Women’s World Cup Day 12: Guh?!?

Day 12 of the Women’s World Cup saw Sweden take apart an Australia hobbled by defensive errors, and Brazil become the most hated side in the tournament as the US won on penalty kicks in what was by far the most controversial and dramatic match of the tournament.

Sweden v. Australia

This match was on too early in the morning for me.  I didn’t watch it.  Australia had a shaky defense, and Sweden punished them for it.  I would suggest that you go here if you want a good summary of the match.  Otherwise, I am wiped out from emotion.  Before I fade, I want to write about the US/Brazil match.

United States v. Brazil

Remember Bruna’s handball against Australia?  Well, the officiating in today’s game would make Bruna watch in horror.  The officiating in this match was so awful, so mind-bogglingly bad, that it threatens to overshadow the entire tournament that already has more than its fair share of questionable officiating.  Calls went the wrong way, handballs went unpunished, an offside goal was allowed, a penalty kick may have been wrongfully given, and a penalty save was retaken for unknown reasons.  Instant replay FIFA, instant replay!  And make the referees talk to the media.

I have no idea where to start with this match, so I will begin with what I always being with: there is no such thing as deserve in football.  (Unlike baseball however, there is crying, and a lot of it.)  Brazil deserved to win because they deserve a world title; they have the best players in the world, particularly Marta who is now tied with Birgit Prinz for all-time leading scorer at the Women’s World Cup.  The US deserved to win because had they lost, it would have been because they were robbed by poor officiating.  Brazil deserved to win because, despite the constant (and deserved) criticism of Kleiton Lima’s tactics, the only goal that Brazil let in all tournament before Abby Wambach’s extra-time, stoppage-time header was Daiane’s own goal at the beginning of this match.  The US deserved to win because they had a more organized system and work better as a team.  Both teams deserved to win because they are fighting for women’s football in their respective countries, and a loss could be fatal.

That is why it is a good thing that deserve has nothing to do with it.

The quarterfinals of this Women’s World Cup have now given us three extra time stunners, two of which went to penalty kicks.  As I said yesterday, penalty kicks are a horrible way to decide who moves on even if there is no better alternative.  It is a shame too, because the losers go home in a disgrace they didn’t earn.  Officially, any match that goes to penalty kicks is a draw, but the truth is that one side wins and the other side loses.

US v. Brazil was possibly the strangest match I have ever seen.  Seemingly it was a tactical battle between a very good coach with decent players (Pia Sundhage) and a very bad one with spectacular ones (Lima).  Ahead of time, ESPN told us that the match would be all about whose side successfully penetrated the other side’s shaky defense.  It seems like Sundhage got the upper hand in the beginning because Daiane scored an own goal within 74 seconds of the starting whistle.  Following that, the US remained tight and organized, denying any opportunities to Brazil’a attacking trident of Marta, Cristiane, and Rosana.

As is the wont of the Brazilians when they are not allowed to play their game, they got visibly frustrated, Marta especially, whose petulance began to irritate the crowd–not just the Americans, but also the neutrals (re: Germans) who were watching.  Yet, despite Brazil’s frustration, the back line miraculously held together, and as the back line held, the front line gained momentum.  By the end of the first half, Brazil were in control even if they were down a goal and had less possession.

In the second half things started to go very badly very quickly for all involved.  Brazilians are notorious for diving, both the women’s team and the men’s (and there is most certainly diving in women’s football, despite what ESPN says.)  It is because in Brazil almost any contact is called for a foul.  Robinho has had a very difficult time in Europe because he does not get the same kind of protection (coddling) from European referees, and Neymar, possibly the world’s most notorious diver, is sure to have the same problems when he moves.  Whenever you read about Dani Alves of Barcelona, you are sure to see the phrase “Oscar-winning performance” attached to his name.  I have written a half-hearted defense of diving before, so needless to say I don’t find it nearly as egregious as most of my fellow Americans.  Besides which, no one in the American press is going to talk about all the diving Abby Wambach did (Marta’s hypocritical rage at Wambach’s diving was what earned her a yellow card.)  No, no.  Americans don’t do that kind of thing.  Or so we are told by the American media.

It will be interesting to see who is named FIFA player of the year this December.  I wonder if it will be Marta again.  The world votes, yet the world does not know many female players.  Despite scoring four goals and assisting in, I believe, two others (and now being in the lead for the Golden Boot), this has not been Marta’s tournament.  Like Messi last December, a loss in the World Cup does not mean she is not the world’s best.  If it were not for Marta, there would be no Brazil.  Formiga may be the engine that powers the machines, Aline may be the captain, but Marta is the heart and soul of the squad.  They all follow her lead, probably more than they follow Lima’s.  Marta has been criticized for her frustration, for screaming at the officials, for diving, etc. (although she does not dive nearly as much as her teammates or other Brazilian players.)  But the truth that everything Marta does is calculated to pump up her team.  As a result, Marta walks the line between leader and villain.  This dichotomy is exacerbated by the fact that she is the most famous female player in the world.  We want our great athletes to have fire, but then we criticize them for having too much fire.  Marta did not deserve to targeted as Public Enemy #1.

And she did become a villain today.  The crowd jeered the Brazilians, but their loudest boos and whistles were aimed at Marta.  Lord, how they hated Marta.  But the problem with aiming all the venom at Marta and her teammates though is that they were just doing their job.  Their obligation is to win not to please the non-Brazilians in the crowd.  If there were problems with the officiating, and there most certainly were problems with the officiating, then the Brazilians have the obligation to use it to their advantage, unsporting as it may seem.

Which brings us to Brazil’s goals.  The first one is by far the more questionable of the two.  Marta was brought down in the box by defender Rachel Buehler.  Buehler was red carded and a penalty kick was given.  It was debatable whether Buehler should have gotten carded and whether there should have been a penalty at all (supposedly Buehler had a fistful of Marta’s jersey which is a major no-no.)  What happened next though was just strange.  Hope Solo saved Cristiane’s penalty, but then the referee called for a retake.  Apparently one of the American players encroached on the penalty area, or perhaps Solo came off her line, it is not very clear and the referee was not telling.  If the latter, the call was horribly wrong.  Solo was given a yellow card, probably for dissent.  Marta took the penalty, converted it, and instantly became the villain.

According to a strict interpretation of the laws of the game, the referee was correct if there was encroachment.  But every time that kind of decision is made, there is always cause for question because the infraction is so minimal and the consequences so major.  It was the same last year in the World Cup quarterfinals in the match between Spain and Paraguay.  Spain converted a penalty, the referee called it back, and the penalty was saved the second time.

By the end of regulation time, Brazil was spent.  At the beginning of extra time Marta scored another goal, once again a goal that probably should not have been allowed because of an offside infringement from Maurine.  But the goal was of such spectacular quality that any lover of beauty in sport would overlook that.  It was a goal that only Marta could score.

After that goal, the US looked like they had been beaten.  They attacked and they attacked, but could not penetrate the leaky and yet impenetrable Brazil defense.  Set piece after set piece was turned back.  The Brazilians, sensing victory, could not hold the ball.  Instead of using smart and fair tactics like Japan did yesterday against Germany, the Samba Queens took to diving, which inflamed the crowd all the more.  Every time a Brazilian, especially Marta, touched the ball, a chorus of jeers, boos, and whistles rained down on the field, and no doubt from the ESPN studio where Brandi Chastain was set to explode.

And then Brazil made an error that came back to haunt them.  Érika took a dive that required treatment.  She thought she was killing time, but the referee put that time back on the clock.  Two minutes into the stoppage time that Érika created, that is the 120 + 2 minute, Abby Wambach broke through the defense that no other team could break through.  She headed a ball, perfectly delivered by Megan Rapinoe, past the goalkeeper Andréia.

Once it got to penalty kicks, it was clear the US would win.  Andréia is good, but Hope Solo is better.  Andréia kept out Shannon Boxx’s opening goal, but the referee made Boxx retake it; Andréia was off her line.  Boxx converted this time.  Although Cristiane, Marta, and Francielle converted their kicks, the sweeper Daiane, the woman responsible for the earlier own goal, kicked timidly and Solo stopped it.  The US players all converted their penalties.  Twelve years to the day after the USWNT’s greatest moment, the final against China in the 1999 World Cup final, the US again won on penalty kicks.

If nothing else, Pia Sundhage should keep her job.  The squad made it to the semifinals, and beat one of their biggest rivals in the process.  They won in a spectacular Hollywood fashion that put to shame Landon Donovan and the US men’s heroics against Algeria last year–both matches coincidentally called by Ian Darke.  Yet, I sense that today is the end of the line for the US squad.  Despite all the heroics, despite the crowd adoration, despite the great advertisement for US Women’s football, and hopefully the WPS, the world has caught up.  Maybe Brazil couldn’t do it today, but there is France next and after that Sweden or Japan.  The US squad won an emotional victory and a physically draining one.  One wonders if the US have anything left to give or if their energy has reached its peak.  Now that Brazil is out, I back my home country, but one can only wonder if they have enough.  For all their talent and physical ability, Sweden has already beaten the US, and France and Japan have improved at a frightening pace by using a game of technical virtuosity completely unknown in the United States.

I wonder if this tournament is a swan song for the US Women’s National Team.  They won a great victory, but what happens after next week?  Is the USSF properly developing the next generation of female football stars?  I suspect that even more than the men’s program, the youth development for the women’s program has been met with little outside of apathy and incompetence.  That would be a catastrophe.  The US has the resources to contend for every tournament, but the rest of the world has been caught up, as evidenced by this tournament.  The US will no longer coast to the later rounds by virtue of a legacy built by Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, two World Cups victories, and three Olympic gold medals.  If the USSF does not prepare the next generation properly, then the US Women’s Team like its oldest and most bitter enemy Norway, will find itself relegated to football oblivion.