Women’s World Cup Day 11: Heroes’ Exits

Otherwise known as the day that shot my nerves.

The first day of Women’s World Cup quarterfinals saw England meet France and falter to their national nemesis.  Not Les Blues, penalty kicks. And Japan scored the biggest upset in Women’s World Cup history.  Ever.

France v. England

Penalty kicks are the worse way to end a match.  It’s not that there is a better way (God forbid we go back to replays like they still do in the FA Cup), but penalty kicks are largely based on chance and nerve rather than skill.  Penalty kicks are the antithesis of football.  A football match is all about the flow of the game, and the ensuing tension arises naturally.  The beauty of a goal is that it releases that tension (Galeano compared the goal to an orgasm.)  Penalty kicks are the opposite.  Tension doesn’t build because the penalty kicks are stop and start and not a flow.  The successful penalty kick is not a release because it is a false goal in a game of counting.  The successful penalty kick prolongs the crowd’s agony, the missed one enhances it.

Since the beginning of international play, we have been told that one of the primary virtues of English (male) players is their “heart”.  In recent decades, heart has become a substitute for un-English virtues such as skill, technique, and intelligence.  As expected by all but the English, tournament after tournament the Three Lions go out with a whimper and an angry English media on their backs.

But the English women are different.  First of all, their players do have skill, technique, and intelligence.  But unlike, the men, they have heart.  England were completely outplayed by the French in the first half.  Time after time it looked as though England would suffer the same humiliation that Canada suffered at the hands of the French.  Yet England never gave up.

There is a tendency, particularly when talking about English football to use war metaphors.  There is good reason for that; football, particularly international football, is ersatz war.  For some reason the language of war especially suits England, probably because the English game is so physical.  And sure enough, I was thinking about famous English wars with the French throughout history.  The truth is that England were besieged in that first half.

Despite the bombardment, England scored the first goal, and it was midfielder Jill Scott, possible her squad’s best performer.  On a day when England’s other heroes, particularly Kelly Smith, were largely ineffective, it was Scott who gave her nation reason to hope.  But that was not enough.  In the 88th minute, so close to a victory, France finally got the equalizer it was threatening thanks to Élise Bussaglia.  The goal was inevitable, but it was still painful.  By the end of regulation time, Smith and Fay White were hobbled, and coach Hope Powell had unwisely used up her substitutions well before the end of regulation time.

And yet England soldiered on.  I am no fan of English football, but I have much affection for the Three Lionesses, all the more so after today.  Yes, they have the technique and skill, but their heart, their courage, and their doggedness in the face of a far superior opponent won me over.  I wanted Kelly Smith to get her win, to go to her first semifinals ever.

But then it came to penalties, and England’s destiny was written.  England have a horrible record on penalty kicks.  It is one of those leitmotifs of English men’s football–England fight until the very end of extra time and then blow it on penalty kicks.  (Compare that to Germany who almost never lose on penalty kicks.)

The penalty kicks today were a microcosm of every English tournament in history excluding the 1966 World Cup.  First there is hope, then a good start, then someone blows it, then disaster and devastation.  France’s Camille Abily kicked the first shot directly into the arms of keeper Karen Bardsley, and Kelly Smith rockets her shot to the back of the net.  Hopes all around England rose sky-high, just waiting to be extinguished.  France recovered and the next four players all made their shots, England players made the next tow, and then Claire Rafferty missed the goal entirely.  The score was tied.  France converted their final kick, Fay White missed hers.

I feel awful for England.  Despite an initial slow start to the tournament and some wobbles against New Zealand, they played extremely well.  It would have been nice for Kelly Smith to be able to take a triumphant final bow, but alas it was not to be.  Football is a cruel game and “deserves” rarely figures into wins, although it must be said that France were the better team.  For the sake of good football, the better team should move on, but I feel the pain of the English women.  Like every team here they too are fighting for their reputation and their league.  England should be proud of them; they have brought far more honor to English football than their male counterparts have done in years.

Japan v. Germany

To say that no one saw this coming is somewhat of an understatement.  To say that this is the most shocking result ever and that no would have predicted it never, ever, never is closer to the scope of the upset.  Germany were the prohibitive favorites to win their third straight World Cup title.  Not only is the squad teeming with talent, the players all ply their trade in one of the world’s most competitive leagues, they were playing in front of the home crowd, and (probably most importantly) they were playing to get their countrymen to take their sport seriously and support their league.  The German women too were playing to justify themselves and their game.  Throughout the tournament it looked like they were succeeding.  God only knows if that will continue.  If not, the German women’s team is being disproportionately punished for their loss.

Compare that to Japan who are playing to give hope and joy to a nation recovering from unimaginable agony.  In the past the Japanese women have consistently come up short on the big occasions.  They had never beaten European opposition at a World Cup, a point drilled home when they lost to England 2-0 in the final group stage match.  No one gave them a chance against Germany.

And yet despite the predictions that this would be the least competitive of all the quarterfinals, there was a nagging feeling that Germany were faltering under the pressure.  None of their group stage wins had looked convincing, and there was the distraction of the Prinz Saga.  Nevertheless, Germany’s path to the finals looked set, all the more so when the United States lost to Sweden and landed on the other side of the bracket.

Watching this match, it I had the sense that Japan targeted Germany.  Not so much that they merely developed a successful game plan for the match, but rather all their training and preparation for the past three years centered solely around beating Germany.  Every plan, every strategy, every pass up until now was informed by how Germany would respond.  This hypothesis explains perfectly why Japan lost to England in the group stage.  Germany are a very technical adept team and England, for all their skills, are not.  England are far more improvisational (and physical) than the methodical Germans.  In preparing for Germany, Japan were not ready for England.

But today was the real test.  Three previous matches showed Germany’s weaknesses, slight as they were.  Germany lacked the killer instinct of the 2003 and 2007 teams (and even those teams were not impervious, as demonstrated in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.)  This year though, the cracks showed under the media spotlight.  When Nigeria got physical, Germany withdrew.  More importantly, Nigeria also showed that Germany had trouble breaking down organized defenses.  Germany were susceptible to set pieces.  And the most glaring problem (although I feel like I am alone in saying this) was that coach Silvia Neid had been there too long, and her guidance had gone stale.  She bought into the hype about Germany and allowed her team to buy into it too.  For me, there was a moment on ESPN’s commentary that revealed the extent of Neid’s complacency.  Tony DiCicco pointed out that the signs of Birgit Prinz’s decline was apparent for months, and Neid should never have played her.  DiCicco’s co-commentator, the former German international Viola Odebrecht, said that she did not believe Neid knew that Prinz was past her prime.  Odebrecht was defending Neid (her former coach), but to me there was no more damning indictment.  What Odebrecht unintentionally said was that Neid had not been paying attention to her players’ standard of play over the past few months.  Any national coach who does not watch her potentials should be fired on the spot for gross negligence.

No doubt journalists, pundits, coaches, players, experts, fans, and armchair commentators like myself will question Neid’s tactical decisions in the match against Japan, particularly her substitutions.  That is true I suppose, but it misses the (Black) forest for the trees.  Perhaps she could have done more, although a very early injury to Kim Kulig was not Neid’s fault, and she had to make due and waste a substitution.  And perhaps she could rightfully be called out for not putting in Lira Bajramaj (which, I correctly predicted).  But her real fault was not for this one match; it was for letting her team lose focus.  Germany could not cope with the combination of the pressure of expectations (which they had never faced before), trouble in the locker room, an extremely organized opponent who knew how to play them, and the absence of a Plan B.  Losses happen, but in retrospect this one was coming.  Neid may not be culpable for this loss, but it is her fault that her team had been imploding since the match against Canada.  Perhaps we were just to dazzled by the hype to see it.

But in all of this, I am not giving the proper credit to Japan.  As much as I had found the Barcelona comparisons to be overblown, Japan have come the closest of any non-Spanish team to understanding tiki-taka and Pep Guardiola’s vision.  Germany did not lose this match, Japan beat them in spectacular and heart pounding fashion.  If the tournament were to end tomorrow Homare “Grandma” Sawa should win the Golden Ball.  It’s not just that she assisted Karina Maruyama’s brilliant goal or her own hat trick against Mexico.  It was her leadership throughout the tournament.  If Japan pulled off the biggest upset in Women’s World Cup history, then it is because Sawa led them to it.

As important as Sawa was, she was not the most important player of the night.  That distinction goes to goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori who made save after stunning save.  It was a masterclass of goalkeeping.  Japan knew they created history–the upset that will be talked about for as long as there is a Women’s World Cup.  An upset so comprehensive the only comparable match in men’s history that I can think of is West Germany’s defeat of Hungary’s Golden Team in 1954.  Japan understood that, and that is why Japanese players were also in tears at the end of the 120 minutes.

I said it before, and I feel confident repeating it now.  Europe’s reign at the top is ending, and Asia’s is on the horizon.  Regardless of the outcome of her next two matches (and win or lost, Japan play two more), Homare Sawa has taken Japan to a place it has never been before.  The five-time World Cup veteran has left quite a legacy in her last tournament.  Today she is Japan’s hero.

Spare a few thoughts for that other five-time World Cup hero whose career ended tonight.  It is sad that the incomparable Birgit Prinz’s career ended with the whimper that it did–sitting helplessly and miserably on the substitute’s bench for her final two matches, watching Marta making an assault on her World Cup goals record, and all the while becoming a lightning rod for controversy (partially of her own making) rather than an icon in front of her countrymen.  It was not a graceful exit.  To add insult to injury, if Sweden win tomorrow, Germany will be eliminated from the Olympics, the one tournament Prinz has never won.

And spare a thought for those other heroes who played their last match of the tournament today, particularly Kelly Smith, one of the game’s all-time legends.  Football is a very unfair game, and that unfairness should not diminish these players’ skills, talents, or legacies.  Nor should it allow us to forget the gift they have given to us, especially since they (unlike their top male counterparts) have fought so hard for so little.  It is a labor of love, and we must love them in return.

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