The final of the World Cup saw the Japan beat the US on penalty kicks 12 years after the 1999 final, proving that I should never ever make predictions again.
Japan v. United States
The problem with following sports is that when your favorite player or team loses you get irrationally depressed. Chances are you don’t know the player(s) except maybe through media such as Twitter. Most likely you have more loyalty to the team than the players do. Unless you work for the team, and very few of us do, the result on the field has no bearing on your daily life. Yet being a fan is like being in love, and therefore you invest a part of your heart and soul into your team’s performance. When they win you rejoice; when they lose you ache with pain. It’s a communal love shared with the players, but even more so with the other fans who for that instant become an extended family. There is no good reason for this. It’s not logical. it just is how it is.
Today the United States Women’s National Team lost in the World Cup final to Japan on penalty kicks. Technically they drew 2-2, but only one team lifted the trophy. I, like my fellow fans, share the tremendous sadness of the US Women, because I too love them. This is the worst I have ever felt after a football match. The only team I have ever been this invested in is Barcelona who generally win, but I cannot imagine I would feel any worse if Barcelona lost. I am not the only fan who is depressed today; Julie Foudy looked near tears afterwards.
Another reason for the tremendous sadness is because I worry about the fate of the WPS. While a US win may not have saved it, one wonders if the loss is a deathblow. I hope not. The US Women played a tremendous tournament, fought well in a tough match, possibly the greatest match women’s football has ever seen, and came up just short in the end. They have given us far more than the US Men ever have, yet MLS is secure while the WPS is not. It just doesn’t seem fair. For all the attention that the US Women got over the past few weeks (God bless ESPN), one wonders if that attention will be refocused onto the league, which does not have major network exposure. For myself, I will gladly buy an Alex Morgan jersey if they make it in a men’s size, but I am a focus group of one. The sad thing is that there is no reason the WPS should be flailing. If anything, this World Cup has shown that women’s football can be of very high quality. At the international level, the women can put on a better show than the men. Yet for a whole host of reasons, the women’s game cannot get the same kind of attention and respect. If that is not enough to make one cry, I don’t know what is.
On to the actual match.
In as much as anything is fair in football, this was a fair enough result. What the Unites States did to Brazil, Japan did to the United States. The US had chance after chance in the beginning but could not convert those chances. Japan fell behind twice but came back twice. One cannot talk about US tenacity–getting outplayed and still fighting for the win–without giving that same credit to Japan. They beat the #1, #2, and #5 ranked teams in the world. The entire tournament Japan played with a style that up until this point was practically unknown in women’s football. They are the first team from Asia to win a World Cup. They are the first team not from Europe or the Americas to even win any World Cup, men’s or women’s. Samurai Blue have nothing on Nadeshiko Japan, and no Japanese player, male or female, will ever have Homare Sawa’s legacy. Givenf the horrors Japan has faced in the past five months, how can you not be a good sport and feel at least a little happy for Japan? Even through the tears, there is a small smile.
Both teams would have been worthy winners. It was an incredible match, from beginning to end, but once Sawa got Japan’s second goal near the end of extra time though (thereby earning the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball, and probably World Player of the Year come December), it felt like Japan was going to win. There was something in the air, and the US seemed deflated. Sure enough, in the penalty kicks the US fell apart. Penalty kicks are a cruel but necessary way to end a knockout match. Most teams are unlucky to go through one. The US had to go through two. Penalty kicks are as much a matter of luck as skill, and this time luck was not with the US.
Although the officiating in this tournament was suspect tonight was very good (a pleasant change from last year’s “Three Stooges” reenactment.) Everything about this final was pretty clean, save for Azusa Iwashimizu’s red card, and even that was very much in the spirit of the game. She sacrificed herself to save her team. There is something noble about that, aggravating as it is. But that was the story of the match. The Japanese defense saved the team as it did against Sweden and Germany. If I could remake my team of the tournament, I would change one position: Saki Kumagai instead of Faye White; Kumagai kept Abby Wambach at bay for almost the entire match. Another person who deserves to be singled out is Japan’s goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who was stellar during the penalty kicks.
For all the Nike ads about pressure, for all the pressure that the US overcame in the past few weeks, tonight they faltered under the pressure. The US outplayed Japan, they even dominated possession (or so it seemed), their record against Japan is ridiculously good, and they had the lead twice. Yet, the pressure of being so close to victory did them in. In the first half hour the US could not convert any of their many chances. Some of this was due to positioning, some of it was due to plain bad luck. But both Japanese goals came because the defense, which was rock solid for most of the tournament, fell to that pressure. Spare a thought for Christie Rampone. That’s a tough way to end a distinguished career.
One person who cannot be blamed is Pia Sundhage, who was also holding back tears. This entire tournament she has done nothing but instill confidence in her side and out-coach her opposition. If not for her, the US would never have gotten past Brazil or France. Today the result could have gone either way. She did not control the penalty shoot-out and had no reason to think that her players would not be able to perform. If she does not keep her job, there is something seriously wrong with the USSF. We US fans owe her a debt of gratitude; she took a team in conflict and brought them an Olympic title and a World Cup silver medal. Thank you, Pia Sundhage, you are in our hearts.
If there is one bright spot for this US team, it is the knowledge that we can continue to be competitive in years to come, especially with players like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe. Given the way the US played today, I have faith in the future. Perhaps in four years, the US will finally take back the World Cup. One hopes so; these players need to get the monkey of 1999 of their backs. Mia Hamm has long retired, and US Women’s football has a new galaxy of stars. It is up to us Americans to recognize and appreciate them. They have merited our love and affection; let’s give it to them.
So now I am going to go cry myself to sleep. Thank you, dear readers for being with me on this journey. You have made me feel like a real writer. I hope you come back when I write about other things, whether football related or no.
FIFA’s Team of the Tournament: See for yourself. Some of those choices (and some of the absences) baffle me. But never think that FIFA choices make sense.
Golden Glove: Hope Solo
Golden Boot: Homare Sawa; Silver Boot: Marta; Bronze Boot: Abby Wambach
Golden Ball: Homare Sawa; Silver Ball:Abby Wambach; Bronze Ball: Hope Solo
Fair Play Trophy: Japan
Best Young Player: Cailtlin Foord