Women’s World Cup Day 6: Banzai!

Japan equaled France’s amazing performance yesterday in a match that featured hat trick scored by someone’s grandmother and a philosophy born thousands of miles away.  New Zealand was foiled in its attempted act of matricide; the Football Ferns nearly beat an underperforming England, until Jill Scott (no, not that one) broke Kiwi hearts.

Japan v. Mexico

All honor to Japan for their domination of Mexico.  Whereas Mexico fought back against England, and even looked the better side, Japan suffocated the fight out of El Tri (La Tri?)  Pity poor Maribel Domínguez, the rock of the Mexican team, who watched her World Cup ambitions fall apart under the force of the divine wind that is Japan’s passing game.

What makes Japan so dangerous is that they can score for everywhere.  If they are in their opponent’s third, do not under any circumstances let them get a set piece.  Like their male counterparts (particularly Keisuke Honda), Japan’s women have mastered the velocity of the World Cup ball, which makes them far more threatening on set pieces than most of the other sides.*  What they lack in height, they make up for in precision, which is far deadlier.

The star of this match was the decrepit Homare “Grandma” Sawa, who at the ancient age of 32, rose from her deathbed to score three of Japan’s four goals.  Or so I gathered from ESPN, which harped on Sawa’s age and noted about fifty times that she is the oldest player to ever score a hat trick in a World Cup.  Sawa’s hat trick is an amazing achievement, but not because of her age.  My God, 32 is not old!  In terms of sheer awe, Sawa’s hat trick was not in the top ten greatest ever.  Sawa was able to score two of her three goals because for once Japan had a height advantage–Mexico is the shortest team of the tournament.

The real reason why Sawa’s hat trick is an amazing achievement is because of what it says about Japan.  Japan is an incredible well-trained, well-organized, well-coached, skillful team, who has only started to realize its potential.  Sawa’s goals were the culmination of all of these positive team attributes.  It is fitting that Sawa should score all of those goals (and as a result leads the Golden Boot chase.)  She is the team’s leader and in her fifth World Cup.  She is the most capped player and the highest scorer in Japan’s national team history, male or female.  Unlike Birgit Prinz, also in her fifth World Cup, Sawa has performed exceedingly well, and is the not the focus of criticism from her national press.  Nevertheless, Sawa’s shots were the culmination of spectacular team efforts, especially the terrific last one.

Japan has almost certainly won Group B, only a loss to England will prevent that.  As for Mexico, all is not lost, although they no longer control their own destiny.  Too many things have to go right.  Japan has to beat England and Mexico has to beat New Zealand (not a guarantee.)  Even if all that happens, Mexico will also have to make up a five goal differential, which, given the way this tournament has gone thus far, is highly unlikely.

One has to wonder if Japan even wants to win the group.  Both Group B quarterfinalists will have battles on their hand because they are guaranteed to meet either Germany or France.  Japan v. Germany, possibly Japan’s nightmare scenario, will be a study in contrasts.  Germany is a far more direct and high-powered team that relies extremely effectively on physical size, strength, and individual talent.  In contrast, Japan is shorter, faster, and a better team.

Japan v. France has the potential to be extremely fascinating or extremely boring.  Both sides play a quick, skillful passing game, and both have been compared to Barcelona.  Both were also extremely impressive in their respective 4-0 victories.  Even if the comparisons to Barcelona are overblown (any France team should be compared to Arsenal first, right?), the success of Japan and France has shown that women’s football is fully engaging in the dialogue going on in men’s game right now.  This debate can (perhaps sloppily) be called Guardiolism v. Mourinhoism.  Although those coaches did not invent the debate, they are the two most prominent voices of their respective styles.

Guardiolism (the ethos of Barcelona if not the style) is attack, attack, attack and then attack some more using short passes while in possession (tiki taka style) and exhaustive pressing to win back possession.  Guardiolism at its most basic has one single tenet: you cannot score if I possess.  Mourinhoism is a well-organized defense, effective usage of the counterattack and set pieces, no concern about possession, and disrupting the opponent’s flow with a strong physical presence.  (I should stress that this debate is not either/or.  Only a limited number of teams play these styles, and not necessarily exclusively.  The long ball style, for example, is neither Guardiolist or Mourinhoist.)

There are two prominent examples of Guardiolism v. Mourinhoism from the last year.  The more recent of the two is the series of matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  The other one is the final of the World Cup between Spain and Holland (or Spain v. all their other opponents except Chile and Germany.)  Not surprisingly, many of the players on Spain’s side were from Barcelona although there were a few from Madrid.  In both the Champions League and the World Cup, the Guardiolist side was the superior side, and in both tournaments came out on top.

Guardiolism is the more appealing style, which does not mean it is always more effective.  It is also the far more difficult one to institute, because it requires supremely talented and intelligent players merged into a cohesive team over a sustained period of time.  Mourinhoism is a far easier style to impose on a team because it does not require the same amount of time or the same quality of player.  Unsurprisingly, the men’s World Cup last year was dominated by Mourinhoism–unsurprising because international sides have a limited player pool and extremely little time to come together as a team.

In this Women’s World Cup, the triumphs of both France and Japan signal that Guardiolism can exist in the international game outside of Spain.  The commentators are wrong when they say France and Japan are like Barcelona.  What they are trying to say is that both sides subscribe to the same basic tenets of Guardiolism, which they can do because both side have skillful and intelligent players molded together over a long period of time.  (The women’s international game affords more opportunities to play together than the men’s international game.)  Surprisingly, at the 2011 World Cup, the sides that have used Mourinhoist tactics (Nigeria) have already been found wanting.  While Guardiolism is only one of many styles on display, right now in the women’s game it is carrying the day.

England v. New Zealand

One cliché that never dies is that defense wins titles.  This is a pernicious lie designed to excuse those teams who suck the joy out of sport by being overly defensive.  Good defenses are only a starting point; they can get you draws but not wins. To win, one needs a good offense.  The first round of this tournament showcased plenty of good defenses.  In the second round, good offenses have started to shine though, and it is becoming readily apparent which teams are for real and which are pretenders.

This is the problem with New Zealand.  The back line was incredibly steady.  They were smart and organized, and they successfully contained Kelly Smith.  An early goal on a good counterattack left them  with a 1-0 lead and the momentum.  But after that first goal, New Zealand could not score.  Their scrappy play won them a host of fans, including me.  Before the match started, I thought New Zealand were headed from the same humiliation as Canada and Mexico.  Instead they led a match for the first time in their history.  If sport were fair, the Football Ferns would have pulled out at least a draw.  Unfortunately, sport is not fair.  New Zealand gave it their all, but they didn’t have the experience to pull out a result.

The good news for New Zealand is that the best is yet to come.  The reason why New Zealand dominates rugby is because they put the resources into it.  The All White’s performance at last year’s World Cup and the Ferns performance this year show that New Zealand have what it takes to make a difference if the resources are put to good use.  New Zealand may never win a non-Oceania tournament, but that doesn’t mean they cannot always be contenders.

England has no excuses.  As with the men, the women are dramatically underperforming.  Had Jill Scott not put the team on her shoulders, they could have fallen victim to the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.  The one positive takeaway though is that England can still win even when Kelly Smith has a bad match.  Unless they majorly fall apart against Japan, the Three Lionesses will move on to meet either national nemesis Germany or wildly talented French.  I cannot decide which would be worse for them.

Final Thoughts:

Teams from Europe have utterly dominated so far.  None has lost, and only one (England) has drawn.  There are two ways to look at this, and both are right to an extent.  The first and more Eurocentric explanation is that UEFA is the toughest confederation and European teams have the best overall quality.  The second explanation is that only France and Germany, arguably Europe’s two best squads, have met a top non-European team.  As fun as they have been to watch, Mexico, New Zealand, and Equatorial Guinea are not the US, Brazil, and Japan.

Finally, the Copa America starts tonight, and alas, I will probably only see highlights.  I may write some thoughts as the tournament progressed, but nothing like my dispatches from the Women’s World Cup.  If only they weren’t being played at the same time.

Footnotes:

* Set pieces have been somewhat disappointing this tournament.  Everyone once in a while there is some brilliant display, such as Christine Sinclair’s wonder goal against Germany.  Unfortunately, more often than should happen at an elite level, a player will squander a corner by kicking it into the side netting.  This is especially a problem with New Zealand.  Corner kicks may not be particularly sexy, but wasting chances is just stupid.