Olympian, yet she also knows many others will feel only pride. In the camp, despite their brief time together as a squad of 18, plus four reserves, the players’ togetherness is clear.
Sitting together under a gazebo as rain falls on a June morning in Loughborough, prior to the squad’s departure for the Land of the Rising Sun, the trio laugh and smile at each other as I ask them about national team rivalries and remind them of past head-to-head contests between England, Scotland and Wales, but Parris states: “That was then, this is now. In this team, we are one. We’re going to be sharing the passion together, not against each other, and we can do something special.”
Covid-19 has hindered Hege Riise’s squad’s preparations, with their farewell, send-off game against Zambia in Stoke called off because of issues relating to the Zambian’s travel restrictions. But Little believes Team GB’s limited fixture list can perhaps work in their favour, adding: “That can be flipped around – maybe other teams don’t quite know what we’ll do or what to expect from us. There are pros as well as cons. With the group of players that we have, we’ve got every chance."
And in their head coach, they have somebody who has been there and done it; Riise won gold with Norway in Sydney in 2000. This summer, her squad’s preparations have included lengthy sessions in heat tents to acclimatise to the Tokyo humidity, inspirational video montages put together by the British Olympic Association and a 3-0, behind-closed-doors friendly win over New Zealand, in their sole warm-up game in Yokohama.
The trio, here pictured in conversation with Telegraph Sport's Tom Garry, will be hoping for slightly better conditions in Tokyo
Credit: JOHN ROBERTSON
Their bid for glory begins on Wednesday against Chile, as they open the football tournament and take part in one of the very first sporting sessions of the entire Olympics, two days prior to the opening ceremony. Canada and hosts Japan also make up Group E. Team GB’s campaign has been backed by the National Lottery, who have provided training camps and the squad’s travel needs, and the Football Association’s director of women’s football, Sue Campbell, said: “The funding provided will make a huge difference. In sport, where even marginal gains can have a significant impact on a team’s chances of success, the National Lottery support really could make all the difference.”
And success is what everyone is hoping for. As we approach the end of our chat, Little, Ingle and Parris discuss their Olympic idols and Dame Kelly Holmes, Christine Ohuruogu and Sir Mo Farah quickly come up in conversation – all of them have something in common: winning gold. Then, not directing the question at any player specifically, I ask the three of them if this team can go all the way and win August 6’s gold-medal match, and Parris quickly cuts in, adamantly and confidently: “Yes.
“If we go into the Olympics thinking we’re not going to win gold, then we’ve been defeated at the first game. What’s the point in competing if you’re not competing to be the best? Ultimately, each and every one of us will put our best foot forward in every game and every training session to make sure we reach the heights we want to reach.”