Tokyo 2020 women’s football: The story behind the numbers

Tokyo 2020 takes a look at the stories hiding behind the stats from the Women’s Football Tournament – the highest-scoring edition in Olympic history and won for the first time by Canada.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Football remains the world’s most popular sport, and one charmingly impervious to the influence of statistical analysis. And while the hard numbers can be dull, they do hide some intriguing stories. Join Tokyo 2020 for a lighthearted look at the secrets behind some of the numbers of the Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) Women’s Olympic Football Tournament.

101 – There’s a wonderful symmetry to the astonishing number of goals scored in the women’s football tournament here at Tokyo 2020. A perfect palindrome, it’s the same whether you take it front-to-back or back-to-front – and it lives right at the gateway to triple digits.

These 101 goals broke the previous tournament-wide scoring record for a Women’s Olympic Football Tournament (71 in the same number of games set when Carli Lloyd and Co led Team USA to gold over Japan at London 2012).

There was some early indication that the women’s football here in Japan was likely to be scorching, when, on the first day of action, no fewer than 26 goals fell in six group-stage games. And that was followed up by a tournament-high output of 32 goals in the six games staged just 48 hours after that (on Matchday Two).

35 – The number of goals, capped in the final by Jessie Fleming’s equalising penalty kick for eventual first-time gold winners Canada against two-time silver-takers Sweden, was up from 66 in Rio in 2016 (an outsized increase of 35).

In the end, the tournament that saw only two goalless draws from 26 games produced an average of nearly four goals per game (3.88).

43 – Part of the explanation for the massive increase in goals from Rio to Japan is down to the avalanche that tumbled out of Group F, where three teams (People's Republic of China, Zambia and the always attack-minded duo of the Netherlands and Brazil) produced 43 goals in just 6 games (an average of more than seven per game)

10 – Chief among those Group F heavy-hitters was Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema, of club side Arsenal, and PR China-based Zambia captain Barbra Banda.

One of the hottest attacking properties in the women’s game, Miedema banged in eight goals in the Netherlands’ three group games alone, including a four-goal debut against the Zambians that ended 10-3 in favour of the Dutch, but also saw Banda score all three for the losing side in an incredible solo effort.

READ | Goals Galore as Dutch rout Zambia | Zambian Banda Banging in Goals

The 21-year-old Banda couldn’t see her side to the knockout stages, but the memory of her six goals (two hat-tricks) in the trying will linger. But Miedema would go on to score 10 goals in the Netherlands’ run to the quarterfinal stage – a number that broke the one-tournament record (held by Canada’s Christine Sinclair from London 2012) by a full four goals and puts her on track to best the tournament’s overall scoring record, belonging to Brazil’s Cristiane, who scored 14 in four editions of the Summer Games.

Despite all her scoring, it will be Olympic debutant Miedema’s miss from the spot against the United States that she’ll likely remember sharpest. It was the first of the shootout (after the game ended tied at 2-2 and led to her side dropping out of the competition and putting a sudden end to her torrid scoring run in Tokyo).

3 – Miedema, who scored twice in regular time against the Americans, met her match in the shootout in the form of USA goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. The Connecticut-born net-minder dove to save Miedema’s first attempt in the post-game lottery.

Naeher saved three spot-kicks on the day – one in the game from Lieke Martens and two more in the shootout – to mark herself out as the undisputed hero in a USA team that had trouble scoring up to that point in Tokyo (they were shut-out twice after suffering their worst defeat in Olympic history in an 0-3 opening-day loss to Sweden).

READ | Naeher: The Woman for the Big Moment

“It’s all about preparation,” Naeher told Tokyo 2020 about the nerve-wracking face-off of post-game penalties. “About staying mentally focused and engaged and, you know, being present in the moment and being ready for that moment when it comes.”

20 – But Team USA’s upturn in fortunes wasn’t to last. Their talisman Naeher was forced out of the semifinal with a knee injury and thus unable to face her fourth penalty-kick in the space of two games. This one, from Jessie Fleming, saw the Americans lose to their neighbours to the north, Canada, for the first time in 20 years (in any competition).

The third-place finish saw Team USA win their first-ever bronze medal. But it wasn’t the medal they’d come to Tokyo hoping to win. It improves on their worst-ever Olympic finish in Rio 2016, where they went home with no medal, but the Americans will have wound-licking and much thinking to do after missing on a swing at a fifth Olympic title and a World Cup-and-Olympic gold football double for the first time in history.

Tokyo 2020 was only the second time in women’s Olympic football history where the Americans failed to play for the gold.

187 – And that was down largely to the impressive team play of a Canadian side, led by young coach Bev Priestman, who came into these Games desperate to trade the country’s two bronzes earned in 2012 and 2016 for a shinier shade of medal.

“I don’t remember ever losing to Canada,” USA star Megan Rapinoe said after the semifinal.

That’s because she never had. The last time Canada’s national team beat their big rivals was in 2001. Someone likely to remember it well is Christine Sinclair, who scored in that game 20 years ago in Portugal and also played a crucial part in the win here in Tokyo two decades-plus later.

While she only scored once in Tokyo, Sinclair’s leadership was critical to Canada as they raced through to an historic gold. At 38, with 187 goals (more than any man or woman – ever) in the space of over three centuries of caps, her status as a forever-legend in Canada’s sporting history is secure.

1 – The story behind Canada’s first-ever gold is one of grit, determination and a change of mentality from happy-on-the-podium’s-edge to demanding centre-stage. They didn’t score the most goals in Tokyo. In point of fact, they were far from it. After a modest four goals in the three group-stage games, they scored only twice in the knockouts (and both of those were from the penalty spot).

Canada’s six goals in Japan saw them finish as only the seventh-highest scoring team in the 12-team tournament, firmly in the bottom half of the field and far lower than their podium mates Sweden and USA.

READ | Christine Sinclair: Canada Hero Ready for Coronation in Yokohama

A further matter of fact: in those knockout rounds, they only technically won one of their games (as shootouts go down as draws in the official tournament record). But it was all enough to turn Canada's double bronzes to gold and make magic for a national team whose grind and graft was too much for their more-fancied rivals.

They were well worthy of their golden moment.

Sinclair, playing in a first-ever gold-medal match in her 304th appearance for her country, summed it up after the podium ceremony where O Canada blared into the Yokohama sky for the first time in women's Olympic football.

“It even looks prettier," Canada's veteran captain said about the historic gold. "I honestly can't believe what just happened. We had a goal coming here to change the colour of the medal and we landed on the top of the podium.”

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