Day 2 of the World Cup just ended, and again it was quite entertaining. ESPN’s quality is terrific all around. The commentary is mostly top-notch. Kate Markgraf in particular is exceptional. Is this woman planning to coach? If not, she should. Her tactical breakdown of the Mexico v. England match was exceptional. My one quibble is to please stop comparing one side per match to Barcelona. Today it was Cat Whitehill on Japan. To drill it home, she made the comparison at least five times. We get it; they’re Barcelona. Except for the fact that they are not. Sorry, but it’s not like any other men’s team is Barcelona either (except maybe Spain for obvious reasons.)
Again the actual matches were incredibly entertaining, and after both matches, Group B is still very wide open. All four teams played very well. New Zealand is not the whipping post they were assumed to be despite losing (and being outplayed at almost every step.) Mexico gave the English people déjà vu, as a second CONCACAF nation tied them 1-1 in their opening match.
Japan v. New Zealand
New Zealand is a young team. They are an inexperienced team. They play the long ball, and use their size as an advantage (which is becoming an ever more and more outdated tactic.) All of these were things that I heard about New Zealand today, and all of them were displayed. New Zealand football, which is not successful on the world stage, suffers in comparison to rugby. New Zealand dominates rugby at both the men’s and women’s level. There is a reason it is the national sport. Nevertheless, since the good showing of the All Whites* in 2010, football has become more popular in that country, and if that keeps up, then perhaps even tiny New Zealand can make an impact at some point in the not-too-near-but-not-too-distant future.
The impact will not come at this tournament. Granted, Japan is ranked 4th in the world according to FIFA (for whatever that is worth), and granted the score line was a respectable 2-1, but Japan controlled that match from start to finish. I am not sure that New Zealand got more than two shots on goal. Bravo to the Football Ferns for not losing their head when the could have after going down a goal (and for getting their second ever World Cup goal), but were it not for some very good goalkeeping by Jenny Bindon (and some poor finishing by Japan), the score could have been much worse. New Zealand may not have top-notch players, but those players have top-notch heart–if it is not too condescending to say so.
One has to give credit to Japan. Despite the horrors of the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, which (and this sounds petty in comparison to the destruction and death it caused) hindered the nation’s entire football program, Japan is still the team to beat in Group B. Japan also has a future star in Mana Iwabuchi. Playing well against New Zealand however is not the same as playing well against England, and the next two matches are going to more of a test for Japan, particularly if the finishing remains poor.
England v. Mexico
I hate to say this having just watched the same nation humiliate the US men in the Gold Cup and eliminate the US women from the Women’s Gold Cup, but I was rooting for Mexico. Everyone, myself included was picking England, and thus far everything in the tournament has gone true to form. Mexico has a bona fide star in Maribel Domínguez,** and this is her last World Cup. Granted England has Kelly Smith who is also looking at her last World Cup, but England is the perennial underachiever in everything. Actually, unlike the English men, I kind of like the English women. Mostly this is because the women’s team doesn’t have the odious personalities, the English media with its “We’re The Best/We’re Awful” complex hanging on every kick, and the English women legitimately have world-class players, Smith in particular.
The match was entertaining and rather evenly matched, all things considered. England didn’t create as much as it should have, and missed a few chances. Despite the fact that the score said 1-1, this was the first huge upset of the tournament. It also puts England in a precarious position. Should the Three Lionesses finish second in the group, they will probably face Germany in the quarterfinals, the team that everyone wants to avoid. However, now England has to worry about finishing second.
I appreciated the way Mexico played. They controlled for much of the game, and although England probably should have won, Mexico, unlike Canada and New Zealand, was able to get the draw. Between the rise of Mexico, the surprising appearance of Colombia, and the ascendancy of Brazil over the past four years, it’s a reminder that women’s football is starting to become acceptable in the Latin countries, and that spells trouble for the former and current world powers who have largely thrived in the absence of such countries. When women’s play is completely acceptable around the world and (if ever) given the same kind of care that the men’s game gets, then the Ancien Régime is really going to be in trouble.
* I absolutely love the unoriginal originality of New Zealand national team names. Obviously it all started with the All Blacks, New Zealand’s men’s rugby team, and the crown jewel of its sport. The women’s rugby team is the Black Ferns. Men’s football is the All Whites; women’s football is the Football Ferns; men’s basketball is the Tall Blacks; women’s basketball is the Tall Ferns; netball is the Silver Ferns; and so on. See the list for yourself, and try not to laugh at the former name of the Badminton team.
** The commentators spoke about Domínguez having to hide from her father that she played football as a girl. This is a recurring theme among players in this World Cup, and that too was noted. One of the commentators, I believe it was Markgraf, alluded to the fact that this was a common story from the Latin national teams. While she was correct, the problem is not limited to the Americas. One of the reasons Norway and the United States (two nations lacking strong football cultures but advanced on women’s rights issues) dominated the early years of the Women’s World Cup were dominated by Norway and the United States is because it was okay for girls and women to play. It makes one pause to wonder how many Martas, or Domínguezes, or Bajramajes missed out because of sexism.