Retaining women’s football gold will be tough in Tokyo

Melanie Behringer was Germany’s star at Rio 2016, as her country finally ended its quest to win an Olympic football gold medal. But she believes retaining the title at Tokyo 2020 will be even harder. And the first step for them is the FIFA World Cup 2019 that starts today in France.

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Melanie Behringer didn’t go to the Olympic Games Rio 2016 expecting to win a gold medal – and she certainly didn’t anticipate adding the golden boot as the tournament’s top scorer to her list of achievements.

“I’m a defensive midfielder so I don’t normally score that many goals,” she said with a laugh. “It was a really big surprise, but a very nice one. I don’t know how it happened. If I did, I would do it every time.”

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Behringer doesn’t believe that the side’s achievement makes them favourites for Tokyo 2020, however. The Germans didn’t even qualify for London 2012, and the process of qualifying for the next Games is also gruelling, with many powerful European nations emerging. Two traditional foes in particular are hotly tipped to do well at FIFA Women’s World Cup in France – and potentially steal their Olympic berth.

“There has been some investment in our game but not as much in some other countries. France will be very strong, and England too,” Behringer said. “It will be difficult enough for Germany to qualify for Tokyo because all the other teams are getting so much better. It’s a big step and it should be a very interesting World Cup.

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“The English team were always athletic and fast but now they are much better on the ball. Their league is very strong, with teams like Arsenal and Chelsea putting lots of money into their sides. I think more good players are going to end up in England. Our game is changing a lot. The French team are also technically excellent. They have a very good chance on their own soil.”

France 2019 and Tokyo 2020 will help to identify the best women’s team on the planet – and European outfits are now looking just as likely to win as the USA. As someone who has won both a World Cup (in 2007) and Olympic gold, Behringer knows they’re both very special. “For me, the Olympics is a better title to win but it’s not an easy question. I’m lucky to have both.”

In Rio the Bayern Munich player was the star of a Germany squad that finally broke the USA’s lock on the women’s Olympic title. On three occasions, the great European footballing nation have settled for the bronze medal (Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008), while the US team had won four of the five golds available since the introduction of the women’s game to the Olympic programme at Atlanta 1996. As Behringer states now: “It was time for someone to beat the Americans.”

She credits their success to genuine teamwork. “Our team spirit was our secret weapon because we didn’t play the best football, but our togetherness couldn’t be beaten,” said Behringer, 33. “The opponents were afraid because of our togetherness. We worked very hard on and off the pitch because we knew that this was our chance to be successful.

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“We did everything we could to set up a win, and it was us players that really raised our own spirits. We had some good young players but also older ones who had that experience from other tournaments. It was a good combination.”

Germany’s route to glory wasn’t easy. They were drawn in a tough group, and lost to a talented Canada side in their third game. “They were very good, and so when we faced them again in the semi-finals, we knew we’d have to be at our best to go through. They’re a big, strong team, but we wanted it so badly, to get into that final.”

Once there, they faced Sweden in front of more than 52,000 fans at the iconic Maracana Stadium in Rio. “Brazil is such a great football country and the crowds were very special,” Behringer said. “It’s so nice to play in front of such a large number of people, knowing they are there for you. In Bundesliga games back in Germany, we don’t have many fans in the stadium – maybe a couple of thousand for a big game. This was very different.”

An opening goal on 48 minutes from Dzsenifer Marozsan set Germany on their way, and a Linda Sembrant own goal doubled the lead 14 minutes later. The match ended in a 2-1 German win following a 67th-minute goal from Sweden’s Stina Blackstenius.

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“We had known this Swedish side for a long time and we’d always had great matches against them,” Behringer said. “We knew it would be tough, and it was very special. The Maracana was just amazing. It was the perfect atmosphere for a final. It is a very different experience going to the Olympic Games, and afterwards we were so happy.”

Behringer dismisses her goalscoring achievements – she was the tournament’s top scorer, with five goals – as unimportant (“the main thing was winning gold”), but hopes their much-publicised win back home has helped to raise the profile of the game.

“It was a very big moment for women’s football in Germany,” she said. “We were the first team to win a title. Before that we were getting third place a lot so we really wanted to get it. We have always been a little bit behind the USA maybe, but all the teams are improving now.”