Team GB women's football head coach Hege Riise rises above politics

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Riise will be assisted by Rhian Wilkinson, who won Olympic bronze with Canada at London 2012
Riise will be assisted by Rhian Wilkinson, who won Olympic bronze with Canada at London 2012

A DOSE of Norwegian neutrality could be the biggest contribution Hege Riise makes to the political minefield that is Team GB football, writes Tom Harle.

England qualified Great Britain’s Olympic place at the 2019 World Cup and the FA have revealed Lionesses interim Riise as head coach for Tokyo 2020.

So far, so good. Unless you happen to be Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish.

Scottish and Welsh Football Associates are both ‘not supportive’ of Team GB, and Northern Ireland’s governing body have only said: “we won’t stop our players playing.”

When pressed, what does Riise make of the Home Nations grandstanding?

“I don’t know if I’m the right person to answer that,” she said. “I think I will need to leave that.”

And in many ways that’s the perfect answer to an unanswerable problem, allowing Baroness Sue Campbell and selectors to focus on harnessing the enthusiasm of eligible players.

Wales have Jess Fishlock and Hayley Ladd, Northern Ireland have Rachel Furness and Scotland no shortage of top stars like Kim Little, Caroline Weir and Erin Cuthbert.

That means only a significant increase on the two non-English players who made the 18-strong Team GB squad for London 2012 will suffice.

“All players have a chance to be selected,” said Riise. “That’s the benefit I have coming from outside, I can just pick the players to go into an Olympics and do well.

“I have a great team of staff watching all the players we need to see. I’m confident.”

Baroness Sue Campbell, who has forgotten more than most know about the politics of British sport, pointed to a consensus among warring associations.

“The Home Nations understand that selection must be based on the players’ ability to help us win this tournament,” she said.

“We’ve involved them every step of the way, we value and respect their independence. They are absolutely committed to wanting their players to get that opportunity.

“Our job is to show Hege the evidence to help her pick the 18 players that can go there and do well for us.”

A long list of British players is being trimmed down to 35 this week. The all-important 18-strong squad will be named in May ahead of domestic training camps in June and July.

Riise’s appointment to the Team GB role was made after a consultation with the Lionesses’s leadership team, which fed back another change in regime was not welcome ahead of July.

The Norwegian’s experience of the Olympic environment is treasured by Campbell and the FA. It’s set to be tested by COVID-19 restrictions and if things go well, six games in 17 days with a small squad in punishing Japanese heat.

“All of the research shows us those who haven’t been to an Olympics before really struggle, and that includes coaches,” Campbell said.

“The Games are unique and very different to a World Cup. It’s 26 World Cups happening simultaneously. Hege has been there as a player and a coach.

“Physical preparation is going to be top of our list,” she continued. “This is going to be tough. We’ll need to be mentally strong."

Sportsbeat 2021