Women’s World Cup: Getting Close

In between the Barcelona love and the aggravation given to me by the US Men’s National Team, I have neglected women’s football, and I truly apologize for that.  This is especially egregious because the Women’s World Cup starts next week.  To be fair, it seems like the World Cup has generally gotten remarkably little play in the media save for a few raised eyebrows about the decision of certain German internationals to pose for Playboy.

It’s not worth rehashing the reasons why the World Cup has been ignored.  I’ve written about it a few times (here, and here for example.)  If you want to be depressed, you can read this opinion piece.  Admittedly, the women’s game is not played at the same level and intensity as the men’s game, but that does not mean it is not entertaining, or that the players lack skill.  To the contrary, in terms of entertainment I bet that the Women’s World Cup will be more entertaining than the last year’s World Cup in South Africa, which is generally seen as a disappointment.

The women’s international game is actually more interesting than the men’s if you bother to learn about it.  Unlike in the men’s game where club football is superior, in the women’s game it is international competition.  Because there is little to no dialogue between the best women’s leagues the way that there is in the men’s game, it is still possible to find the stylistic differences that have been steadily eroding in men’s international football.  In the men’s game, the UEFA Champions League and not the World Cup is where the greatest teams are found, at least on a technical level.  In contrast, the international game is still the at the vanguard of women’s football.  I can only guess as to why that is but I imagine it at least partially due to the following reasons: (1) the talent pool is spread out across the world rather than concentrated in Europe, and clubs cannot simply buy up all the best talent, thus preventing Champions League from overshadowing the World Cup; (2) the women’s clubs, always teetering on the edge of ruin, are not nearly as supported as the national teams, and thus a national team coach has more leeway in shaping a squad’s identity; and (3) the only chance in women’s football for on-the-pitch exchange of ideas between countries is in international play and not club play.

The point of this post though is not to defend women’s football.  Instead I am going to offer predictions for the upcoming World Cup group stages.  You all can laugh at my completely off-base predictions when the group stages end, but I am telling you that it is tough.  Each of these groups is fairly evenly matched.  That’s why I am taking the wimp’s way out and avoiding the knockout rounds.  After I’ve had a chance to really see the teams, I’ll predict the rest of the tournament.

As always, I would love your comments.  Do you agree with me?  Disagree?  Don’t know?  Do you have an opinion about a Women’s All-Time XI?  Do you have a question that you need answered?  Please post.

So without further delay:

Group A: Germany, Canada, Nigeria, and France.  Germany are the reigning champions, one of three teams who have a claim to being the best in the world (the other two are the United States and Brazil.)  Germany won the last two Women’s World Cups, and this year the squad has home-field advantage.  I have no doubt they will finish first in the group.  Second is harder to predict.  Nigeria are always tough and the perennial African champion but have never really broken into the elite (kind of like the men.)  The real battle for second is probably between Canada and France.  Canada has a very good squad and under their coach Carolina Morace, the team became legitimate world-beaters, but their coach quit over disputes with the Canada’s FA and threw the team (who sided with Morace) into chaos.  The dust has since settled, and Morace is back, but is it enough?   Last month, France’s club Lyon won the women’s version of the Champions League (over German powerhouse Turbine Potsdam), and much of the French squad is from Lyon.  Maybe they have enough poise to go through to the knockout rounds?  Maybe, but I am going to pick Germany and Canada.

Group B: Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, England.  Another tough group.  Japan is a top (but not the top) team in a competitive confederation, while New Zealand is the powerhouse of Oceania (for what that’s worth.)  Mexico knocked out the US from the CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup–the first time Mexico ever beat the US squad.  England are a tough floater, not a champion, but definitely a top-tier contender, and arguably the strongest of the lot.  And England also have Kelly Smith, one of the top players in the WPS.  New Zealand probably have no shot; they’re not quite ready yet.  Japan are brimming with talent and has gotten good results in the recent past, but also struggling of late.  Even though they only came third in the Asian qualification, the top teams were all very close, and Japan are due for a breakthrough.  I would love to see Mexico move on, but I don’t think that’s happening.  England and Japan are just too good.

Group C: United States, Colombia, North Korea, Sweden.  Is this the group of fading powers and up-and-comers?  The US are long past the great players of the 1990’s, but has won every Olympic title but one.  They were the last team to qualify, which is a tremendous embarrassment.  The US women’s program is fading, or at least the rest of the world has caught up.  In some cases moved past the US.  WPS is having trouble (shades of 2003 when WUSA folded?)  Sweden beat the US at the Four Nations Cup, but the US won the tournament while Sweden finished near the bottom.  Of course that was a glorified exhibition, but it does make one question Sweden.  While it was a shock for the North Korean Men’s Team to qualify for South Africa, the women are always at the World Cup (and also always seem to play the US in the group stages.)  North Korea are a power of the AFC, and knocked out China in the Asian Cup.  Colombia are appearing in the World Cup for the first time.  They have some bright young talent, and performed beautifully in qualification until they were thoroughly dominated by Brazil.  Even though neither has really impressed, I cannot side against the US or Sweden.  Not this time anyway.

Group D: Brazil, Australia, Norway, Equatorial Guinea.  Let’s get this out of the way: Equatorial Guinea is a tiny country on the central west coast of Africa, right by the Equator–hence the name.  It was formerly a Spanish colony, that has sizable petroleum reserves and a horrendous human rights record.  Unlike Nigeria which are a perennial power and has a strong men’s team, Equatorial Guinea women’s side only recently become strong, and the men’s side are nearly anonymous.  Equatorial Guinea won the African Women’s Championship in 2008, the only side other than Nigeria to do so, and came in second at last year’s competition.  As a result, there has been a lot of controversy about the Equatoguineans, particularly allegations that some of the players are actually men.  There is no evidence of this however, and until and unless there is some, I chalk this up to sour grapes.  I cannot see them advancing however, and they are definitely the weakest team in this group.  Australia are the AFC champions despite not actually being Asia.  Norway are the only team other than Germany and the US to win a World Cup (1995), and the only team other than the US to have won the Olympics (2000).  Brazil are Brazil.  If this competition were won by sheer talent alone, Brazil would dominate.  The players have sparkling skills, none more so than Marta, the greatest female player in the world and possibly ever.  On the other hand, the Samba Queens only play at major competitions and are otherwise ignored by the CBF (the Brazilian FA).  It’s frustrating for both players and fans.  Australia can play upset, but I have trouble seeing beyond Brazil and Norway.

So there you have it.  I would love your comments, and I will write more as the tournament progresses.

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Sunil Gulati And The Art Of The Puff Piece

A few days ago, Leander Schaerkackens published a profile of Sunil Gulati on ESPN’s soccer site (not Soccernet, the regular site which I had completely overlooked until just recently.)  To save you from having to read it yourselves, the takeaway of the piece is the following: “Sunil Gulati is not the villain that American soccer fans have made him out to be.”  Some of the other points that this profile made were:

1.  Sunil Gulati is very smart.

2.  It was not Sunil Gulati’s fault that the US failed to get the World Cup in 2022, and the US plans to bid again.

3.  Sunil Gulati loves soccer.

4.  The criticism aimed at Sunil Gulati is unduly harsh.

Now for the sake of fairness, I will grant the first three points are true.  Sunil Gulati is indeed very smart, and I have no doubt that he loves the beautiful game.  He’s certainly been around it for long enough.  And it most certainly is not his fault or that of the USSF that Qatar got the World Cup.  Bill Archer of BigSoccer.com is one of the most astute observers of FIFA and FIFA corruption out there (and no fan of Gulati), and he predicted well before the vote that Russia and Qatar would win the right to host 2018 and 2022 respectively. (Make sure you read his posts following the Jack Warner/Mohamed bin Hammam scandal.  They have been fantastic.)  The vote was a result of corruption pure and simple, and it is a complete disgrace that the World Cup will be held in Qatar.  It is debatable that the United States will host for a long time.  The rest of the world seems to hate us, and Chuck Blazer’s heroism (and there is no other word for it, although heroism and Chuck Blazer are not two concepts that I had ever thought of together before) has only made more enemies for the US.

But I will not grant that the criticisms of Gulati are unfair or too harsh.  If anything, Gulati gets off  lightly.  Just because the big bad critics on the Internet rage against him, that does not mean that the criticism is either (a) wrong or (b) unfair.  If anything the system that FIFA has instituted allows absolutely no oversight of FA presidents.  Without criticism, what is to stop a Sunil Gulati from turning into a Julio Grondona or a Ricardo Teixeira (or worse, a Jack Warner)?

Perhaps that is a bit unfair.  I do not think that, whatever his faults, Gulati will ever be as bad as the Kleptocrats who run FIFA, or those thanes who, like Grondona, rule their FAs with an iron fist.  What pisses me off about the ESPN profile is less the content more this kind of story in general.  Now, ESPN is not exactly what you would call hard-hitting journalism, and Leander Schaerkackens is not Andrew Jennings.  Nevertheless, the article is entitled “Grading Sunil Gulati” and, as befits an Ivy League professor, the grade is on a significant curve to make him look better than he is.

The fact is that there is the profile contains no criticism Gulati at all.  Any criticism alluded to is washed away in an ocean of Gulati-love.  (And the criticism that Schaerkackens does dredge up is at least 3 years old, and therefore no longer germane to here and now.)  It’s a little ironic, when one of the criticism aimed at Gulati is how autocratic he is, because puff pieces are a sign of autocratic rule.

Nevertheless, there is much to criticize about Gulati.  No mention is made of the charge that the USSF has blatantly neglected to reach out to minority youth or attempted to make inroads into working-class or inner city neighborhoods.  Around the world, football is a game of the city, but in the United States it is a game of the suburbs.

More damning, and Gulati admits this in the profile, is that only Klinsmann was considered to replace Bradley.  Here are Gulati’s own words about why the USSF retained Bradley:

The issue wasn’t if Bob is a good coach but if you get stagnant in that second term. In the end, is a change a good idea? We decided we’d try to make the best out of any of those concerns we had and that he was the best choice.

There is such a startling timidness in the decision to retain Bradley that I am shocked Gulati admitted it.  First of all, they made this decision even after the failure of Bruce Arena.  Second, this completely exposes the mindset of the USSF.  Be safe and conservative.    Don’t make waves.  Go with the devil you know rather than the devil you don’t.

Except for the fact that by Gulati’s own admission, he was disappointed with the performance of the USMNT.  So rather than expand the search and look for someone to take the team to the next level, Gulati and the USSF kept in charge a coach who turned in a disappointment performance, and see what happen (in the process fomenting this big bad criticism that wears away at poor Sunil.)  This is aggravating, and it speaks to another very real criticism of Gulati, which also did not get mentioned in the profile: his conservative nature has led to timidity.  He plots, and he plans, and he sees which way the wind is blowing, and then he does nothing.  I’m beginning to believe the only reason the US has any standing in the world is because Chuck Blazer. If the US really wants to be a power in the sport, we need change.  We need someone with vision who is not afraid to take risks.  Gulati’s timidity is holding us back far more than Bob Bradley’s limited ability.  (And this is without mentioning the women’s game, which USSF seems just as happy to let fall by the wayside.)

Who holds Gulati accountable for the failures that comes from his lack of courage?  No one.  Or at least no one who matters.  Who in the media is forcing him to answer the hard question?  In order to get access, ESPN and Sports Illustrated cozy up to him, and write fawning profiles defending him.  There is not even a cursory exploration of very legitimate criticism.  And then these same journalists like Schaerkackens or Grant Wahl go on sports shows and talk about how good Gulati is at his job.

My God.  Gulati is far more like Grondona than I thought.  Pass the speedy coffee.