Women’s World Cup Day 9: Contenders and Pretenders

Day Nine of the Women’s World Cup saw England and Germany win their groups in convincing fashion.  In doing so, they demonstrates why all the Barcelona comparison that France and Japan received were completely wrong.  In the quarterfinals, England plays France, Germany plays Japan, and mercifully nobody will mention the War (or Fawlty Towers).

First, an apology. 

At the World Cup, the final two matches of every group are played at the same time.*  As a result, I could only watch one match per group.  As much as I wanted to see New Zealand play Mexico and Canada play Nigeria, both of those games were for pride only.  Therefore I chose the matches that had bearing on the quarterfinals, and regretted it.  I want to congratulate New Zealand for heroically coming back from a 2-0 deficit to drawn Mexico and get the nation’s first point ever at a Women’s World Cup. Like the All Whites at last year’s World Cup, the Football Ferns won fans worldwide with their heart and grit.  I can only reiterate that I hope this is a fruitful beginning for the Ferns and not aberration.  I am hopeful, as the national media has already written proudly about the Ferns’ achievement.  I am sad however, that I missed the haka.  (Watch it here.)  The haka is one of those traditions I absolutely love about New Zealand sports, although admittedly the Ferns’ haka doesn’t have quite the fear factor as when the All Blacks do it.

While New Zealand had its best showing ever, Canada had its worst.  A 1-0 loss to Nigeria means that Canada is going home without points for the first time ever.  I have given loads of credit to Carolina Morace for taking Canada to sixth in the world, but likewise, this results reflects very poorly on her.  To an extent the life of a coach is unfair: the players get the credit for a win, and the coach gets the blame for a loss.  (Unless you are Jose Mourinho; then it is the other way around.)  Fair or not though, someone must be answerable, and that someone is the coach.

England v. Japan

Remember when I said yesterday that history is not destiny?  Well, this is exactly what I was talking about.  Despite England’s mediocre first two matches, despite Japan’s pretty passing and demolition of Mexico, England took apart Japan with stunning ease.  First Ellen White lobbed a honey of a goal over the Japanese goalkeeper and then Rachel Yankey scored a nice second.

I don’t have too much to say, because the match was not particularly interesting.  England deserved the win and England got the win.  Most importantly, England played smart; England avoided giving Japan set pieces in the final third and lo and behold, Japan became a paper tiger.  For all the passing ability, Japan are really strongest when there is a dead ball.  England robbed Japan of its strength, and like a shorn Samson, Japan were powerless.  Japan did have some nice play, but someone who only saw this match would think that England were the skill team.  And this is without Kelly Smith playing her best.

Germany v. France

This was quite a match, but that is not necessarily a compliment.  On a very basic level Germany beat France 4-2.  Germany never trailed, and each time France pulled to within one goal, Germany scored another.  In actual performance though, this match was far more complicated than that.

At this tournament, Germany have been a strange mixture of invulnerability and fragility.  Sure they beat opponents 2-1, 1-0, and 4-2.  Nor have they trailed.  The German bench is extremely deep (some key players were rested today.)  The German attack is like wave after wave of white hitting opponents.  The Germans have a winning mentality.  They know they are the best and never doubt it.

Yet in these group stage matches, opponents scored three goals on Nadine Angerer, which is just one fewer than she has given up in the past two World Cups combined (2007 being a perfect shut out.)  France scored two goals today.  The last time Germany let two goals in during a World Cup match was 1999.  Both goals today came in exactly the same way, poor marking on corner kicks allowed French players (Marie-Laure Delie and Laura Georges) to head the ball in.  Despite Germany’s dominance, I have the nagging suspicion that France lost the match rather than Germany winning it.  Had France been a little less intimidated, a little more aggressive from the beginning, then perhaps the match would not have been so one-sided.

And then there is the Prinz factor. I want to give Birgit Prinz the benefit of the doubt, but I fear she has become a poison to her team.  She sulked on the sidelines rather than give encouragement, and looked miserable when Germany did well.  Prinz is in an odd situation that few female athletes have faced before, although this is not unusual in men’s sport.  On one hand we want our athletes to have a competitive fire and confidence that borders on self-absorption.  On the other hand, that same confidence can be repellent, especially when the player is doing poorly or not on your team.  Prinz is well off her best form, and now open to attack for having a star athlete’s demeanor. It is sad though because Prinz is a star athlete, one of the great players in the history of women’s football.  This is an awful way for her legacy to end.

Despite the fall of Prinz, Germany has stars to spare.  Today Inka Grings scored a brace, Kerstin Garefrekes led the team quite capably (and opened the scoring), and Celia Okoyino da Mbabi put the game completely out of reach.  Then there is the curious case of Fatmire (Lira) Bajramaj who played today in front of her home crowd Mönchengladbach.  Bajramaj, now with Frankfurt, was an integral part of Turbine Potsdam’s Champions League title last year and second place finish this year.  Because of her talent and her background (her family fled from Kosovo to Germany when she was young), she has become the face of the German National Team.  She placed third in last year’s FIFA Player of the Year award (take that with a grain of salt given that the runner-up to Marta was Prinz and the Women’s Coach of the Year was Silvia Neid.)  Yet she seemed to have fallen out of favor with Neid, as today was her first start all tournament.  Supposedly this is because her finishing ability leaves something to be desired.  Today she displayed her dazzling dribbling abilities, her keen intelligence, and her lovely passes, but again, she could not finish.  This was not completely her fault.  She was robbed of what would have been a brilliant a goal by French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz (see below), although she could have done a better job.  Despite her good play, I am guessing she did not win back Neid’s favor.  Marta’s  position as the world’s best is not in jeopardy.

I have no idea what to make of France.  Unlike Germany which fights for everything, France approached this match with classic Gallic ennui.  Camille Abily and Sonia Bompastor, France’s two best players, started the match on the bench.  To top that off coach Bruno Bini told reporters beforehand that this match was not that important.  Who knows if France even wanted to win this match.  Gallic ennui.

What a blunder.  Sure enough, in the second half Abily and Bompastor were substituted in.  There is no guarantee that France would have won or drawn had Abily and Bompastor played from the beginning, but France guaranteed that they would lose before they stepped on to the pitch.  They fell victim to their own hubris and the hype of being called the female version of Barcelona.  As a result France was overwhelmed and now has a confidence-sapping loss to show for it.

And then there was the goalkeeper issue.  Bajramaj was in the box, and the goalkeeper Sapowicz fouled her.  Sapowicz was red carded, and Germany won the penalty which Grings converted.  This was the first red card of the tournament.  It was deserved, although the referee was a little too card-happy throughout the match.  (Since Germany v. Nigeria, the refereeing has not been fantastic.)  It is fairly shocking to see a goalkeeper red carded, and it is amazing that the keeper would have been so foolhardy.  Now the backup keeper will play the quarterfinal against England.  Julie Foudy and Ian Darke mentioned that Lyon’s goalkeeper was kept out of the international squad because of “personality issues.”  One wonders what those issues are, but one also wonders if that should be enough to keep a champion goalkeeper out of the squad.  If Pia Sundhage could bring back Hope Solo, why would Lyon’s goalkeeper be left behind.

Or it could be that France are just not ready for the big time yet.  Perhaps France’s pretty passing simply have fooled us all.

Not that Germany is ready yet.  Unlike in 2003 and 2007 Germany’s faults are very clear.  Whether they can be exploited by a stronger team than France is an entirely different question, but Germany are no longer the all-conquering juggernaut that they once were.

And this too is progress.


*  Both matches in the group are played at the same time because of what happened in the 1982 World Cup.  Austria and West Germany controversially colluded in the final match of the group to ensure that they would both move on, and Algeria would be eliminated.  At that time, Algeria had already played its final match, so both Austria and West Germany knew that for both nations to advance, West Germany had to beat Austria 1-0.  West Germany got the goal early in the match and then for the remaining time, the two nations just kicked the ball around the pitch.  Even the Austrian and West German fans deplored the obvious fix.