Women’s World Cup Day 4: Magic Marta Meets Mighty Matildas. Much Mayham.

Before anyone comments angrily (although please comment!), yes I am aware that my title is deceptive.  Marta was not the X Factor that she has been in the past.  But I will address Marta’s contributions later.

Norway v. Equatorial Guinea

It’s impossible to overstate how much Equatorial Guinea exceeded expectations.  Of course, expectations of Equatorial Guinea were so low, that I think Beth Mowins and Cat Whitehill expected the Equatoguineas to run out of the stadium crying after Norway’s first pass.  The Norwegians seemed surprised that their opponents stuck around as well.

Equatorial Guinea probably became everyone’s second team after this match.  Like Mexico and unlike Colombia, they never for an instant let up.  There were all trying to score.  A 1-0 Norway victory was cruel; Equatorial Guinea deserved something.  All the more so when you consider (a) all the controversy surrounding them; (b) that some of their best players are not playing: (c) this is the team’s first World Cup; and (d) many of the players are inexperienced in international play.

The rock of Equatorial Guinea is the extremely skilled Turbine Potsdam player Genoveva Añonma.  Equatorial Guinea’s entire strategy can be summed as “Get the ball to Añonma,” which was actually a pretty good strategy.  She’s an incredible talent, possibly the find of the tournament thus far.  (Equatorial Guinea have some good players.  A few of them are actually Brazilians, which is a time-honored football tradition: when you don’t have talent, appropriate someone else’s.)  The weakness of this strategy though is that Añonma had trouble finishing.  Finishing has been one of two consistent team weakness in this tournament.*

just as a side note, Equatorial Guinea seems to have the most interesting fans.  There was one man who kept dancing in agony around his row of seats while wearing an Equatoguinean flag as a cape.  There also appeared to be some nuns cheering the team, which I found extremely funny.

Norway have been a fading power for quite some time.  This month at the u19 European Championship, Germany crushed Norway in the final by a humiliating 8-1.  Even today, Norway did not deserve the win.  Norway lack killer instinct, and this is a problem.  The fact that every match has been so close this tournament means the women’s game has gotten to a point where (unlike in previous World Cups) the talent gap between nations has significantly closed, and not having a killer instinct is fatal.

The truth is that Norway’s demise has been coming.  Just as in the men’s game once-mighty nations such as Scotland, Hungary, and Austria have all fallen forever from the elite, so too is Norway on that route in the women’s game.  Quite simply, Norway does not have the population to compete.  Who are the top 4 in the world?  The USA, Germany, Brazil, and Japan.  The up-and-comers?  Colombia, Australia, and North Korea.  All of these nations have a significant population pool in the tens of millions if not hundreds of millions (and China, when it finally pulls itself together, has over a billion).  As the gap between programs closes, the presence of the less populous nations (Equatorial Guinea, Norway, Sweden, and New Zealand) will become rarer.  A good result is not impossible (look at tiny Uruguay in last year’s World Cup), but sustained success almost certainly is.

This is a good thing, and this tournament is the proof.  No match thus far was won by more than one goal save for the US win over North Korea (maybe it was the lightning), and for the first half of that match North Korea were the better side.  Quality is not nearly as disparate as it was even four years ago.**  This Women’s World Cup is incredibly entertaining, and the low scores contribute to the excitement.  Compare to the men’s World Cups, in which every tournament since 1986 has been called the worst ever.

Brazil v. Australia

Like the US against North Korea, Brazil were completely on the ropes for the first half.  Then after the break, Brazil remembered they were Brazil and started to dominate.  The goal was a beautiful piece of skill from Rosana (notice how Tony DiCicco and Adrian Healy pronounced her name correctly) which came from some equally beautiful preliminary by Cristiane.  It was a reminder to the other teams in the tournament.  Even when Brazil are on the ropes, the players are so good they can change everything in a matter of seconds.

But right there is also the problem with Brazil.  There is no reason for the team to have played such a poor first half.  Australia were terrific, yes, and I don’t want to take anything away from them, but Brazil nearly lost it just as much as Australia nearly won it.  Something more pernicious is at work.

Brazil have Marta, but Marta is one player in a team sport.  It is a shame that some people (like Grant Wahl) judge players by whether they have won major international team tournament.  It is a false measurement of greatness because no player wins alone.  History has romanticized Maradona in 1986 and to a lesser extent Garrincha in 1962.  Sure, both players anchored Argentina and Brazil respectively.  Both were the star players without whom victory would be impossible.  Yet, the credit they are given unfairly maligns their teammates’, relegating top players to the status of mediocrities.  Pele’s World Cup victories are his also his team’s.  If Messi does not win the World Cup, that is of a reflection on his Argentina not on him.  If Marta does not win a World Cup, one must understand why Brazil failed, not Marta.

The problem with Brazil is that unless there is a major tournament the team does not exist.  This would be unheard of for the men.  The CBF gives them almost no support whatsoever.  They were the last team to arrive in Germany.  Except for those players who play for Santos, they never play together as a team.  They had no meaningful friendlies before the tournament started.  Their manager is borderline tactically inept. A sweeper?  Really?  Their warmup matches are the group stage which is a very dangerous game.  The CBF has effectively told the Canarinhas that they have to coast on talent because they won’t get anything from the Federation.***

That Brazil, the nation most identified with footballing genius, is so woefully lacking in women’s football is on the surface baffling.  The problem lies at the very heart of Brazilian society.  Only recently have Brazilians started to see women’s football as legitimate, and that took was Marta winning the World Player of the Year time five times in a row (and counting.)

Brazil’s failure to achieve its full potential is a tragedy for women’s football.  This team could be the best in history, but cannot because its own country stands in the way.  No other goal in this tournament, skillful as they may have been, came close to the beauty that was created by Cristiane and Rosana.  I applauded when Rosana scored.  When Brazil are in its groove, they play a completely different game than everyone else (witness the semifinal against the US in 2007.)  But that groove requires more than just being terrific players, something the nation of Brazil knows only too well from the failure of the 1982 World Cup team.

Again, this is not to take away from Australia, although I am afraid I have done so.  Football is a cruel game, and the best do not always win.  Australia is by no means the best team in this field, but the fact that they completely out-played Brazil for at least half a match shows how good they can be.  Unlike Brazil, they played as a team rather than as a collection of phenomenally gifted players.

In the first half, I could not see how Brazil could pull out a win.  They took so many shots of goal that goalkeeper Andréia was probably the Brazilian player of the match.  One of the Australians even nutmegged Marta.  And then there is Lisa De Vanna.  So much has been written about her.  Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe she was the super sub from Australia four years ago.  She’s an immense talent, but like so many other talented players at this tournament, she could not finish.  If the ball does not go in the net somehow, all the lovely touches mean nothing.

In football, individuals goal tally is the most overrated statistic out there.  It is the team’s goal tally that really matters.  Marta did not score, but she played an important role in creating chances.  Lisa De Vanna did not score either, but aside from putting a few scares into the Brazilians, her impact was negligible.

If Australia can correct its finishing problems, then the Matildas† should be able to advance.  If not, then the match against Norway and their finishing problems is going to be very interesting.  And of course there is still Equatorial Guinea.

Finally I want to plug a website that has been a great source of information and entertainment.  All White Kit has been wonderful with its World Cup coverage, and I highly recommend that people go and read it if you have any interest in women’s football.

Footnotes:

* The other major problem across the board is fitness; there is a lot of cramping going on in the final twenty minutes of matches due to the hat and humidity.  One thing you cannot fault the US for is its fitness.  They are completely prepared for the entire 90 minutes, weather be damned!

** The opposite side of the coin is to watch for blowouts starting tomorrow.  The first round is always the hardest and the minnows have put up a good fight.  Now the real question is whether they can keep that up or whether they will be found out.  Colombia, Equatorial Guinea, and New Zealand in particular are in real danger of humiliation if they let up for even a moment.  The other nations in their groups need to beat them and beat them by a lot.

*** As US fans, we have legitimate complains about the USSF.  I myself have written about them more than once.  It is important to remind ourselves though that as idiotic as the USSF can be, in their own weird way, they want to do what is best for American football, both men and women.  Compare that the negligence bordering on sabotage that the CBF has shown toward the Brazilian women or the abject corruption found in so many of the national federations.  It’s important to remember every once in a while that Sunil Gulati is not actually a villain, and he’s trying to build a good program, whether or not he is doing it the right way.

†  I know it’s not their national anthem, but I am always so disappointed when Waltzing Matilda is not played before an Australia match.  For the record, the national anthem is Advance Australia Fair.

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