Is this the most evenly matched group? Possibly. Three teams (Brazil, Sweden, and China) have legitimate chances to top the group. South Africa will likely not make it out of the group stage but they won’t make it easy for any of the other teams.
Sweden vs. South Africa in Rio de Janeiro
Brazil vs. China PR in Rio de Janeiro
South Africa vs. China PR in Rio de Janeiro
Brazil vs. Sweden in Rio de Janeiro
South Africa vs. Brazil in Manaus
China PR vs. Sweden in Brasilia
Pressure. As the host nation, Brazil will be expected to not only make it out of the group but also reach the final. Will the team rise or crumble under the added weight of expectation? Will Marta finally claim a trophy in a major international tournament?
This Sweden, talented as they are, has held the same expectations with a strong unit for many years but have yet to live up to those expectations. Is this the tournament the Swedes make a strong run and send Lotta Schelin, long a staple in the attack for club and country, off with her first Olympic medal?
FIFA Ranking: 8th
Head Coach: Oswaldo Alvarez, known as Vadão
Brazil has participated in every women’s soccer competition and took home silver medals in 2004 and 2008, losing both times to the United States. London 2012 was the first time the country failed to make it to the semifinals.
Road to Rio As host country, Brazil automatically qualified for the competition. However, the country still competed in the 2014 Copa America Feminina, the qualifying tournament for CONMEBOL, and claimed its sixth Copa title.
Outlook Brazil has always featured dynamic players, none more so than Marta, but lack of support and resources from the Confederation has stifled development and a real breakthrough has yet to happen — which consistently leaves you shaking your head and asking, “What if…?”
Marta is a special player and when she’s on the field Brazil always has a chance. Her supporting cast is more balanced across all lines than it has been in the past. She is once again joined by Christiane, Érika, and the ageless Formiga but there’s a young attacking corps around her in Andressa Alves, Debinha, and Raquel.
Defensively, Mônica and Érika anchor a stronger defense and sit in front of goalkeepers Bárbara or Aline.
Brazil will advance out of the group. The question remains whether it will be in first place or second. The match against probable second-place finisher Sweden on August 6 is the key one to watch.
Olympic History London 2012 marked the first women’s Olympic soccer tournament that did not feature the Steel Roses. China’s best finish came in Atlanta 1996, winning a silver medal. In 2008, as hosts, China reached the quarterfinals before losing to Japan. Through 14 matches played, China has drawn four times, the most of any other nation in the competition’s history.
Road to Rio China qualified out of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) by finishing second and unbeaten in the 2016 AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Outlook Once dominant on the international stage, China’s program deteriorated and languished after a disappointing finish in Beijing 2008 through to 2014. The Steel Roses qualified for the 2015 World Cup and made a run into the quarterfinals where they fell to the eventual champion, United States.
Months later, in December, the same Chinese team handed the U.S. its first loss on home soil in 11 years and snapped a 104-game unbeaten streak, and continued its re-emergence on the international stage. What China showed in that win is a strong and organized defensive unit that can lock down opponents.
Where China struggles is in the attack. Yang Li is the best attacking option and was missed during the World Cup — she was ruled out due to injury — but she’ll need support from midfield and her fellow attackers if China is to make a run in the competition.
If China can keep the ball out of the back of its net and snag a couple of goals off the counter, it has an excellent chance to advance out of the group as one of the top two third-place finishers.
Zhao Lina (Shanghai)
Zhang Yue (Beijing)
Liu Shanshan (Changchun)
Xue Jiao (Dalian Quanjian)
Gao Chen (Dalian Quanjian)
Wu Haiyan (Shandong)
Li Dongna (Dalian Quanjian)
Zhao Rong (Changchun)
Ren Guilin (Changchun)
Tan Ruyin (Changchun)
Pang Fengyue (Dalian Quanjian)
Zhang Rui (Jiefangjun)
Yang Man (Shandong)
Ma Xiaoxu (Dalian Quanjian)
Yang Li (Jiangsu)
Wang Shanshan (Tianjin)
Wang Shuang (Dalian Quanjian)
Gu Yasha (Beijing)
Alternates Han Peng (Tianjin), Li Ying (Shandong), Lou Jiahui (Tianjin), Bi Xiaolin (Dalian Quanjian)
FIFA Ranking: 52nd
Head Coach: Vera Pauw
Olympic History This is Banyana Banyana’s second appearance in a women’s Olympic soccer competition. In London 2012, the team didn’t make it past the group stage but did earn a scoreless draw against Japan.
Road to Rio South Africa qualified as the second-place finisher from the 2015 Confederation of African Football (CAF) Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Outlook Tough. In a pre-Olympic friendly, South Africa lost to the United States, 0-1. The score line was more than respectable and to chalk it up solely to an off-day for the U.S. ignores the team’s strengths and head coach Pauw’s tactics. South Africa pressed the U.S. and backed it up with disciplined team defense.
The defense is led by Janine van Wyk and keeper Roxanne Barker, both of whom will need to at the top of the games to keep South Africa’s lines organized against the Brazilians and Swedes.
The squad is capable of countering and will need to be finish the chances they create. Samford University’s Jermaine Seoposenwe scored five goals during Olympic qualifying and set Samford’s single-season assist record in 2014 with 13 and can give opposing defenses trouble with her speed.
The best opportunity to pick up points will probably come against China PR in the second group-stage match but ultimately it will be an uphill battle for South Africa to advance out of the group.
Olympic History Sweden has appeared in every women’s Olympic soccer competitions to date. The Swedes’ best finish is fourth place in Athens 2004, losing to Germany, 0-1, in the bronze medal match.
Road to Rio Sweden qualified via the 2016 UEFA Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament. In the playoffs, Sweden defeated Norway and Switzerland and drew the Netherlands to earn the third UEFA berth for Rio 2016.
Outlook Core. Sweden has had a talented and experienced core group of players who have yet to live up to expectations. The 2015 World Cup was disappointing for the Swedes and they’ll be looking to erase the memories of a lackluster tournament. In head coach Pia Sundhage the team has a manager who knows how to navigate the rigors of a tight Olympics tournament after playing in one (Atlanta 1996) and coaching the United States to two gold medals (2008, 2012), but the question is whether she’ll be able to coax a strong performance out of this group.
Up top in Sundhage’s usual 4-4-2, Sweden’s attack is led by Lotta Schelin and Kosovare Asllani. The midfield is strong with the usual suspects led by Caroline Seger and Lisa Dahlkvist. In defense, Nilla Fischer organizes in front of keeper Hedvig Lindahl.
Sundhage, not known for bold moves, has brought youngsters to this competition — including Linköpings FC’s Stina Blackstenius and Fridolina Rolfö — and it will be interesting to see how (and if) she uses them.
Sweden should advance out of the group. The question is whether it will be in first or second place. The Swedes must open with a win against South Africa, and take the momentum from that match into their crucial match against host Brazil in front of what will most likely be a raucous crowd in Rio de Janeiro.