A dominant United States team face stiff competition from hosts Brazil for a fifth Olympic gold medal in six games when the women’s football tournament kicks off Rio 2016 on Wednesday.
The States’ quest for a fourth consecutive gold begins against New Zealand in Belo Horizonte with both men’s and women’s tournaments spread across six cities which hosted the 2014 World Cup.
The world champions are without all-time leading international goalscorer Abby Wambach at a major tournament for the first time in over a decade after she retired following the World Cup last year.
However, unlike the men’s Olympic tournament, there are no age restrictions on the players that can be selected so the USA’s English coach Jill Ellis can call upon World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd, as well as the experienced Megan Rapinoe and star striker Alex Morgan.
The USA are in need of a fast start as they face a huge clash with France on August 6 and end the opening stage of their campaign against Colombia in Manaus, nearly 3,000 kilometres away from Rio in the Amazonian jungle.
Co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn admitted previous success makes the Americans heavy favourites to claim gold once more in the final at Rio’s iconic Maracana stadium on August 19.
“We always look for that next challenge because we constantly want to achieve that next level of greatness,” she told US Soccer’s website.
“People expect us to win, we know what it actually takes to win and that comes with a different level of accountability and sacrifice.”
Brazil have never won a football gold medal at the Olympics and although the women’s side won’t have the same pressure and expectation as their male counterparts, there is belief they can go one better than extra-time defeats to the USA in the finals at the 2004 and 2008 games.
Five-time World Player of the Year Marta spearheads a Brazilian side that also contains veteran defender Formiga, who will compete in her sixth Olympics.
“Although people say we don’t have to go and win the gold, for me, as someone who has played at other Olympics, won two silvers and come close to the gold, I think we are obliged to win it,” said striker Cristiane.
Brazil face a tough start at Rio’s Olympic stadium on Wednesday against China, who qualified at the expense of 2012 silver medallists Japan and reached the World Cup quarter-finals in Canada last year.
Eccentric French coach Bruno Bini has aided the continued rise of women’s football in China and caused a stir on the eve of the tournament by claiming that “Chinese women work harder and they complain much less,” than the French side he led to the 2011 World Cup semi-finals.
Chinese hopes will depend much on star striker Wang Shanshan and she backed Bini’s unconventional methods.
“Each day, he tells us something new. He usually encourages us with a motto, a poem,” Wang told FIFA.com.
“With his guidance the team unity is getting better and the spirit is going up.”
All 12 teams are in action on Wednesday as World Cup quarter-finalists Canada and Australia face off in Sao Paulo.
Two-time world champions Germany take on Zimbabwe in the other game in Group F.
The top two sides and two best third-placed teams from the three groups will progress to the quarter-finals.