Team Great Britain got off to the ideal start at the 2012 Olympic Women’s Football Tournament at Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium on 25 July, overcoming their nerves and a subdued Football Ferns combination by a 1-0 scoreline as 24,549 fans looked on in the bright sunshine.
It was the colonial upstarts who began brightly, New Zealand looking to exploit the nerves of the host nation in the early stages of the match, with the fit-again Ali Riley releasing Sarah Gregorius down the left just 45 seconds into the encounter.
Ifeoma Dieke and Casey Stoney combined to prevent Hannah Wilkinson from reaching her team-mate’s low cross, while Stephanie Houghton blocked an Amber Hearn header to safety three minutes later after Riley had picked out the deep-lying striker with her cross.
Gradually, Team GB overcame their initial stage-fright, and after twelve minutes, they began to grow into the match. Abby Erceg was forced into conceding a corner after the outstanding Eniola Aluko had linked with Kelly Smith on the left flank.
Four minutes later, Ifeoma Dieke hoisted the ball forward more in hope than anything, allowing Kelly Smith to stretch her legs and put Jenny Bindon under pressure. One indecisive clearance later, and the number ten was in possession, wide on the right with the goalkeeper back-pedalling.
But the veteran attacker didn’t get the chance to exploit the opportunity, Riley appearing on the scene in a flash to close down the threat and spare Bindon’s blushes with some fine defensive cover work.
In the nineteenth minute, the fullback’s attacking instincts were to the fore. On receipt of a quick free-kick near half-way, she pinged the ball forward for Hearn to execute a difficult back-headed attempt.
Team GB goalkeeper Karen Bardsley gratefully grabbed the looping ball under her crossbar, before sparking a counter-attack which culminated in Houghton lashing a long-range free-kick towards the target. Bindon launched herself to her left to tip this round the post.
The resulting Kelly Smith corner was punched out by Bindon to Aluko, whose instant snapshot was brilliantly parried by the Kiwi ‘keeper - a terrific reflex stop, which enabled her team-mates to scramble the ball to safety.
There was no doubting which team was on top by now, however, and Team GB’s star continued to rise, with some help from their opponents, it must be said. For the Football Ferns, Erceg in particular, started going through a phase of play throughout which they kept needlessly conceding possession.
The central defender was far and away the worst offender, turning the ball over at least eight times inside the opening half-hour, more often than not with an aimless ball forward - hardly the form one has come to expect of New Zealand’s inaugural International Players’ Player of the Year.
Worse was to come from Erceg, however. In the 33rd minute, another inexplicable rush of blood to the head saw her gift possession to Karen Carney inside her own half. The midfielder wasted little time in exploiting the opening this presented, and within seconds the ball was at the feet of Aluko on the left.
She picked out Anita Asante with a measured cross to the far post which saw the midfielder direct a downward header against the base of the upright with Bindon beaten.
And while the ‘keeper was giving the post a kiss in thanks for her good fortune, Riley unleashed an anger-laden verbal missile at Erceg which appeared to have the desired effect, for the latter’s game visibly improved after this incident.
That of Riley, meanwhile, remained constant - she was New Zealand’s brightest star throughout. Two minutes prior to Asante’s header, the fullback had beaten the midfielder with some delightful footwork before dashing on then playing the ball in to Hearn.
The striker dummied it, knowing that Sarah Gregorius was lurking in behind her. Sadly for the Football Ferns, so was Stoney, and Team GB’s captain was able to shepherd the ball safely through to Bardsley, who snuffed out the danger.
Team GB ended the first half very much on top. Two Asante headers, both arising from Smith corners, flashed past the posts either side of a delightful 38th minute raid involving Aluko, Kim Little, Smith and Asante, which culminated in overlapping fullback Alex Scott dashing in off the right and unleashing a curling effort which flew across Bindon but past the far post as well.
Right on half-time, Team GB spurned a glorious chance to open the scoring. Dieke picked out Aluko on the left, and she got goal-side of Ria Percival before slipping Little into the penalty area with just Bindon to beat.
The Scottish striker appeared to be in two minds, however, and took the wrong option, spurning the chance to shoot in favour of a pass inside, which
Erceg pounced on and cleared to safety.
Team GB’s coach, Hope Powell, clearly wasn’t too impressed with Little’s profligacy, for she dragged the striker at half-time, replacing her with Ellen White, a tactical adjustment which gave Kelly Smith a licence to roam and cause problems where she saw fit.
It was the Football Ferns who were causing problems in the half initially, however. Wilkinson’s pursuit of Gregorius’ through ball forced Dieke into conceding a corner, the resulting clearance of which saw the Kiwis awarded a free-kick thirty yards out from goal, after yet another foul on Hayley Moorwood, whose creativity was an aspect of the Football Ferns’ game Team GB were clearly intent on stifling by any means.
Kirsty Yallop touched the ball to Hearn, who hammered a shot narrowly past the post. Yallop herself also fired wide of both uprights either side of the hour mark, but these efforts merely served to relieve the pressure the Football Ferns were once again under.
For Team GB soon regained the ascendancy in this encounter, and it was another stray Erceg pass which gave them the opening they sought in the 52nd minute. Carney, Aluko and Kelly Smith swiftly combined, with the last-mentioned’s cross towards White being headed narrowly past her own post by Erceg, with Bindon coming off her line to grab the cross but failing in her quest to do so.
The ‘keeper made amends when dealing with a Houghton twenty yarder five minutes later, seconds after which Riley came to the Football Ferns’ rescue, thwarting Scott after Carney’s defence-splitting pass had opened up the black-clad Kiwis’ rearguard.
New Zealand’s number seven was Team GB’s nemesis once again in the 62nd minute. A counter-attack culminated in Kelly Smith sending White scampering through the inside right channel, seemingly with just Bindon to beat. But as she shot, the retreating figure of Riley launched herself into a blocking lunge which succeeded in diverting the sphere to safety.
Team GB finally made the breakthrough their dominance deserved in the 64th minute. The Football Ferns were all hands on deck dealing with repeated corners, following one of which Hearn fouled Scott just outside the area.
Houghton stepped up and unleashed a swerving twenty-yarder which careered through a gap in the wall created by the movement of two team-mates, behind neither of whom stood a covering defender. Bindon had positioned herself in anticipation of a Kelly Smith curler, so had too much ground to make up as the ball arrowed past her into the right-hand corner of the net.
Team GB were delighted, but were soon on the defensive as the Football Ferns sought a swift riposte. Bardsley dashed off her line to save at the feet of Gregorius in the 67th minute, and after Percival’s timely challenge had denied Aluko immediately afterwards, Gregorius squandered a glorious chance to level the scores in the 71st minute.
Hearn produced a gem of a pass with the outside of her right foot which completely confused two Team GB defenders. Before they knew it, Gregorius was in behind them with just Bardsley to beat, but she telegraphed what she was going to do to the custodian, who gleefully dived to her left to smother the threat, leaving the striker to wonder what might have been.
The host nation’s representatives regained the ascendancy following this let-off, with only a vital challenge by Football Ferns captain Rebecca Smith denying Rachel Yankey’s attempt to turn home an Aluko cross in the 73rd minute.
Another Aluko cross nine minutes later forced Percival into heading narrowly across the face of her own goal, while the Football Ferns had one last chance to fashion an equaliser before the final whistle.
Gregorius and substitutes Betsy Hassett and Annalie Longo - she made history when coming on, as the first female footballer to have played at the Olympics and FIFA’s senior, U-20 and U-17 Women’s World Cup Finals - combined around the edge of the penalty area to present Hearn with a chance to shoot from twenty yards.
Her dipping effort was heading in under the bar until the fingertips of Bardsley altered the ball’s trajectory, a moment which confirmed a 1-0 victory for Team GB over a Football Ferns side from which better was expected both result and performance-wise.
Team GB: Bardsley; Scott, Dieke, Stoney, Houghton; Scott, Carney (Williams, 89), Asante (booked, 3), Aluko; K. Smith (Yankey, 68), Little (White, 46)
Football Ferns: Bindon; Percival, R. Smith, Erceg, Riley; Moorwood (Hassett, 60), Hoyle, Hearn, Yallop (Longo, 74); Wilkinson (booked, 44), Gregorius
Referee: Kari Seitz (USA)