Ellen White’s double leads Team GB to opening Olympics win over Chile

Ellen White’s double leads Team GB to opening Olympics win over Chile

After the clasp of teammates around Ellen White peeled away following her close-range strike against Chile that brought Team GB’s first goal in 3,277 days, the forward looked down and held her hands to her face in her familiar glasses celebration. It was muted; a world away from the exuberant celebrations that became a staple of England’s run to the World Cup semi-finals in 2019.

Yet despite the lack of spectators, the Covid concern gripping the Olympic Village and the stunted preparations, the return of competitive international women’s football still felt joyous with White’s double and a solid Team GB performance providing cause for optimism for their fans, some of whom will have been watching at home over breakfast.

“I think how we started the game was exceptional,” said the Team GB manager, Hege Riise. “The first 30 minutes was the best we have played. It wasn’t pretty for the whole game but we managed to get the win that we deserved and we wanted.”

Team GB had not competed at an Olympic Games since 2012 and England have not played a competitive fixture since that World Cup exit in 2019. Yet there was an air of familiarity once the ball started to roll.

In the sticky heat of the enclosed Sapporo Dome – familiar to England fans as the backdrop to David Beckham’s redemption, when his penalty earned victory against Argentina at the 2002 World Cup – this was a majority-England team, but one laced with the unmatched midfield drive of the Scottish duo Kim Little and Caroline Weir.

The formation of a Team GB women’s football team may be controversial but, without wanting to disrespect Scotland, who have arguably underperformed given the quality at their disposal, it is quite magical to watch Little in particular unleashed in a midfield where the pressure is less and there are more players of her calibre to share the burden of expectations. With Chelsea’s PFA and FWA player of the year Fran Kirby having picked up a knock, Little’s mastery mattered even more.

On 18 minutes a chipped cross from Lucy Bronze found her Manchester City teammate Lauren Hemp at the back post and the forward headed the ball down to White, who slotted past Christiane Endler, the goalkeeper who joined Lyon from Paris St-Germain this summer and is widely thought of as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The goal was well deserved.

“She’s a world-class keeper, no doubt about it,” said White. “But I’d done my homework as well. I tried to execute when the moments came. I had one disallowed goal but I was trying to be in the right place at the right time. I had some amazing balls from my teammates and feel really proud. I feel like there’s more to come. As a squad, we can grow and develop as this tournament goes on.”

They need to grow fast. With Japan up next and then Canada the competition gets tougher very quickly. Japan have been preparing their side for this tournament for five years, taking a young team to France as part of the preparations for this Olympics.

“I’ve faced them a number of times,” said White. “They’re technically gifted and I admire the way they play and press the ball. It will be a really tough test for us. We have to concentrate on what we can do and how we can improve on the first game. But we’re excited to face them and are looking forward to it.”

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Riise – an Olympic champion with Norway in 2000 – had said she wanted the side to play “with a lot of energy and confidence and be brave with the ball”, and with Hemp and Georgia Stanway flanking White there was a youthful exuberance on the wings that enabled them to do just that.

A switch of wings at half-time took the sting out of Team GB but they were untroubled by a Chile team 37th in Fifa’s rankings, and the introduction of Nikita Parris reinjected some impetus. Shortly after, the lead was doubled as Bronze, whose gut-busting runs from deep carved out opening after opening, clipped the ball in for White to knock in with a mistimed scissor kick.

“We trust Ellen to score goals and she does, but not only to get the goals she fights hard,” said Riise. A flurry of changes further stifled the team’s flow but this was smart game-management, taking minutes away from weary legs and giving the substitutes a taste of Olympic action. With a heavy schedule, clever squad management and rotation will be key.

The opening game was far from perfect but there were glimpses of brilliance and intelligence in Team GB’s performance, glimpses that will surely lengthen as a team that had played only once in the buildup to Tokyo 2020 find their rhythm.