Well, I predicted that starting now we would see some goal fests, but I was completely blindsided by which match it came in. This round gave us some shocks: obviously the 4-0 French victory over Canada, but to my mind the biggest surprise was the fact that a home crowed booed the German team off the field at half-time. It says volumes about the way Nigeria played, both in terms of its tenacity and organization but also its kamikaze play, which bordered on thuggishness.
It also says that a women’s football team will not be treated any differently than a men’s team. If the crowd is unhappy with the way the team plays they will let it be known, gender be damned. To my eyes, this is progress!
Despite a bad night, Germany still eked out the 1-0 win and, along with France, qualified for the quarterfinals. Nigeria and Canada are out. What a night. Although the results were predictable (although I thought Canada would make the quarterfinals) everything you thought you knew has been turned on its head.
France v. Canada
Wow. That’s all I can say. France have officially played the best match of anyone so far. Clearly bringing along most of the Lyon squad was a good idea, but the real glory has to go to Clairfontaine. In previous years, group stage blowouts came about because one team was incredibly good and the other team was incredibly outmatched. That is why you would see scores such as 7-1, 8-0, 11-0, and so on.
France v. Canada is incredible, possibly unique, because it was an early round match between two of the world’s best sides. Both France and Canada are very talented, and both had a reasonable expectation of victory. Until the match started that is. From the beginning, France dominated and never let up. It was a champion’s performance.
For Canada this game is fraught with “What Ifs?” What if Christine Sinclair’s nose wasn’t broken? What if they hadn’t played Germany first? What if they had been in a different group? What if there had been no problems between their coach Carolina Morace and the Canadian Soccer Association?
Unfortunately, Canada has to live with the reality of the situation. The way France played tonight though, I am not sure that there could have been a different result, no matter what the what if. The goalscorers for France were Gaetane Thiney (twice), Camille Abily, and Elodie Thomis, but really it didn’t matter who scored. This was a team effort, as was each goal. France may lack a Marta, a supreme individual talent who can change the match, but they have an entire team that plays at the highest level. In contrast, Canada have Sinclair, but few of her teammates are at her level.
As of the end of two matches, France is firmly atop the Group A leader board. The next match against Germany will determine who wins the group. France’s tactics will be both interesting and telling. A draw will be group enough, but will France want to win? Germany looks mortal right now, and a defeat could be a near-fatal psychological blow. Furthermore, France’s best (Lyon) beat Germany’s best (Turbine Potsdam) in the Champions League, and France may want to prove that was no fluke.
Back in Canada, it will be interesting to see what happens to Morace. She won her struggle with the CSA, but the enemies she made now have a reason to get rid of her. Will her team stand up for again? Would they boycott the Olympics? The program is moving forward, but the result was poor, and inevitably the coach shoulders the blame.
Nigeria v. Germany
The history of the World Cup is littered with ugly matches. Usually they are called the Battle of Somewhere or Other (Berne, Santiago, etc.) Most recently a horrible refereeing job from Howard Webb mixed with thuggish tactics from an outmatched and far less talented Dutch team ruined last year’s World Cup final.
Nigeria have, to put it kindly, a history of physical play. In 1999, the Nigerians tried to rough up the USWNT in group play, although they lost 7-1. This was because in 1999 Nigeria was hopelessly outmatched. Nigeria have shown in this World Cup that they are catching up to the rest of the world. Giving up two goals in just two matches to two of the world’s best sides is completely respectable. Their brutal play however is not. I have said before that I think fouling and on-pitch violence are far more serious forms of cheating than diving, the bane of the American and English football fan (and which has gone happened in this tournament, despite some commentary to the contrary.) Diving is a way to trick the referee. On-pitch violence is the last resort of a team with no self-belief.
I think that sums Nigeria perfectly, and that is a shame because unlike at previous tournaments they are actually very good. Violence alone that held Germany to a mere 1-0 victory. It was instead, tough-minded organization, strong defense, and bit of bad luck during a set piece. Nigeria’s violent behavior did not lead to any goals though, and once Germany scored, they could only keep the score down. Nigeria’s biggest problem is not that they are outmatched, it is that they have no offensive weapons.
Like Morace, it will be interesting to see what happens to Nigeria’s coach. Ian Darke indicated he thinks she will be gone, both because of the early exit and because of the controversy surrounding her homophobia (which he danced around until the very end of the match.) I suspect Darke has no idea about how bad things are for gays and lesbians in Nigeria. Most likely Nigeria’s coach is a heroine back home for expelling players she suspected of being lesbians. (FIFA came out against her statements, but pretty much everything FIFA says about tolerance is lip service. Where was FIFA when Marcello Lippi, among other, made homophobic remarks? How can FIFA allow Qatar to hold the World Cup if they really cared?) As much as I hate to say it, the truth is, from a success standpoint, Nigeria should retain her. Despite the losses Nigeria is on the right path. Only in terms of football development.
The refereeing in this match was bad. More cards should have been given, and Germany’s coach Silvia Neid looked ready to shoot daggers. But this match also revealed something important: Germany is incredibly mortal. A better team need to resort to Nigeria’s guerilla warfare to exploit Germany’s weaknesses. One shaky mach is an aberration; two is a pattern. Germany have trouble finishing, and Neid is stuck in the past (specifically 2003-07.) Nowhere is this clearly than the starting presence of Birgit Prinz who was pulled out early twice. When Germany meets a better team (France? Brazil? USA?) they may have some real problems.
Collectively, the team appears nervous, and perhaps playing in front of the home crowd is more hindrance than help. That the home crowd jeered the team into the locker room at halftime puts even more pressure on the Germans. Their countrymen have bought into the hype, and if the Germans don’t win, all hell will break loose. They are not just playing for themselves and their country; they are playing for the respectability of women’s football in Germany.
Next up is historical frenemy France. In order to win the group, Germany must win. This is a new situation for Germany, and the way the players deal with the pressure will determine whether they remain world champions or finally relinquish their title.