Women’s World Cup Day 1: Oh! Canada?

Day 1 of the Women’s World Cup is over, and I have no complaints.  As with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, ESPN has done a great job.  Adrian Healey and Kate Markgraf and Ian Darke and Julie Foudy provided excellent commentary, and the production is first class.  (Could have done without the Nazi reminders though.  I know that the Olympic Stadium was built for the 1936 Olympics, but could we talk about something more football related?  Also, can we please stop talking about Hope Solo and 2007?  That ground is very well-trod.)  As for the matches themselves, both were far more competitive and interesting than I believed they would be, although I correctly picked both winners.

The Germans have done a spectacular job with this tournament, not that there was ever any doubt.  It was very heartwarming to see two sold-out matches.  Even better was the noise of the crowd in the second.  They cheered so loudly (and even sang!) that there were moments when, if I closed my eyes, I would have thought that a men’s match was on the television.  I always prefer to hear the crowd to the players.  Hopefully, the Frauen Bundesliga can build on this, but one must keep the WUSA in mind.

Unlike in the men’s game where team quality is poorer than in the Champions League, the World Cup (and the international game in general) is still the very pinnacle of the women’s game.  Granted, Group A has three of the world’s best teams, but the skill on display was outstanding.  It’s a shame that more people don’t give women’s football a chance, because while the 2010 World Cup was derided for dullness, already the 2011 World Cup has offered both dazzling matches, and exciting players.

France v. Nigeria. 

France is a fascinating side because it is composed largely of the Olympique Lyonnais Féminin side that won both the French league and the UEFA Women’s Champions League.  The 2003-04  (men’s) Arsenal side was called the Invincibles because they did not lose a match in the EPL.  They drew 12, but lost none.  However, they only won the Premier League title (they lost in the semifinals of both the FA Cup and the League Cup and in the Champions League quarterfinals.)  If that side is the Invincibles, then I have no idea what you call this Lyon side, which won every single match in league play, and then for good measure won every match of the Champions League except from an away leg in the quarterfinals, which it drew 0-0.  (As near as I can tell, Lyon lost one competitive match last season, in a national cup match on penalty shots.)

Martin Tyler compared France to Barcelona because both play a possession game with quick short passes.  Another comparison is that France were smaller and far less physically imposing than their opponents, but were far more skillful on the ball.  Not sure if the comparison is completely legitimate, but there are some similarities, particularly with player development.  The players were developed at France’s famous Clairefontaine, a sign that the France takes women’s football very seriously.

Contrast that to Nigeria.  It has become somewhat of a cliché (and a somewhat racist one at that) to say that African teams and players are physically gifted but lack technique.  Having said that, Nigeria relied more on physicality.  There is a lot of skill, but tournament after tournament, Nigeria are one of the more physical teams.  Nigeria almost always got out in the group stage.  Kate Markgraf made the comment that Nigeria cannot get to the next level, because the nation lacks a women’s league.  I didn’t think that was true, and a quick look on Wikipedia at the women’s national team roster seems to back me up.  Does anyone if Nigeria has a league?  I like Markgraf, but if she was wrong, that is some pretty shoddy research.

I wanted to cheer for Nigeria and support an underdog who will exit early, but I cannot for obvious reasons.  The French team, who I did not want to cheer for, took my breath away with intricate football and neat touches.  They beat Nigeria 1-0 (a lovely goal from Marie-Laure Delie.)  France dominated the match, but it very easily could have ended up a draw.  Neither side really took advantage of their chances.  France’s defense left much to be desired.

Germany v. Canada

Germany is probably going to win this World Cup.  The way Germany produces talent, it will probably win the next five World Cups at least.  The biggest surprise of the past six years has been that Germany does not also win the Olympics.  With the exception of possibly France, is there any other nation that puts the same kind of resources into female player development?  I have no idea; someone please tell me.

This match was fascinating.  Not just on a technical and tactical level, but also on a psychological level.  Germany felt the pressure, at least in the beginning.  Canada took the match to Germany; had Canadian superstar Christine Sinclair not missed a golden opportunity in the early minutes, the game could have been very different.  But that is football.  Sinclair missed, and Kersten Gerafrekes scored in the 10th minute.  To their credit, even after that first goal, Canada looked dangerous.  The second goal though, just before the half, from Célia Okoyino da Mbabi, deflated Canada.

In the second half, it was all Germany, yet the German players could not score, which is good news for every other team in the tournament and for fans who want to see someone else win.  Finally, there is hope.  In the 82nd minute, Sinclair became my hero.  Canada were given a free kick.  Sinclair took the ball for herself, and scored.  You knew she was going to score, because for one shining, glorious moment, she gave off an aura of invincibility.  What a goal.  What a player.  In scoring, she snapped a streak that had gone back to the 2003 final–the last time Germany let in an opposing goal.

Historically, German teams (men’s and women’s) are seen as mechanical and difficult to love.  It’s that domineering German aura.  Nevertheless, this German side has some real talent who can quicken the pulse and make you stare at the screen open-mouthed in awe.  Like Martin Tyler in the previous match, Ian Darke also compared Germany to Barcelona (who have become the touchstone for determining greatness), but Darke focused on Germany’s pressing rather than its passing.  Yet Germany’s offense was the star of the show thus far, despite a scoreless second half.  Alexandra Popp may very well become the female Gerd Müller.  She didn’t score in the opening match, but once she starts, she won’t stop.  Her shots were worthy of a highlight reel.  One German player though stands above all others.  Despite very little time on the pitch, Fatmire Bajramaj was mesmerizing.  Her dribbles, her passes… be still my heart.  I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.  The crowd stood and roared whenever she touched the ball.  There is only one other female player, who I’ve ever seen get that kind of reaction.  Bajramaj isn’t quite at Marta’s level (who is?), but she when the history books are written, she will be in there.

Nevertheless, despite Germany’s dominance, they only won 2-1.  If France can get it together, then perhaps an upset in the cards.  Canada is very much alive, and this group is still extremely competitive.  This is the most competitive group.  Germany will probably win, but they are not impossible to beat, at least not yet.  Canada and France will probably battle it out for second, and the goal difference is not very big, which means the next two matches are very important for both.  Nigeria can still play spoiler even if the knockout rounds are already out of reach.

The World Cup is off to a cracking start.  Let’s hope the rest of the tournament lives up to the promise of today.

[update: It turns out Christine Sinclair played with a broken nose throughout most of the second half.  I cannot decide is that was extremely brave or extremely stupid.  Either way, that only further endears her to me.  Also, I mistakenly said that Martin Tyler paired with Kate Markgraf rather than Adrian Healey.  I apologize, and I feel stupid.  I actually do know the difference between the two.]

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