I have now been wrong on three of four quarterfinals and both semifinals. I have to be right sometime, right?
Sweden v. France
The match that no one cares about. The irony is that the third place match is often of higher quality than the final (see last year’s World Cup) because there is so much less on the line. As a result both sides can play their game without really worrying about losing anything other than pride. By virtue of being the two highest placed European sides at the tournament, Sweden and France will both go to the London along with the team from Great Britain (England).
This match will be interesting because it is a study in contrasts, both on and off the pitch. Sweden are a team full of physically imposing women who play a muscular and effective game but with little artistry. France are a team of smaller women but who play an aesthetically pleasing game but sometimes lack a killer instinct. Sweden are better in the back, and France are better in the front. I am not sure that France are the better side right now, but I am sure that France are a team of the future who will only get better while Sweden have hit their peak. Perhaps the decline of Sweden will not be as dramatic as those of Norway and Denmark (whose decline started before the first Women’s World Cup), but Sweden are being passed by and will continue to be passed by as women’s football grows in popularity around the world. Sweden however, have what the French (and almost every other team in the tournament) want–a stable league with regular support and attendance.
This will be France’s last chance to make a statement in this tournament, and more importantly, a statement to their countrymen back home who couldn’t both to show up to support them. (At the match against the US, the stadium looked very empty. It turned out that while the US had tremendous support, French fans just did not show up despite the nude photos.) It’s a shame because the embarrassment the French men caused at last year’s World Cup would never happen with Les Bleues. They did their country proud, and their country showed it does not deserve the team.
Nevertheless, I think France will pull it out. I hope so, because I do not want to watch the return of Sweden’s goal dance.
United States v. Japan
Fun fact: This will be the first time the winner will have lost a match in the group stage. It sometimes happens at the men’s World Cup (last year for example) but had never happened with the women. Once again, this is proof the gap is closing, and the fact that either the US (who lost to Sweden) or Japan (who lost to England) will win is a good thing.
This is the match I am afraid to call for so many reasons. Japan were not expected to do this well given the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown; they thought this tournament would be a warm-up for the Olympics. Getting to the finals, for the first time even (let alone out of the group stage for the first time since 1995 when Nadeshiko Japan made the quarterfinals), is a tremendous triumph in and of itself.
To my mind, Japan have been the team of the tournament. They play as one, and their style is amazingly fluid. For the first time they have shown an aggression that most didn’t think they had. (This was also true of China in 1999.) Japan are extremely dangerous on set pieces. In the past two matches, their defense has been almost rock solid, especially when they withstood the German barrage. In Homare Sawa they have a true leader and a legend of the game. When Japan lose possession, they work hard to get it back; their pressing game is top-notch.
The US lack such good collective skills but more than make up for that with tremendous individual talent and a strong team bond, especially with Hope Solo at the back and Abby Wambach at the front. I do not envy Pia Sundhage. She has to decide whether to stay with the group that brought the US to the final or juggle around some of the parts that have not been working (Amy Rodriguez, for example, has had a tournament to forget.) The US are not going to have the majority of possession, but the US, when everything is working as it should, also play an effective game. With the exception of left back Amy LePeilbet, the defense has been quite solid although LePeilbet has steadily improved since the debacle against Sweden (she is one of the best center backs in the WPS.) The US have a never-say-die attitude, but I wonder if in this instance that will be negated by a Japanese team that has come so far and for whom a victory would be so meaningful. It is true that the US has a ridiculously good record against Japan (including two wins against in World Cup warm ups), but history is not destiny, especially when facing a team on a mission. The US had a ridiculously good record against Brazil in 2007, but that didn’t stop Marta and company from handing the US its worst loss ever.
While the Japanese are on a mission, it is important to forget that the US are too. First, this team has lived in the shadow of 1999. Despite the Nike “Pressure Makes Us” ads, it cannot feel good to know that until the World Cup is won, this US side will always be considered second-rate no matter how many Olympic gold medals they win. The fact that Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, and Brandi Chastain are in Germany (not to mention Kate Markgraf and Kristine Lilly who do not loom quite as large) only makes the ghosts of 1999 more haunting. A World Cup victory will make them legends, and future teams will have to live up to the 2011 side.
Furthermore, the US players know that the fate of the WPS lies in the balance. It’s not so much that a World Cup win will assure the success of the WPS (although ticket sales did go up for the Boston Breakers following the success in the knockout rounds), but a loss will certainly not help. The US women are very aware of that. Japan too have a league that needs support, but it is not to the same dire extent that the WPS faces, in part because it is not professional.
So who will win? Gosh, I have no idea. If the ball stays on the ground, Japan. If the US can play an effective aerial game, the US. I think it will come down to who wants it more, and that is probably the US. What the hell. I can’t always be wrong. Right?