Updated: Jul 16, 2021
The Olympic women’s soccer tournament kicks off July 21 and features some of the very best teams in the world. This guide is meant to provide a quick overview of all 12 teams, offering some key things to know, players to watch, and unresolved questions.
I’ve also outlined an achievable goal for each team, as well as a stretch goal. The latter is meant to still be within the realm of realistic possibility. Obviously, every team wants to win gold, and nothing is truly outside the realm of possibility in a short tournament in which two-thirds of the pool make the quarterfinals. But the stretch goal is meant to be a normal solid result, not something that requires defying the odds in any serious way.
Finally, I’ve offered a quick rooting recommendation for each team, with some thoughts about why you might want to support a given team or why you might want to back someone else. These are not meant to be taken too seriously; all 12 teams are full of interesting and exciting players who deserve support.
Team overview: Brazil never managed to capitalize on having the best player in the world at her peak, but a new generation of talent has arrived quickly enough to give Marta one last chance at winning a major international tournament. It’s still not clear that they have a full starting XI that can compete with the very best teams at the tournament, but, with Pia Sundhage as coach, they look to be a much more solid unit.
Players to watch: Debinha is staking her claim as one of the best players in the world. Marta is no longer the world-shaking force that she once was, but she remains an excellent player even at 35. And Formiga is playing in her seventh Olympics, which…my god.
Major question marks: The massive question for Brazil is in defense. They’ve got plenty of attacking options, but the backline is full of players in their 30s who weren’t necessarily elite even at their peaks. On the other hand, Sundhage has made a career out of solidifying shaky backlines, and Brazil has looked a lot less leaky in recent matches. If they can combine a vibrant attack with a solid defense, they could go very far.
Realistic goal: Semifinals. They’re in probably the easiest group to qualify from, and one that should set them up with a fairly winnable quarterfinal matchup.
Stretch goal: Silver. It’s possible to see Brazil picking up two knockout wins in a row, and I suppose anything is possible if you make the final. But even making the finals would be a huge achievement.
Why you should root for them: Debinha is one of the most thrilling players to watch in the world right now, and Marta is another all-time great who has been criminally underserved by her federation. It would be truly wonderful to see her find some joy in her late career.
Why you should root for someone else: The Brazilian FA has done very little to earn support. That’s not the players' fault, obviously, but it can be a bit of a downer.
Team overview: The Dutch are the defending European champions and World Cup finalists. And yet this is actually their first time qualifying for the Olympics! They blew away the opposition in the Euros four years ago, but they were far more plodding as they made their way to the World Cup final in 2019. Recent results suggest a team that’s struggling to maintain energy and inventiveness. It’s still a great roster, but one that relies very heavily on the star attackers to be in form. Fortunately for them, many of them are in form.
Players to watch: Vivianne Miedema is on the very short list for the best player in the world. She scores outrageous goals but may be even more important for what she creates in the buildup. Lieke Martens won the FIFA player of the year award in 2017, but she looked like a shadow of herself in 2019. However, she’s coming off a great year for the Champions League-winning Barcelona. If she is back at her best, she can light up the game.
Major question marks: In terms of raw talent, the Dutch midfield matches up with anyone at the tournament. But it’s not quite as versatile as some of the other challengers for gold. They will need to find a way to impose themselves—with Daniëlle van de Donk and Jackie Groenen both key figures in that job. If the Dutch can get ahold of the game, they can work magic. But if they get pushed onto the back foot, they don’t necessarily have the tools to wrest control of the game again.
Realistic goal: Silver. It won’t be easy, but the Dutch are probably the favorites to advance through the bottom half of the bracket. If they can win Group F, they won’t have to face another group winner until the final.
Stretch goal: Gold. They didn’t get especially close to laying a glove on the U.S. in the World Cup final two years ago, but they at least managed to keep them scoreless for an hour—far longer than anyone else in the tournament. We might just see a rematch here, maybe with a more favorable result.
Why you should root for them: If the clichés about Dutch football, free-flowing attacks, wonderful skill, and the waves of orange-clad fans appeal to you, then you should absolutely jump on the bandwagon. This is a squad with as much potential as anyone at the tournament to play beautifully. Whether they actually follow through…
Why you should root for someone else: They’ve already had plenty of success, and it feels like the team might now be on the downswing of that curve. The world is full of great teams who never figured out how to adapt once opponents sorted them out, and it’s not clear they have what it takes to escape that trap.
Team overview: China are a long way removed from the team that consistently faced off against the U.S. in the 1990s. Huge cuts to investment have left them with a decent team, but nothing close to the powerhouse they once were. They were just able to scrape through qualifying—after a year-long delay thanks to COVID--by beating South Korea 4-3 on aggregate after extra time. But don’t expect results like that here. If China find success at the Olympics, it will almost certainly need to come from subduing the opposition attack, not from winning a high-octane shootout.
Players to watch: For goals, China will leave heavily on Wang Shanshan and Wang Ying. There’s not much firepower outside those, especially because they chose not to bring Li Ying (possibly connected to the fact that she recently came out as gay). In defense, Lin Yuping is sneakily one of the best center backs in the world, and Peng Shimeng is not-so-sneakily one of the best goalkeepers.
Major question marks: How will they set up? China found modest success at the last World Cup playing a highly aggressive, physical style. It successfully disrupted opponents, but it also relied on getting referees that would let them get away with it. And it didn’t ultimately carry them all that far once they ran into an Italian team that put away their chances. So can China open things up a bit more and try to get ahold of the ball? Can they do it without leaving themselves hopelessly exposed? They (barely) got away with it against South Korea in the qualifier; will they try again here?
Realistic goal: Quarterfinals.
Stretch goal: Semifinals. All their likely quarterfinal matchups look like major uphill fights. But they might be able to spring a surprise.
Why you should root for them: If they choose the aggressive physical approach, you can certainly appreciate their commitment to the bit, though you probably won’t get a ton of enjoyment from watching the games. If they decide to play a more open style, it could be a recipe for some fun chaos. Maybe?
Why you should root for someone else: See the quality of the arguments for "why you should root for them" and draw the obvious conclusion.
Team overview: This is the first time Zambia has qualified for the Olympics, and at #104 in the world, they are far and away the lowest-ranked team in the competition. The squad is almost entirely made up of players from the semi-professional Zambian domestic league, which is improving rapidly but still lags far behind the top leagues in Africa, much less around the world. But that really just means the Copper Queens have nothing to lose. They’ve already shown their mettle by taking down a very good Cameroon team to qualify for the tournament.
Players to watch: Rather than offering my own analysis here, I’ll just quote from Allison Cary’s wonderful piece on the Zambia team: “Barbra Banda, who recently turned 21, is the team captain and a striker in the Chinese Women's Super League. She was the team's top goal-scorer in the qualification campaign. Racheal Nachula (midfielder) and Hellen Mubanga (striker) are also big names on the team. Nachula scored 10 goals and earned four assists in the team's 2019 COSAFA Championship, but she was missing from the Copper Queens' most recent training camp. While she is 35, she's a former track runner and is relatively new to the soccer world. Both Nachula and Mubanga play for Spanish side Zaragoza CFF.”
Major question marks: More than any other team at the tournament, Zambia will be a bit of a mystery to international audiences. If you follow the sport closely, you’ve probably seen plenty of the other 11 competitors but might never have seen Zambia at all. How will they set themselves up in this first chance at a major international event? Will they sit deep and defend a bunker? Will they come at teams and damn the torpedoes? I don’t think anyone really knows. And that’s very exciting!
Realistic goal: Score a goal. The competition is very tough, so anything more will be difficult. But even just scoring a goal could be a wonderful moment.
Stretch goal: Get a result. A win would be fantastic, but a hard-fought draw would only be slightly less so.
Why you should root for them: This one feels pretty obvious. First-time competitors from Africa with a chance to blaze a new path for themselves. I think a lot of people will be pulling for them.
Why you should root for someone else: I really can’t endorse rooting against them. But if you want to support a team with a chance to win, you’ll probably need to look elsewhere.