The terrific ten: Top female footballers to watch at Tokyo 2020

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 16: Lindsey Horan #9 of the United States heads the ball against Chidinma Okeke #14 and Michelle Alozie #22 of Nigeria during the first half of their WNT Summer Series game at Q2 Stadium on June 16, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chuck Burton/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 16: Lindsey Horan #9 of the United States heads the ball against Chidinma Okeke #14 and Michelle Alozie #22 of Nigeria during the first half of their WNT Summer Series game at Q2 Stadium on June 16, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chuck Burton/Getty Images)

Tokyo 2020 takes a closer look at ten of the top players to keep an eye on at the Women's Olympic Football Tournament that kicks off today (21 July).

The 12-team Women’s Olympic Football Tournament at Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) will be a showcase of the world’s top female footballers – as the competition has been since its debut in Atlanta in 1996.

While the Americans (Team USA) come in with a chip on their shoulder as heavy favourites to claim their fifth Olympic gold medal and historic back-to-back world and Olympic titles, there are a slew of hungry hopefuls eager to upset such lofty ambitions.

Join Tokyo 2020 for a look at ten of the top players to watch out for on the pitches in Japan.

Lindsey Horan (United States)

Horan was a crucial part of the U.S. team that won a fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019. But she has bitter memories, too, of losing in a shootout to Sweden at the uncharacteristically early Rio 2016 Olympic quarterfinal stage (the worst result ever for a USA women's football team at the Games).

With versatility to burn, the Colorado native, who spent four seasons at PSG in France and now stars for the NWSL’s Portland Thorns, has moved back deeper into Vlatko Andonovski’s set-up. She now occupies a deep-lying midfield role and contributes more to the defending, while also play-making from those depths.

“I feel like I see the game really well and I can play to what’s needed of me,” she told Tokyo 2020 in a recent interview. “I watched and studied the game so much so I don’t mind being put in a weird position at all."

READ | Lindsey Horan: USA’s Outstanding Play-Anywhere Option

Barbra Banda (Zambia)

Among the Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) underdogs, debutants Zambia may be the farthest on the outside looking in. But if the Africans are going to pull off a shocker in Japan, it will likely be on the strength of their outstanding striker and foraging captain Barbra Banda.

The 21-year-old attacker scored 18 times for club side Shanghai Shengli to be crowned last season’s top-scorer in the Chinese Women’s Super League, where she’d earned a move at the start of 2020 after impressing in Spain with 15 goals in 28 games for Logrono (she scored 16 goals in 28 games overall in her two seasons in Spain).

Barbra Banda in action against Cameroon during the final round of the Women's CAF Olympic Qualification Tournament
Barbra Banda in action against Cameroon during the final round of the Women's CAF Olympic Qualification Tournament

“It means a lot for everyone and the country at large,” Banda said about her nation reaching the Olympics for the first time (in men's or women's football). “It is encouraging for women, not even the men’s team qualified…we made history.”

READ | Barbra Banda: We Have Something Within Us

Christiane Endler (Chile)

With Chile also among the outsiders in their first-ever Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, they will likely need big performances from their goalkeeper. And lucky for the South Americans, in Christine Endler, they have one of the world’s best between the pipes.

The PSG net-minder led her club to a first-ever French top-flight title with 19 shutouts in 22 games. It's that kind of output that earned her a move to French rivals and 2020 European champions Lyon.

Endler was the highest-profile name in the Chile squad that made their Women’s World Cup debut in France in 2019.

“Qualification was something we were looking for so long,” she said of the World Cup debut, which the team hope to build off here at the Tokyo Olympics. “The group has been fighting for this for nearly ten years."

READ | Guide to Group E of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament

Lauren Hemp (Great Britain)

A newcomer to the international stage at the tender age of 20, and with only six caps for England, Team GB’s opener against Chile on 21 July will be the youngster’s first appearance at the Olympics Games.

She overcame injury at the start of the last European club season and returned to the Manchester City squad like a breath of fresh air. She hit the net six times for her club after returning to the pitch in December, setting up eight goals to boot in the space of just 15 games.

“She’s exciting to watch, exciting to play alongside,” said teammate Ellen White. “She brings something different and she is only going to get better.”

READ | Lauren Hemp: The World Should Pay Attention

Megan Rapinoe (United States)

What hasn’t been said about Megan Rapinoe?

A star on the field, she still owns the entire left side for the U.S. national team at the veteran age of 36. Her firm commitment to social justice causes have made her a human being to contend with off the field as well.

Though not the captain of the four-time Olympic champions and defending world toppers, Rapinoe is every inch an on-field leader and a player to take lightly at your own peril.

"There are always challenges. You don’t win anything without challenges and obstacles,” Rapinoe said recently. “So everything has something. But I think our mentality is just to get through it, just do it and get to the field where we can be our best.”

READ | Rapinoe and Co want Swede Revenge and History

Debinha (Brazil)

Taking up some of the attacking responsibilities carried for so long by her aging Brazil teammate Marta, Debinha – of NWSL club side North Carolina Courage – has a knack for coming in off the left side and looking to unlock even the stingiest of defenses.

With 40 goals for her national team, the 29-year-old two-time NWSL champion heads into Tokyo 2020 looking to help Brazil as they take aim at their first major women’s international crown.

“She’s one of the best players in the world,” is the assessment of Team USA coach Andonovski – who knows a thing or two about what top players look like.

READ | Group F Guide for Women’s Olympic Football Tournament

IWABUCHI Mana (Japan)

Switching from Aston Villa to Arsenal this summer, the elegant Japanese attacker is equally at home scoring or setting up goals.

A member of the Japanese team that won the World Cup in 2011, Iwabuchi now takes aim for her first Olympic gold, after winning silver in 2012. The 28-year-old is showing no sign of slowing down and has been prolific in Japan’s run-up to hosting the Games.

READ | Iwabuchi among Japanese Stars to Watch in Tokyo | Group E Guide

Sam Kerr (Australia)

The perfect blend of pace, power and guile, Kerr is Australia’s danger-woman and someone who can turn a game on its head at the drop of a hat.

She scored 21 goals in 22 games for Chelsea last term, making her the WSL's top scorer. She’s also the top all-time scorer in the USA’s NWSL and Australia’s captain. If she can get herself into fifth gear in Tokyo, heaven help the opposition.

READ | Sam Kerr: It's All About the First Game | Group G Guide

Vivianne Miedema (Netherlands)

Versatile in attack, her influence on the national team was a huge reason why the Oranje reached a first-ever Women’s World Cup final in France in 2019 (and won the EURO in 2017 too).

She’s scored 73 times in 96 appearances for the national team making her, at the still-tender age of 25, her country’s top all-time scorer. The Arsenal star was also named the Football Writers Association's Footballer of the Year for 2019-20.

READ | Guide to Group F of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament

Christine Sinclair (Canada)

Sinclair’s numbers do all the talking. Still flying high at the age of 38, the Canadian striker is three years older than her national team coach, Bev Priestman. And she's has scored more goals in international football than anyone else – man or woman.

Her mark of 186 goals in 299 games will likely stand for some time, and her next cap – the Olympic opener against hosts Japan – will be her 300th game in a Canada jersey. As the North Americans hope to move past their back-to-back bronze medals from London 2012 and Rio 2016, it could well be the form of the Burnaby native that makes the difference.

“With Christine [Sinclair], when it matters, she turns up,” said Priestman of her veteran striker. “She sort of has an aura. She’s that humble, hard-working player who’s just special. It just fills you with confidence…”

READ | Priestman Banks on Hunger and Sinclair to turn Bronze to Gold

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