Women’s World Cup: What Have We Learned Thus Far

Today there were no women’s World Cup matches, but since seven of the eight quarterfinalists are set (sorry Mexico, but England is going through), I thought now would be a good time to share what I have observed.  It is important to stress this is based on what I have seen.  History is not destiny, and it is entirely possible that everything I am about to write will be proven entirely wrong.

Germany is cracking

Perhaps it is from the pressure of being the home nation (only the US in 1999 has ever won at home), but Germany is not the dynamic powerhouse we all expected.  Allegedly there are divisions within the team, and captain and team leader Birgit Prinz, one of the game’s all time greats, has imploded in a major way, both on and off the field.  The truth is that Prinz has been woeful for some time now.

I blame Silvia Neid for the team’s problems.  This is the most competitive World Cup ever; it is not a guaranteed coronation for Germany or a valedictory for Prinz.  Letting Prinz, who is 33 and past her best days, start smacks of arrogance and a belief that Germany is so far superior to the competition that it doesn’t matter how out of top form the main striker is.  As a result, Germany, and Prinz in particular, is also getting slammed in the home media and jeered by the fans.  These are fans who know football, and they also have expectations.  Expectations which Germany seems unable to meet.  This is not to say Germany won’t win, but they need a major effort to pull everything together.  When the team is divided over Prinz, the captain of the team, that is not a good sign.

UEFA is still the best conference, but their dominance is overstated

European teams at this tournament have a better record than any other continent.  European teams have won every match except two: England’s draw with Mexico and Norway’s loss to Brazil.  This is a misleading statistic.  With the exception of Canada and obviously Brazil, European teams have not met the world’s best.  This changes with the third round.  This week the US and Japan finally play European competition (Sweden and England respectively) while Norway will try to recover against Australia.  None of these matches is a gimme.  Expect Europe’s record to get worse.

The AFC is the conference of the future

China were the trailblazers.  The great Sun Wen-led team of the late 90’s heralded a bright future for Asian (specifically East Asian) teams.  Although after 1999 China fell from the upper echelons of the game, Asian teams have come into their own in a major way.  Japan look like they may finally putting together a great run, while Australia looks like a strong team for the next four years at least.  South Korea just missed out on this tournament but have enormous talent and potential, and North Korea is an AFC powerhouse regardless of the poor showing this year.  You heard it here first folks, an Asian team will win the Women’s World Cup long before an Asian team wins the Men’s World Cup.

Europe needs new faces

Five European teams are in this year’s World Cup: Norway, Sweden, Germany, England, and France.  All have been at the World Cup before, and Norway, Sweden, and Germany have qualified for every World Cup.  The only other nations that have ever qualified from Europe are Russia, Denmark, and Italy.  Among those nations that have never qualified are Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.  Spain in particular is shocking because the Spanish league is competitive and has skillful players.  I hear whispers and rumors about why Spain doesn’t succeed in national competition, but nothing definite.  Does anyone know why Spain’s women’s team cannot qualify for major tournaments?

Spare a thought for Canada

Has any team this year been as unlucky as Canada?  In addition to the off-the-field issues, they were drawn into the most difficult group and then were steamrolled by a brilliant France.  In part it was simply a bad day at the office, no doubt made worse by Christine Sinclair’s injury.  Canada are a great team, and deserved better.  Unfortunately deserve doesn’t mean anything, and Canada are the best team to go home early.  Maybe in four years when the tournament in is Canada they will finally make the impact they have been promising to make.  Hopefully the team will only move forward from here.  It would be a shame if this poor result obscures all the great progress they have already made.

How many coaches competed in 1991?

Pia Sunhage, Carolina Morace, and Silvia Neid.  All three of these women were top competitors in the first Women’s World Cup 20 years ago.  That is quite a reunion.  Are there others?  I think Hege Riise is an assistant trainer for the US.  If only Carin Jennings Gabarra and April Heinrichs were also involved.  Or maybe not.

Norway is fading fast

Everyone talks about cycles in football, and of course that is true.  China will be back one day even though they are at a low ebb now.  But there are also teams who decline for good; they cannot cope with the sophistication and talent in the game, and it passes them by.  That, I believe, is Norway’s fate, and I sense that Norway’s loss 3-0 to Brazil is a watershed moment.  This loss signals the beginning of the end for the team that the US Women, after the tough loss at the 1995 World Cup, referred to as the “Viking bitches.”

In the early years the Nordic countries dominated women’s football because they were the first, and therefore had a head start.  At that time, only the US, one of the few other countries that also had a similarly enlightened attitude toward women’s sports, could compete with the Nordic countries on the world stage.  But things are different now.  The rest of the world caught up.  Norway does not have the talent or the population to compete, and its national style is long outdated.  It’s not coach Eli Landsem’s fault, but Norway is headed on a long, slow, and permanent decline.  Spare a thought for a once great champion; in a few cycles they will no longer appear regularly.

Women can play the beautiful game

France and Japan use an intricate passing game and Brazil has its jogo bonito.  Canada play with flair, and even the US  team has developed as aesthetically pleasing style to go along with its famous physicality.  Mexico and Colombia too had moments, although Mexico more than Colombia, and both were few and far between.  England has the smart and stylish Kelly Smith, the kind of player England’s men’s team desperately needs but would then reject (a la Paul Scholes.)  The days of the Evan Pellarud long ball style are gone.  Women’s football is a sophisticated and tactically nuanced game.

There is some amazing young talent here, but you’d never know it

Perhaps they are being saved for later, but the coaches have been holding back some of the most exciting young talent in the tournament, and I am not talking Yoreli Rincon (although in four years she will no doubt be better.)  Alexandra Popp has had significant minutes (as a substitute), but Lira Bajramaj has seen very few.  That’s a shame because she is a wonder on the ball.  I would like to see more Mana Iwabuchi, and everyone and their grandmother is clamoring for Alex Morgan to play for the US.  For some reason, coaches have been very hesitant.

African nations have talent, but the need to tone down the physicality

Perhaps the most exciting find of the tournament is Genoveva Añonma of Equatorial Guinea (although Louisa Necib of France makes a good case.)  And even the German fans were impressed by Nigeria’s first half performance against the home side.  Yet both Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria resorted to thuggish fouling and near brawling.  It’s a shame; fans would love to get behind African teams, but they also reject teams that act that way.

The US is back in a major way

Months ago, US fans despaired.  Mexico beat us for the first time in the Gold Cup, eliminating us.  As a result we had to play a play-off against Italy and were the last side to qualify.  Yet, with the exception of one half against North Korea, this US side has looked like the most dominating team of the tournament.  The 3-0 throttling of Colombia was very flattering to the South Americans because on another day it could have been one of those blowouts that this year’s tournament has mercifully lacked.  Whatever Pia Sundhage has done has worked.  Now the real tournament begins; the US faces Sweden, a team that beat the US this year, and not the glorified u-20 teams that were North Korea and Colombia.

Brazil has Marta and you don’t

I have said over and over again that football is a team game.  Having said that, Marta is the only player on the planet who can take the game by the scruff of the neck and win it by sheer force of will. Her first goal against Norway was an entirely individual effort.  Marta tortured the Norwegian back line all the while moving further and further up the all-time goalscoring chart.  One day, when women’s sports are finally seen as completely legitimate, Brazilians will speak of her in the revered tones they use for Pele, Garrincha, and Zico.  One hopes that she gets a major international title to go along with her astounding individual and club success.

The gap has closed.  For now.

Although there have been some dominating performances, there has been no 8-0, 11-0 blowouts.  Women’s football is all the richer for this, as more teams become legitimate contenders for the title.  Let’s hope this trend continues in four years when the tournament expands to 24 teams.