Mercifully, for the first time today, no one in the commentary booth compared any team to Barcelona. This probably has less to do with realizing that this is a foolish comparison and more to do with the fact that not one of the four teams out there look like they were trying to imitate Messi & Co. in any way shape or form (not that this is a bad thing.)
I found both matches to be rather dull. Sweden and the US were clearly the better sides, and Colombia and North Korea were outmatched (Colombia throughout, North Korea in the second half only.) It was defense rather than scintillating attacks that carried the day, which is odd to say given that US v. North Korea was the first time in the tournament thus far that a team won by more than one goal.
Sweden v. Colombia
If I were a Swede, which I am not (Børk !Børk! Børk!), I would be alarmed by this performance. Sweden completely shut down Colombia’s offense, and created chance after chance to score. This easily could have been a 4-0 match, yet Sweden scored only once. Jessica Landstrom in the 57th minute redeemed all of her earlier failures and scored. After that Sweden sort of gave up and was content just to make sure Colombia couldn’t equalize, probably because they watched how an equalizer changed Mexico’s dynamic against England.
Sweden are a joyless side. Sorry, but they are. Resorting to outdated national stereotypes, the Scandinavians are blond, attractive, and generally decent, but not exciting or dynamic. That is how I felt watching Sweden. Sure, they were dominant, but it was just so rote, and completely lacking in killer instinct. By effectively snuffing out Colombia’s attack, they robbed the match of that spark.
Colombia, in contrast, I am ambivalent about. I was waiting for this burst of dynamism after hearing over and over again about Yoreli Rincón, “the next Marta.” ESPN is partially to blame for these heightened expectation, but Rincón has been Colombia’s selling point for some time. The Swedes, perhaps having heard about the next Marta and terrified of this happening, ensured she was a complete non-entity. Colombia’s star of the match was its shaky back line, and perhaps Carmen Rodallega who actually created a few chances. I’m not being fair to Rincón, I admit that. She is only 17, and she’s in her first World Cup–as is her entire team. They played one of the top 5 teams in the world, and still held them to just one goal. That is extremely impressive, and they deserve credit for it. Still, I wanted to see something that made my heart beat faster.
Colombia is an extremely young side, and hopefully they can capitalize on this promising start in the coming years. I have a soft spot for Colombia. It is the most populous nation in South America after Brazil, and in the late 80’s/early 90’s it produced glorious football.* We all remember that team. The brilliant Carlos Valderrama and his hair. Crazy, crazy René Higuita with his scorpion kick (and his hair.) And of course the tragedy of Andrés Escobar, whom I cannot think about without tearing up a little. By all rights, Colombia should be a World Cup contender each year like Brazil and Argentina, but since the team’s early exit from the 1994 World Cup and the Escobar’s subsequent murder, Colombian football has never fully recovered.
The Colombian women’s team performed exceptionally well at the 2010 South American Women’s Football Championship, coming in (a very distant) second behind Brazil. Brazil has always been the biggest girl on the block. Perhaps it is time for them to finally get a rival. Only time will tell.
United States v. North Korea
For the past few days, it was all over ESPN, Lauren Cheney was replacing Megan Rapinoe. It turns out it was a brilliant move on behalf of coach Pia Sundhage because Cheney was certainly the best player on the field. In the first half she took multiple shots and finally headed one in the second half (a lot of goals this tournament have been headers.)
The first half was fairly even. Hope Solo certainly did herself proud. She did a great job (as I’m sure she herself would tell you) when the North Korean attackers eluded the American defense, which happened with too much regularity in the first 45 minutes. The second half was all USA, or almost all USA. There was Cheney’s goal and there was Rachel Buhler’s goal, and it was over. North Korea, who I believe are the youngest team of the tournament, were done. It’s a shame too because teams that gave far worse performances (Colombia, New Zealand) ended up with more flattering scores, and goal difference will probably matter. I wonder what North Korean state television is saying, or if it is saying anything at all.**
I cannot speak with any authority about the North Korean team, which, to my eyes did a decent job, but was undone by the superior conditioning and experience of the US. I can talk about what I saw with the US. I liked the pressing. To my eyes, the US has done the best job of any team in pressing the opposition and winning the ball back. I am not thrilled that the US often lost the ball after winning it back, although that is forgivable because this is the first match. What bothers me most is that too many US goals come from set pieces (although that first goal from Lauren Cheney came from open play, and what a beauty it was. More of that please.) But this is the problem I have with the USWNT in general. Free kicks and corner kicks are nice, but at its heart, football is a game of speed and skill not height and power. There is always someone bigger and stronger, but skill always carries through.
The first round of a World Cup is usually the one with the least amount of goals because everyone is nervous and trying to get a result. On the other hand, the trend toward more defensive play, which has been an unfortunate mainstay of the men’s international game, is starting to creep into the women’s. While I do not particularly want to see one 6-0 blowout after another, I would hope to see a few more goals.
* There was also a Golden Age in the 1940’s and 50’s when Colombia had one of the finest leagues in the world, but that had less to do with Colombian players than those imported from other countries, particularly Argentina.
** True story, or so I am led to believe. At least year’s World Cup, Brazil eked out North Korea 2-1, and a jubilant North Korean state television showed it as a 1-0 victory for the North Koreans. So much did they believe their own hype that the government allowed the next match (against Portugal) to be shown live. Portugal went on to win that match 7-0. After 4-0, the government cut off the feed and told the people that North Korea pulled out a victory. After North Korea’s ignominious exit, Radio Free Asia reported that the team faced a six-hour public reprimand and the coach was sentenced to hard labor. This was clear violation of FIFA rules which forbid government intervention, so much so that FIFA were forced to investigate, although “investigate” meant they sent a letter asking if the reports were true. North Korea denied it, and FIFA closed the case, satisfied that the reports were false. Today, Ian Darke repeated that story about the players, and only briefly alluded to the fact that it may not actually be true.