While the men’s football competition at the Olympics is often an opportunity to get a sneak peek of some up-and-coming talent, the women’s competition is stacked with both new and recognisable names.
With no age limits in the women’s comp and with squads being expanded this year thanks to COVID-19 precautions, there will even more talent on display in Tokyo. Coaches can bring 22 players but must pick 18 for matchday.
While many stalwarts of the game return, several young prospects will be looking to make a name for themselves. The United States women’s national team have the best claim to being tournament favourites — they are looking to make history by becoming the first team to win a World Cup and Olympic gold back-to-back — there are 11 other nations looking to derail them.
Here are ESPN’s picks of the players who might just be the ones to look out for during the competition.
Christiane Endler (Chile)
The six-time Chilean Player of the Year has often been described as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and her experience will be needed as they come up against medal contenders Canada and Great Britain in their group, as well as hosts Japan. She conceded just four goals in the Division 1 Feminine last season and helped Paris Saint-Germain win the league for the first time. This earned her a move to European behemoths Lyon. Endler’s distribution is one of her strongest assets and alongside her confidence in defending set pieces, she is always one to watch.
Caroline Weir (Team GB)
Team Great Britain is often dominated by players from England, but it is a testament to the talent of Scotland’s Caroline Weir that she would be the first name on many people’s teamsheet. The attacking midfielder is known for scoring stunning goals from the edge of the box, drawing comparisons to Eric Cantona from her teammates. Besides scoring, it is her technical ability that makes Weir an important component of Hege Riise’s squad. She has a pass-completion rate of over 85% and is confident with the ball at her feet, averaging between 60 to 70 touches per game. With much of the squad made up of her Manchester City teammates, she’s well positioned to score some more Puskas Award-worthy goals.
Mana Iwabuchi (Japan)
There was surprise in some quarters when Iwabuchi opted to join Aston Villa last season. The experienced forward has played with some of the world’s best. She managed just two goals, but her average of over 70 touches per game shows she’s invested in build-up play. A big move to Arsenal at the start of the summer — where she will be reunited with former Bayern Munich teammates Vivianne Miedema and Lisa Evans — will hopefully give her more opportunity to shine and no better way to start that than with Japan at the Olympics. Precise and deliberate on the ball, she poses a serious threat.
Lieke Martens (Netherlands)
Vivianne Miedema is often put forward as the star of Netherlands’ squad and while her goal-scoring record speaks for itself, there is plenty of other talent in the European champions squad. One such name that sticks out is Martens, who won the Primera Iberdrola and Champions League this season with Barcelona. The Catalan club’s dominance at home and abroad was second to none and Martens has played a vital role in getting the team to that point. Elegant on the ball, she likes to play wide before using her technical ability to either get behind defences or take a shot. Netherlands have arguably the easiest group in the competition — with matches slated against China, Brazil and Zambia — but that opens things up to some magical moments from Martens.
Ellie Carpenter (Australia)
The young player from Australia has made a remarkable name for herself in Europe, and her skills will be needed as her side face one of the toughest groups in the draw. The Matildas have struggled in games in the run-up to the Olympics, but Carpenter has been consistently a standout player. With oppositions well aware of the threat of the side’s star Sam Kerr, having other options going forward have been key and Carpenter’s ability to scarper up the wing from the defence and turn attacker has only heightened her usefulness to Tony Gustavsson. While she’s the fifth-youngest on the squad, she brings a mature style of play which if utilised correctly could be a key element to the Matildas’ success.
Magda Eriksson (Sweden)
The Chelsea captain led her club to domestic glory, and with Sweden tipped as one of the main challengers to the USWNT’s bid to make history, her experience is going to be crucial. The squad is packed full of young exciting talent like Hanna Bennison, but the importance of Eriksson can’t be underestimated. She was part of the squad that won silver at Rio 2016 and after a disappointing defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final, Eriksson will be on the hunt for silverware. Technically she’s very gifted, with Chelsea manager Emma Hayes often saying she could have a career in coaching, such is the level of her football brain. Watch her marshal the Swedish defence against some of the world’s best forwards and marvel at how she seems to know what they’re about to do before they even make a move.
Tobin Heath (United States)
Tobin Heath is far from a lesser-known name, but she has had a difficult season with injuries. Having missed out on the second half of the Women’s Super League season with Manchester United, she faced a race to get fit in time for the Olympics. There was a question mark over whether Vlatko Andonovski was right to pick her to travel but she answered all these and more with her comeback against Mexico. Two goals in two games showed she is ready to compete for a starting spot and after such a lengthy spell out, we could be treated to some Heath magic in Tokyo. Look out for her stealing the ball from the opposition and darting through the defence before releasing a powerful strike that leaves even the best goalkeepers stuck to the spot.