Day 2 of the Women’s Football tournament at the Olympic brought absolutely no surprise results whatsoever as the United States, Great Britain, and Brazil all stamped their tickets to the quarterfinals.
Football is the most popular sport in the world. It is also the most popular sport in Great Britain. So it beyond galling to hear the attendance figures for the women’s tournament. The men’s attendance figures have underwhelmed, but there is at least something of a reason for that, it’s a u23 tournament. But the women’s tournament is the second biggest event in the women’s game. If the World Cup can attract large crowds, especially in the United States, which is not a footballing nation, then why can’t the London Olympic Games?
In today’s round we saw something that had been absent thus far, a draw. In a tournament that has been full of high scoring dominations, it was a bit jarring to see a 0-0 draw. That was the match between Sweden and Japan, a match that should have settled who would be top of the Group F heap, but instead left everything up in the air. Japan are the better side, they had more opportunities, and they are more talented (Lotte Schelin aside), but unlike at the World Cup, they are no longer the surprise team. In a way, the horrifying tragedy in Japan freed the team from expectations–just being at the tournament was a triumph. Now they are the world champions and they have to face those expectations head on. Add that to the fact that they are the focus of every other major team’s ire (Sweden included), the Japanese federations continues to treat them disrespectfully, and their talisman Homare Sawa is very, very close to the end of her career. Which is not to say that Japan are falling apart, far from it, but their surprising silk-and-steel approach from last year is no longer stealth. Canada were not good enough to take advantage of that, but Sweden were. Even stronger sides are potentially lurking around the corner.
Japan and Sweden are still the most likely top two teams from the group to advance, but today’s draw puts them both in an uncertain position with regard to the seeding. Both teams want the top spot, and now other factors will come into play. Canada are the major factor. Canada are, by some distance, the third best team in the group, but they have potential to upset Sweden. Canada have Christine Sinclair who is coming perilously close to breaking Mia Hamm’s international goal record, and she scored twice today against South Africa in a 3-0 victory. Sweden will have stop Sinclair, and that is no easy feat.
Japan’s problem is less against South Africa than against the scoreboard. If Sweden and Japan both win their next matches, then goal difference will determine the top seed. Right now Sweden have the edge by virtue of their 4-1 shellacking of South Africa (who were saved from complete humiliation by virtue of a stunner of a goal from Portia Modise). Japan will need to be even more ruthless against Banyana Banyana in order to ensure the theoretically easier draw. (Not that the draw will be easier in actuality. The quarterfinal opponents for the top two Group F sides will most likely be Brazil, Great Britain, or France.)
I am not sure if South Africa will be going home with their heads help high or not. Getting to an international tournament for the first time is a major accomplishment, but this has not been a particularly pleasant tournament for either of the African nations. In their two matches each, have been outscored by a combined total of 15-1. Both Cameroon and South Africa are new to the world scene, but given how well Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea acquitted themselves at the World Cup, one wonders if this Olympics has been a positive step for African women’s football, or part of a frustrating sine curve with small peaks and deep valleys. I can’t imagine that it is about talent. More likely it is about a lack of support, funding, and infrastructure.
In Group E, Brazil and Great Britain advanced with wins, the latter easily and the former with much difficulty. In the next match, Britain need to win, while Brazil need only a draw for top seed. Great Britain have done themselves proud thus far, which is far more than their male counterparts can say. This time it was a 3-0 victory over hapless Cameroon. Cameroon were very physical, which seems to be a trait of African teams. Nigeria are always brutal with challenges, and Equatorial Guinea were also quite rough at the World Cup. But Britain got the job done, and in style. Arguably in better style than Brazil did with their 5-0 victory. When was the last time anyone said that about a British side?
Brazil eked out a 1-0 win over New Zealand with a Cristiane goal in the 86th minute, thereby breaking Kiwi hearts who almost saw the Football Ferns’ greatest ever result. Unlike the African teams or Colombia, New Zealand are not hapless. They are extremely well-organized and fielded some talented players (Ali Riley being the foremost example). Every tournament they get a little bit better. The problem with New Zealand is that they don’t have enough. Like the men’s team at the 2010 World Cup, the women’s team they lack the fire power and therefore rely (rather successfully) on defensive prowess. Unlike the men though, the Ferns have not yet had that one good bit of luck to score an unlikely goal to cement the result. The next match is the first time in this tournament, and possibly ever, that the Ferns have a real shot to win. The pressure is on. They need a win and a good win to ensure that they will get one of the third-place berths. Right now they are in third in the hunt behind Canada and North Korea–a North Korean loss to the US and a Ferns’ triumph over Cameroon are not unlikely scenarios.
Speaking of the North Koreans, one wonders what they will blame for their humiliation to France. After all, lightning doesn’t strike twice. While I am not surprised that the North Koreans lost to France, I am surprised by how they lost. The North Korean women don’t usually get humiliated. They are in fact rather good at smothering attacks, and given that they play Japan in continental competition, they know how to play against technical sides. Given that four of the five French goals came in the final 20 minutes, one wonders if North Korea just gave up or ran out of steam. Maybe the new Dear Leader told them that in defeat they would win.
Finally, the US beat Colombia 3-0, in a match marred by Lady Andrade’s assault on Abby Wambach (Andrade’s arm just happened to fly into Wambach’s face). The US dominated almost from beginning to end and were rewarded with goals from Wambach, Carli Lloyd, and my beloved Megan Rapinoe. It is dangerous to apply group form to later matches, but right now the US look a world above the competition. Colombia, on the other hand, are far more interesting because of how awful they have been. The mediocrity of Colombia speaks to a general malaise in South American women’s football. Only Brazil have risen above the mediocrity, and one wonders if that rise will continue once Marta and the current generation decline and retire. New South American superstars, Brazilian or otherwise, are not readily apparent. It is a reminder to all American pessimists that we may complain about the future of our team, but since 1991, the worse they have done in a major tournament is 3rd place. We have had 21 years of sustained excellence, and the promise of more to come. South America’s future is far more bleak. Football’s greatest continent may have no future in the women’s game.