They had all talked, heading into the tournament, of a “gold-medal” mentality – trusting in each other and fearing no-one – but the Great Britain women's hockey team could not muster these qualities as Argentina proved the impediment last night to them progressing beyond their previous best Olympic bronze. Their captain and coach were both close to tears at their press conference afterwards.
A bronze medal is still within their grasp on tomorrow, against the New Zealand side whose defeat on penalties to the Netherlands means the world's top two nations have reached the final. There are also grounds for optimism, whatever the outcome. The women's game's development, building up towards the Olympics, has helped attract seven-figure corporate sponsorship and a substantial number of new players at grass roots, to what has been one of the surprise hits of these games. But none of that will be of consolation to a group who believed they would go a step further than Jane Sixsmith's squad of '92. They will curse the umpiring decision which saw the Argentines advance to 2-0 lead just before half time, though the outcome was just.
Video analysis might have been another of the improvements in the British set-up since £15m was allocated over four years after the Beijing Olympics, but no amount of time spent scrutinising opposition at Bisham Abbey could prepare the home side for Luciana Aymar, who demonstrated last night that Lionel Messi is not the only sporting genius to hail from Rosario. Aymar made perhaps the most telling contribution, though Britain sealed their own fate, too. Their final delivery into the circle was lacking and on the whole they lacked finesse in possession.
They certainly needed those qualities because after Argentina scored with their first attack of the match - the ball landing on Georgie Twigg's foot to concede a short corner which Noel Barrionuevo seized on to convert - they displayed hockey's equivalent of parking the bus. "I felt Argentina were defending and not offering much other than that," the Great Britain coach, Danny Kerry, reflected. Britain also faced a familiar problem in this tournament – three defenders grouped around Alex Danson, their most potent threat by some distance. It took the very best of Danson – pivoting to reverse an yielding near-post shot wide at a narrow near-post angle, even while she was being pushed from behind – to elicit even a scent of hope for a raucous home crowd, which included the Duchess of Cambridge.
Argentina's second goal revealed Rosario Luchetti at her own imperious best, bundled to the floor by British keeper Elizabeth Storry but still displaying the dexterity to find two further touches and navigate the ball in from an unfeasibly difficult angle on the byline. Britain felt they had the right to a video referral for an infringement in that build-up, though incidents outside the 23-yard area cannot be referred. "This was the biggest day in sport in for four years and biggest audience in four years and [yet] people are confused," Kerry said. "The law is written that we could not use a video referral. It is an absurd rule."
His team still had chances. It was Helen Richardson, just the player you would want to be presented with an unchallenged shot in space from five yards, who scuffed one – criminally. Danson raised hopes by converting a cross to score with five minutes to play, though prospects always felt bleak. Kerry professed himself "overwhelmed" and feeling "bitter, bitter disappointment" though much may still hinge on his players. The target GB Hockey committed to, in securing its £15m funding three years ago, was one or two medals at these Games. "We will use the hurt and turn it into a really thorough performance," Derry promised for the the bronze-medal game tomorrow.
GB Hockey is acutely aware of how the sport was not ready to seize the opportunity presented when Sean Kerly inspired the men to gold in Seoul in 1988. This time its push has accompanied the preparation for an Olympics, rather than await its conclusion. A major boost to the sport's attempts to be ready for an uplift from the Olympics was securing, 12 months ago, of Investec's sponsorship of the women's team and other aspects of the game.
It has raised the Kerry's squad's profile, too. They were official guests at racing's Derby, which Investec also sponsors. They met the Queen there, featured in advertising campaigns and felt the benefits of being at the core of hockey's marketing as a sophisticated sport, open to women. All of which added to the sense of emptiness they were left with last night.
Painful exit for Glynn and New Zealand
The Netherlands team start to celebrate at the Riverbank Arena yesterday after dramatically beating New Zealand 3-1 in a penalty shoot-out to reach tomorrow's final in the women's hockey. It was a painful occasion in more ways than one for the Kiwis' Katie Glynn, whose side twice took the lead but were held 2-2. The striker was accidentally hit in the head by Ellen Hoog's stick and had to be led off the field with a deep cut before returning sporting a thick bandage. To add insult to injury, Hoog scored the winning penalty.