Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 2: Ho Hum

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.

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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.

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Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 1: Queen Bees and Wannabes

Although the Opening Ceremonies does not begin until Friday, Olympic football officially kicked off two days ahead of time as all 12 women’s teams took the field.  If last year’s World Cup taught us that the gap is women’s football is closing, this first day of the Olympics showed us that the gap is still substantial.

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There is no sense in starting with any match other than the meeting between the United States and France.  It was the match that everyone wanted to see in the first round, and it may well be the most anticipated match of the group stage (maybe Sweden v. Japan).  In every way these two teams are polar opposites: the Americans are the established power and the French are the upstarts; the Americans are an athletic, counterattacking side while the French play a more aesthetically pleasing possession/short-passing game (no Barcelona comparisons please, have a little respect); the Americans came from all over the now-defunct WPS while most of this French team is made up of players mostly from reigning European club champion Olympique Lyonnaise; the stars of the American side are the forwards Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, while the face of the French side is the playmaking midfielder Louisa Necib (the “female Zidane”).  There are other comparisons I could make, but life is short.

This match was a rematch of the World Cup semifinal in which the US beat the French side despite being thoroughly outclassed.  The French took that defeat in true Gallic fashion–snippy losers to the core.  But France served notice that day that they are world beaters in the making.  This impression has only solidified since.   Lyon defended their European title, and in a friendly just before the Games began, France beat world champion (and rival aesthete) Japan 2-0.

On the other hand, the US beat Japan 4-1 in their recent friendly.

So even though this was expected to be a tough match for both teams, it was something of a shock to see the French go up 2-0 within 14 minutes.  Shades of the Euro finals perhaps when Spain went 2-0 up early and the match was effectively over (actually the match was effectively over at 1-0, but who’s counting?).  Five minutes after France’s second goal, Abby Wambach scored from a Megan Rapinoe corner, and it was game on.  (A moment just to talk about Megan Rapinoe.  I love intelligent playmakers, and I adore lesbians.  Rapinoe is both, so naturally she is my favorite US player.  Everyone remembers Wambach’s header against Brazil at the World Cup, but how many remember that it was Rapinoe, with her intelligence, vision, touch, and skill, who found Wambach’s head in the dying moments of the game.)

An Alex Morgan brace and a Carli Lloyd goal later, and the US won 4-2.  In every way, for me this was the most impressive victory of the first round, more impressive than the 5-0 and 4-1 whippings that Brazil and Sweden (respectively) issued to their African opponents.  Unlike Cameroon and South Africa, France are a medal contender, and that medal is gold.  The fact that the US came back from a 2-0 deficit and then dominated the second half so effectively shows how good the US actually are.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;*

In one match the US did just that.

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Looking at the scores, you could be forgiven for thinking that Brazil have this tournament locked up.  A five goal margin victory has not been seen at the two major women’s international tournaments in quite some time.  But Brazil’s 5-0 leads to more questions than answers.  Are Brazil that good or are Cameroon that bad?  It is impossible to judge this early in the tournament, but the evidence points to the latter.   Cameroon are international virgins, and, well, welcome to the real world, kid.  Truth be told, Cameroon did an excellent job holding back a potential massacre for 65 minutes (when they were already down 2-0).  Brazil have more dazzling talent than any other nation in the world (see: Marta), but are handicapped by an apathetic federation and severe coaching deficiencies.  Whether they can overcome their deficiencies against New Zealand (who have Ali Riley and are more organized) and Great Britain (who are better organized and are a better side than New Zealand) remains to be seen.  Cameroon are what we thought Equatorial Guinea would be last year, except that the Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth brought over a few non-Equatoguinean ringers to play alongside their own homegrown talent.

In other Group E play, Great Britain eked out a 1-0 victory in Cardiff over New Zealand.  Kudos to the Football Ferns for keeping the score respectable.  Hopefully, the quarterfinals await for them, although they really need to make sure that they keep it close with Brazil and beat Cameroon lest North Korea or Canada steal that spot out from under them.  No pressure.

Great Britain, who knows?  New Zealand gave them trouble last year at the World Cup when nearly the exact GB side were England, but both times Hope Powell’s side were able to pull out a win when it counted.  I reserve the right to not make a judgment about GB until after the group stage is over.

Japan, like the US had a tough opponent in the first round, in this case Canada.  Not to make too much of a comparison, but Japan v. Canada was a lot like Spain v. everyone else in men’s football.  Teams cannot play against Spain because when they try, they get absolutely hammered.  (Just ask the still-traumatized Italians.)  So they get physical and defensive instead.  And Spain still win but are then called boring.  Japan v. Canada is a little like that in that Japan are a technically gifted, passing side with loads of talent, while Canada, since the departure of Carolina Morace, have become something of a bruiser team.  Japan were better and the 2-1 score was fair enough.  I’m hoping Japan can sustain their brilliant form from the World Cup.  We are all the richer for an excellent Japan.  (Plus, I suspect the US needs them as motivation.)

Sweden were dominant in their 4-1 victory, but South Africa, like Cameroon, are international novices.  Plus there were problems that led to their best player almost being excluded.  One hopes to see Banyana Banyana do well, but I think it will take another couple of tournaments before that happens, if South Africa can sustain that.  In comparison, Sweden have been at the top since the beginning of the women’s game, but are the eternal also-rans.  I imagine that it grates them to no end to know that Norway have won the World Cup and Olympic gold, while Sweden continue to the be the eternal bridesmaids of international women’s football.  The real test will come against Japan.  Like the US, I imagine the thought of Japan is incredible motivation, but motivation is no guarantee of victory.

Last and probably least is Colombia v. North Korea.  Mercifully, this was not a 0-0 draw.  North Korea won 2-0 thanks to a Kim Song-Hui brace.  Given that North Korea are banned from the next World Cup for positive steroid testing in their players, it is somewhat grating to see them at the Olympics, especially as Equatorial Guinea were disqualified from Olympic qualification, also for rule infraction (fielding an ineligible player).  I will never understand the arcane rules of international sports administration.  Colombia again failed to impress which is a shame because South America really needs a second top women’s team, if for no other reason than to challenge Brazil and make them better.  Argentina never quite pulled off being the other great South American side and I fear Colombia will share that fate.  I blame machismo and sexism.  If South Americans nations and their football administrations got behind their women’s teams like they do their men’s teams, South American football would be the dominant force in the world.

As for North Korea, the main story of the match is not their win, but rather the unbelievable gaffe that happened prior to kickoff.  Stadium screens at Hampden Park showed the North Korean players’ names next to the South Korean flag.  South Korea, the nation North Korea has been at war with for over 60 years.  The players walked off the field, and the match was delayed for an hour while that was sorted out.  Sometimes an apology just does not suffice.

Way to go, London Olympics.  A smashing start even before the Games officially begin.

Footnotes:

* From Rudyard Kipling’s “If”; these are the lines engraved above the player’s entrance to Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Some Thoughts Before Olympic Women’s Football

This week Olympic football will begin.  Because the competition is so long, preliminary matches begin prior to the Opening Ceremonies.  The run-up to the men’s tournament has been more perfunctory than excitement (especially in the United States as our team did not qualify).  The Olympics is not on the men’s calendar and thus clubs are not forced to relinquish players the way that they are for other international tournaments and friendlies.  The men’s tournament also gets little attention–especially in comparison to the World Cup–because most of the world’s best players do not play.  The tournament is for players who are under 23.  Three designated older players are allowed in the squad, but to detractors that is just adding lipstick to a pig.

According to Tim Vickery, the Brazilians see this as a halfway house to the World Cup, a way for them to refine and hone their squad before the pressures of Brazil 2014.  It is also the one competition the Brazilians have not won (especially galling as both Uruguay and Argentina have won), and they desperately want the gold medal.

In contrast, the British public see this as more of a curiosity than anything else.  This is the London Olympics, and London is the capital of the United Kingdom.  While in football, the individual nations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have their own teams and identities, in the Olympics, they compete under one banner.  As a British team automatically qualified by virtue of being the host, the Home Nations were in something of a bind.  Desperately afraid of being forced by FIFA to give up their individual identities, the FAs of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland refused to have anything to do with the competition.  As a result, the men’s team is England plus five Welsh players (and no David Beckham) while the women’s team is England plus two Scottish players.  And no one seems to know quite how to react to Team Great Britain because the team lacks history, identity, and continuity.

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In contrast to the men’s competition, the women’s competition is extremely important.  Only the World Cup is a bigger tournament, and the argument can be made that more people will watch the Olympics (although perhaps not the women’s football part).  For the American women in particular, the Olympics has always been a chance to reestablish both visibility and dominance.  The 1996 Olympics and not the 1999 World Cup is what first brought the USWNT to the national consciousness.  In 2004 and 2008, the USWNT soothed the wounds of two consecutive third place finishes at the World Cup with Olympic gold medals.  The only Olympic gold medal the USWNT has not won was in 2000 (silver medal to Norway), the year after the great 1999 victory.  The Olympic Games is shorthand for USWNT redemption.  In the wake of the loss to Japan in last year’s World Cup final and the collapse of the WPS the Americans are again seeking a redemptive gold medal to reestablish their dominance.

But the US is not the only team with a message.  Nor are they the only team looking for redemption (Canada? Brazil?).  The women’s game has never been stronger, and each tournament has gotten more competitive and better.  If the trajectory continues, than this could well be the best tournament in the history of the women’s game.

If we were to look at the shift of power in the women’s game since the first World Cup, change has been remarkable.  Norway has fallen and most likely will never return.  China appears to be on the same path, a true loss for the nation that gave the world Sun Wen.  Japan won the last World Cup in spectacular fashion, Brazil (the nation of Marta) constantly threaten but have yet to break through, while stylish France figure to be the team of the future.  Of the original major powers of the game, only the US, Sweden, and Germany are still anywhere near the top.

The surprise of the tournament is not so much who is playing, but rather who is not, and at the top of that list is Germany.  Unlike fellow absentees China and Norway, Germany are still a dominant force.  Only the top two Europeans teams from the World Cup (and Team GB) qualified for London.  Germany, already faltering under the weight of expectations, ran into an inspired Japan side too early in the tournament.  Had Germany not won its group, than it is entirely possible that they would have been at the Olympics rather than France or Sweden.

Australia are a rising world power who did not make the Olympics.  The Matildas came in third place in a qualification system in which only the top two advanced.  Japan and perennial group-stage-only North Korea advanced.  Japan will delight, and North Korea will bore.  (North Korea has been disqualified for the next World Cup, so in three years we will not be forced to watch their stifling defensive play.)

The other major shocking absence, perhaps the biggest shocking absence, is Nigeria.  While Nigeria have not dominated the world scene, the Super Falcons have dominated Africa.  Nigeria have been to every Olympics and World Cup since 1991, save for the 1996 Olympics when no African team played.  Only Ghana and Equatorial Guinea (who were disqualified from Olympic qualification) have also competed outside of Africa.  This year though there are two completely new faces.  Cameroon and South Africa are making their first international tournament appearances.  Cameroon eliminated Nigeria and Ghana did not make it to the final four.  I am completely unfamiliar with both Cameroon and South Africa and look forward to seeing both.

The other two nations I am most excited about (aside from the US) are Brazil and Japan.  Brazil desperately need a title.  Every year they get so frustratingly close, and then it falls apart.  Marta may go down as the greatest player never to have won an international title, a sort of Brazilian George Best or Alfredo DiStefano.  Brazil need a title to establish credibility at home.  Women’s football is at best an afterthought in Brazil, especially under the stweardship of the greedy, corrupt former CFB head Ricardo Teixeira.  Santos shut down its wildly successful women’s club team just so that it could save money to pay O Fauxhawk, who will no doubt leave for Europe very shortly.

Japan’s women’s team are (or were) heroes at home.  Following the World Cup win last year, they were everywhere, and no one more so than the great Homare Sawa.  Yet the Japanese women too are fighting an uphill battle against sexism.  How shameful was it that the Japanese women’s team, the world champions, were forced to sit in economy class seats for their flight, while the men (again an U23 team) were given business class seats.  The Japanese FA should be publicly shamed.  I would also urge the Nadeshiko to consider doing what the USWNT team did when it felt unappreciated by the USSF, go on strike.

One hopes Canada does well at this tournament.  The 2011 World Cup was a debacle and a tragedy.  Had Canada been in any other group, that would not have happened, but luck was not with them.  This year they got Sweden and Japan in their group, which is not very comforting.  Hopefully Christine Sinclair’s nose will remain unbroken.

Sweden, I have not seem much of.  Do they still do that stupid goal dance?  They have Lotta Schelin who is an incredible talent, and very exciting to watch.  Their match against Japan will be (along with US v. France) the match of the group stage.

New Zealand is everyone’s second or third team.  Another team on the verge of breaking through, not so much in terms of winning titles, but finally winning a match.  Maybe against Cameroon?  Two third place teams will advance to the quarterfinals.  Perhaps this is finally New Zealand’s year.  I hope so.  Unlike the Swedish goal dance, I love seeing the haka.

Is it my imagination or do the US and North Korea always get drawn together?  It’s as unavoidable as death and taxes.  The US plays North Korea and Colombia in the group stage.  Substitute Sweden for France and it is the exact same World Cup group stage from a year ago.  I am beginning to think the draw is rigged.

Colombia, like Brazil, is fighting a sexist tide in their country.  Last year there were flashes of inspiration, but those flashes were few and far between.  Yoreli Rincón, who has publicly announced her desire to be the next Marta, was supposed to be the revelation of the World Cup, but instead disappointed and barely played after her first match.  Now a year later she too has a chance for redemption as does the entire Colombian team.  Hopefully they are more interesting this year.

And finally Team GB.  I am just hoping two things: (1) they do their nation proud, and (2) they do not lose in penalties.

All matches are on the same day.  There is no way I can watch 6 matches a day, but I will try to write whenever I can.

Predictions:  After the World Cup, I should shy away from predictions but here goes.

Group E (there is no A,B, C, or D.  Those are in the men’s draw): (1) Brazil; (2) Great Britain; (3) New Zealand; (4) Cameroon

Group F: (1) Sweden; (2) Japan; (3) Canada; (4) South Africa

Group G: (1) United States; (2) France; (3) Colombia; (4) North Korea

Quarterfinals: Brazil v. Canada; US v. New Zealand; Sweden v. France; Great Britain v. Japan

Semifinals: Brazil v. US; France v. Japan

Finals: US v. France

Gold: US

Silver: France

Bronze: Japan

Watch as North Korea wins the entire thing.

Pride & Prejudice & Video Diaries

Taking a break from my normal topics of discussion, I wanted to promote a series of YouTube shorts that I have been following for weeks now.

Jane Austen is probably the most adaptable of all English novelists, and each generation is able to reinterpret her works as they see fit.  If it is possible for an author to have a cult following while still being an integral part of the Western Literary Canon, that is Jane Austen.  Pride & Prejudice is undoubtedly her most beloved novel (although please read the equally wonderful Persuasion), which is why there are two miniseries, multiple films–including a Bollywood adaptation, stage plays, musicals, and more literary sequels and adaptations than you can shake a stick at (most famously Bridget Jones’s Diary, which is a brand unto itself), one with zombies.

It is therefore only natural that Elizabeth Bennet and the rest of the denizens of Pride & Prejudice should eventually find their way to the Internet.  Thus we have the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a YouTube web series which adapts and modernizes Austen’s novel.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries are an ongoing series of video entries featuring Lizzie Bennet, a graduate student in mass communications. New videos are uploaded to a YouTube page every Monday and Thursday.  Lizzie is telling the entire world about her life, while in essence retelling the events of Pride & Prejudice (and yes, the video diaries begin with the exact same opening line as the book).

It’s an extremely clever concept, and it works really well.  As befitting a mass communications graduate student, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries makes use of multiple media beyond YouTube, including a home page, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

What I have liked most of all is how effortlessly the writers have adapted the book to today’s society.  If we are honest, Pride & Prejudice is an extremely difficult book to adapt.  The primary reason is that the role of women in society has changed.  In Austen’s day, women, particularly of a certain class, were meant to be wives and mothers and that’s about it.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries have been rather deft at handling this, and softening some of Austen’s sharpest edges (for example her portrayals of Lydia and Mrs. Bennet).

The other thing that has really impressed me about the Lizzie Bennet Diaries is the effective way in which the historical reality has been updated to fit the modern time.  There are multiple examples, but the obvious one is the entail, the plot point that drives everything in Pride & Prejudice.  One may also infer that the entail is the reason why there were five Bennet daughters to begin with.  (If you need further enlightenment, we can talk more in the comments section of this post.)  Entails, at least in the United States where the Diaries are set, are a thing of the past (good riddance), but the writers were pretty clever in how they updated it.

And then there are the characters themselves.  At the moment there are only four major characters.  Lizzie, Jane, and Lydia Bennet, and Charlotte (Mr. Collins has made an appearance; it’s a riot).  Inevitably the first question will be what about Kitty and Mary.  I don’t want to spoil that, but trust me, I laughed when I found out about Kitty and Mary, especially the former.

If you are familiar with the book, you’ll notice there are major characters I have said nothing about.  Just so you know, Darcy has not yet appeared.

I’m embedding the first episode here.  Check it out, and then watch the rest.  They are surprisingly addictive.

Wimbledon 2012: A Tournament For The Aged

And so we come to the end of this year’s Championships.  For the first time since 1975 the men’s and women’s (or in Wimbledon parlance “gentlemen’s and ladies'”) champions were both in their 30’s.  Actually, both are 30.  By tennis standards this is ancient, and yet both Roger Federer and Serena Williams looked like they can go on for years.  They may be the greatest two players to have ever played the game.  If not, they are at least in the conversation.

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Serena Williams actually won two titles, the singles and the doubles with her sister Venus.  With these wins Serena and Venus joined the “5 and 5 Club,” which I had never heard of, but which was discussed a few times during the final couple days of this tournament.  To be in the 5 and 5 Club means that you have won both singles and doubles five or more times.  As of yesterday, both Venus and Serena have five singles titles apiece and five doubles titles which they won together.  (Just in case you are interested, the only other members are Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, Suzanne Lenglen, William “Willie” Renshaw, and Lawrence “Laurie” Doherty.  If you never heard of these last two, they played before World War I.  Renshaw played in the 1800’s, almost at the very beginning of Wimbledon.)

Serena is perhaps the most fascinating player, male or female, since Suzanne Lenglen and quite possibly the only player whose personality could compete with that of La Divine.  Like Lenglen, when Serena turns on the competitive urge, she is practically invincible.  Unlike Lenglen, Serena does not turn it on all the time.  It is entirely possible that Serena is the greatest player ever (although Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova may dispute that) and also the greatest underachiever ever too.  Serena won her first major title 13 years ago at the 1999 US Open.  Now she has 14 singles titles.  Discounting the time lost to a severe life-threatening injury and the mental trauma of her sister’s brutal murder (neither of which could she be faulted for), Serena let a lot of her potential victories slip away by being distracted with outside interests–the acting career being one infamous example.  And yet when Serena plays her best, could even Graf or Navratilova compete with her?  I don’t know for sure, but it would be fascinating.

The Williams sisters are a tennis oddity.  The rules that govern how most players spend their careers just don’t seem to apply to them, especially Serena.  Look at the sisters’ doubles victory.  The last time they played together competitively was 2010.  Yet this fortnight, they swept aside the best doubles players in the world en route to the title.  For mere mortals this is impossible, but for the Williams sisters this is normal.  (One thing though that unfortunately cannot be overcome is that Venus suffers from the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s Syndrome, which went undiagnosed for years, and which kept her out of the game for a significant period of time recently.  That also explains why Venus’s form mysteriously fell.  This is an immense loss to tennis.)  The sisters have practically owned Wimbledon.  Venus first won Wimbledon in 2000.  Of the last 13 tournaments at Wimbledon, the House of Williams has won 10.

As for Serena, if she can hold her form–which at 30 and with her history is never a sure thing–she could equal or surpass the 18 titles won by Navratilova and her arch-rival Chris Evert.  (The 22 of Graf and the 24 of Margaret Court is probably unreachable at this point.) How badly does Serena want it?  That is the eternal question.  But both Ever and Navratilova know that Serena is breathing down their neck.

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In the men’s tournament, Roger Federer ruthlessly broke the collective hearts of Andy Murray, his family, the nation of Great Britain, and Pete Sampras (probably) by winning his 7th Wimbledon title.  Not only has Federer now won 17 major titles, not only has he won a record-tying 7 Wimbledon titles (Sampras and Renshaw), not only has he regained the #1 ranking, but he is now going to tie and probably surpass the record for number of weeks at the top spot (286 weeks, held by Sampras).  Federer stopped chasing history a couple of years ago; history is now chasing him.

Federer’s game is the perfect combination of silk and steel.  Tennis has had a few (a very few) players who inspire art and poetry with their game.  It’s not just that they have all the shots and the intelligence to use them, it’s that their form is perfect while making those shots.  Freeze these players mid-stroke, and their position is sculpture-worthy.  The problem is that most of these players don’t have the mental fortitude or physical health to be truly great champions.  It is rare among the women, and practically unheard of among the men.  Federer is perhaps the lone man who was able to turn his perfect style into worldwide domination.  Even for Federer it took years to put it together, and along the way he had to suffer embarrassing first round losses and the dreaded “brilliant headcase” label.  But when he did put it together, it was like a bolt from the blue.  Nothing like Federer had ever been seen before, at least not in recent memory.  Silk and steel.  Perfection and utter ruthlessness.

That is why Federer inspires such awe and devotion among tennis fans.  It is also why his fans are ecstatic when he wins and devastated when he loses.

In all this, one has to really feel for Andy Murray.  This was his best shot yet to win that elusive major title.  The weight of his entire country  was behind him and unlike Tim Henman, he appeared to be able to deal well with the pressure.  Murray has grown as a player.  He is poised and composed.  His game was looking very sharp, and he did not get down on himself when things got rough.  Ivan Lendl was coaching him now, and the player he was meeting in the final is one that he actually had a winning record against.

But he wasn’t just meeting some top player, he was meeting Federer.  Federer, although Swiss not British, fully believes Wimbledon is his house and the trophy his property.  Murray actually played exceptionally well for the first set and most of the second, but then Federer remembered who he was.  He found a tiny opening and drove a truck through it, completely devastating Murray (who, to his credit, did not lose the match; he was just beaten).  To quote Omar Little of The Wire, “If you come at the king, you best not miss.”

Center Court at Wimbledon is where Federer is at his greatest.  It was where he met Sampras for the first and only time, and ended the champion’s reign in 5 tough sets.  It was the site of Federer’s first title.  It was the site of his apotheosis, where he won his record-breaking 15th title and made his case for best ever–a match made all the more dramatic by taking place under the stoic gaze of the other three major men’s tennis gods: Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, and Sampras (with demigod John McEnroe commentating in the booth).

Roger Federer’s game is tennis’s gift to the world.  Wimbledon, the holiest site in tennis, is where we were given that gift and where we kept receiving it.  Long may the king reign.

Showing Some Love

As great as the US Women’s National Team from the 1999 World Cup was, I have always felt that they were propped up at the expense of the 1991 team, who have been largely forgotten despite (1) being the pioneers, and (2) having many of the same players as the 1999 team.  The 1991 team won the first Women’s World Cup (which at the time was not called a World Cup, and matches were only 80 minutes long), but that feels like a footnote now, especially in commemorations of the 1999 team.  Perhaps because video footage is rare or perhaps because very few media outlets covered it, the 1991 victory has largely faded.

It’s a shame too because the 1991 World Cup was where America’s greatest player was at her peak.  Michelle Akers was widely considered the best in the world at that point and was the top scorer at the tournament (although teammate Carin Jennings won the Golden Ball).  Time has not been kind to Akers’s legacy even though she was with the US Women’s National Team since the beginning, and there is a very strong case to be made that she is the greatest female player of all time.  In Jere Longman’s book The Girls of Summer, it is very clear that the US Team considered her their best player–as did the Chinese team who were somewhat intimidated by her.  There is also a story about Akers being asked to step on the bus of the German National Men’s Team (the defending world champions); when she got on their bus, they gave her a round of applause.

What Akers lacked was media exposure, which is probably why she is generally not mentioned in the debate of greatest ever, which is limited to Mia Hamm and Marta.*  By the time the women’s team came to national attention in 1996, Akers was no longer at the height of her powers both because of age and her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome.  In the World Cup final, she played not as a striker but rather a holding midfielder, a less glamorous, but extremely important position. Akers shut down Sun Wen, China’s greatest attacking threat, and it was not until Akers left the field that China could really attack.  In the media however, she was overlooked in favor of Hamm, the world’s most prolific scorer.

In a way, Akers is a lot like Alfredo Di Stefano.  It is hard to say Di Stefano is underrated given (1) how many players consider him one of the greatest, (2) that he practically built football in Colombia, and (3) that the European Cup was successful in large part because of him.  But it is equally fair to say that the world never got to see his prime.  There is little if any available footage of his pre-European career in Argentina and Colombia.  He never played in a World Cup for a variety of reasons.  Although he led Real Madrid to five consecutive European Cup titles between 1956 and 1960, in 1958, the world found its first superstar in young Pele.  In 1962, Eusebio’s Benfica beat Di Stefano’s Madrid in the European Cup final.  The torch was passed; the new generation had taken over.

Michelle Akers’s story runs along parallel lines.  Although she was brilliant, the world never saw her in her prime.  How many people have even seen the 1991 final?  (I have.)  How much footage is there of her matches before 1996?  Hamm, like Pele, was a telegenic, prolific scorer whose image benefited tremendously from television.  Marta, like Maradona or Messi, is a wildly gifted player who does things with the ball that no one else can.  There are plenty of highlight reels and YouTube videos featuring Marta.

Michelle Akers never had that, and yet she was arguably the greatest of them all.  It is why I was very glad to see this post.  Hopefully there will be many more as people become more interested in the women’s game and its history.

 

 

Footnotes:

* Also left out of the discussion: Sun Wen, who along with Akers was named co-Player of the Century, and Heidi Mohr, who in 1999 was named Europe’s Footballer of the Century.  Others who are left out include Birgit Prinz and Homare Sawa, the only two players besides Marta and Hamm to win a FIFA Player of the Year award.  They are just the tip of the iceberg.  Someone really needs to write a history book about women’s football on the lines of The Ball is Round.

 

Euro Final Day: The Golden Age Of Spain

A much needed correction to a famous quote.  Apologies to Gary Lineker.  “Football is a simple game: twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end the Germans Spanish win.”

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The Reign of Spain maintained in the Ukraine.  Despite looking shaky at times and causing many to question their mettle and commitment (including *cough* yours truly), Spain won again and in imperious fashion.  This was not the 1-0 bludgeoning to which we have become accustomed.  This was a 4-0 humiliation, a breathtaking display, perhaps the finest of the tiki taka era.  Before tonight, the record in the Euro finals had been 3-0,* and that only happened once.  Not only did Spain completely smash Italy, but in becoming the first side ever to defend its European title, Spain is the first national team in the contemporary era to win three back-to-back major tournaments.**  Fernando Torres (remember him?) became the first person to score in two consecutive Euro finals, and Vicente Del Bosque is the first coach ever to win the World Cup, the Euro, and the Champions League.

No doubt that Pele will come out swinging very soon because already the pundits are debating whether Spain is the greatest national team ever.  This means that the great Brazil sides of 1958-62 and 1970 will be relegated.  Pele, being Pele, will not be able to deal with that (and probably the people of Brazil will not either).  Forget Brazilian football jingoism, Spain 2008-present is indeed the greatest national side ever by virtue of the fact that sport only moves forward; the players and teams of a later era are always better than those of an earlier era.  The newest generation stands on the shoulders of giants, sure, but they still see farther.  Whether or not Spain is greatest if all things are equal is a fruitless discussion.  All a great side can hope for is to enter the world’s collective memory.  That Spain have done.  Like the earlier Brazil sides, and like the other great national teams (successful or not) that have gone down into football folk-lore, Spain are not merely great champions, they represent the apogee of what football can be.

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Before talking about the why of Spain, I want to discuss the when, where, and how that is required for better understanding.  Spain did not really become SPAIN until Jun 22, 2008 when it beat Italy on penalty kicks in the 2008 Euro quarterfinals.  Italy were historically the bogey team for Spain, a superstition with roots dating back to the late 1920’s.  In eliminating Italy, the Spaniards broke the curse and gained the confidence they needed to win the nation’s first major tournament since 1964.  Since 2008, Spain moved from strength to strength and have shed the underachiever label forever.  The roots of SPAIN go back two years earlier though to the 2006 World Cup.  (Actually, the roots go back years before to the planning and implementation of a brilliantly successful youth program, but 2006 was the watershed moment.)

In the 2006 World Cup, Spain were dumped out 3-1 in the first knockout round at the hands of a Zidane-inspired France.  It was a tough loss because of how amazingly Spanish dominated their group.  A few months later Spain began its qualification campaign for Euro 2008.  Despite beating Liechtenstein 4-0, Spain finished the year with consecutive losses to Northern Ireland and Sweden.  While perhaps the away loss to Sweden could be overlooked, the 3-2 defeat at the hands of that European powerhouse Northern Ireland was inexcusable (all the more so since Spain were leading 2-1 at one point).  That loss marked the beginning of a new era, most famously because it was the last time the Real Madrid legend Raul played for his country.  He was unceremoniously dumped and the new generation (spearheaded by Iker Casillas and Xavi) took over.

Qualification resumed in 2007 and since that time, in major tournaments (including qualifications) Spain have played 46 matches, won 43 of them, drew two, and lost one.  (A caveat: I consider the two matches won on penalty kicks as wins rather than draws, which is how FIFA classifies them.)  Spain have scored 101 goals against opponents and allowed a mere 20.  Spain have tied for the fewest number of goals allowed by a winning team at the World Cup (two) and have the sole record for fewest number of goals allowed at a Euro (one).  They are the first team ever to use the same starting XI in their opening match and the final of a Euro.  Casillas is the first person to reach 100 international victories.  The last two Golden Boot winners at the Euro are Spanish (David Villa in 2008 and Torres this year), as were the last two Players of the Tournament (Xavi in 2008 and Andrés Iniesta this year).  Spain also racked up all sorts of awards at the 2010 World Cup including the Golden Gloves (Casillas), the Silver Shoe, and the Bronze Ball (both Villa).  A host of Spanish players made the Teams of the Tournament at the World Cup (6), the 2008 Euro (9), and 2012 Euro (10).

And then there is Spain’s defensive record which is quite possibly the most incredible statistic of all.  In this tournament, Spain conceded a goal to Italy in its first match, and then went a record 509 minutes without conceding a second one.  In its last 10 knockout matches–dating back to that fateful June 22, 2008–Spain allowed opponents 0 goals.  This streak has lasted almost 1000 minutes, or about 16-and-a-half hours.  The last time Spain conceded a goal in a knockout round was its 2006 World Cup loss to France.  In that time, Spain have beaten the following nations at major tournaments (some twice): Italy, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Chile, Paraguay, Russia, France, Honduras, Sweden, Greece, and Croatia.  While neither Brazil nor Argentina feature, this is still a formidable line of opponents.  Spain are the lone European nation to have won a World Cup outside of Europe.  This Spain side have the record for most consecutive wins (15) and are tied with the 1993-95 Brazil side for longest undefeated streak (35 matches).

And almost all of their players will be available for 2014 World Cup–if they can keep their spots against the new generation who are also looking deadly formidable.

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None of this however explains the why of Spain.  Why is this generation of players so great?  For a quick comparison, look at the other young and talented squad of the current era, Germany.  Italy are the historically feared team for both Germany and Spain, but why were Spain able to eviscerate the Italians while Germany barely put up a fight?  Why is it that Spain have dominated the world, while Germany have become the eternal bridesmaid?

I am not sure I can answer for Germany, but I think I understand the Spanish revolution.  What it comes down to is that Spain as a footballing nation has developed tiki taka, which is shorthand for Spain’s own style, ethos, and philosophy about the game.  Spain’s play is instantly recognizable because no one else plays like them (or can play like them).  The cynic may say that so long as Spain keep winning so there is no reason for a stylistic change.  Yet this style has been infused at every level of national team development, and at almost every level Spanish players are successful.  Tiki taka has become as identified with Spain and Spanish football as Total Football has with the Netherlands.

Style is not the same as tactics.  With all due respect to Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox, I think that tactics only tell a small fraction of Spain’s story, and very little about Spain’s greatness.  Over and over at this tournament, Vicente Del Bosque was criticized for not using a center forward, using instead Cesc Fabregas as a “false nine” (Lionel Messi’s position for Barcelona).  In essence in this system, there is no striker, and the three attacking players (Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, and David Silva) are really just a second set of midfielders.  In tactical shorthand, this is labeled as a 4-6-0.***  It was also heavily criticized by commentators and armchair tacticians until Spain tore Italy apart.

After the problems of the opening match against Italy, Del Bosque experimented a little, and eventually returned to the 4-6-0 opening formation.  Instead of eking out a draw, it provided the means for Spain’s utter domination.  Far more knowledgeable commentators than I can talk about the nuts and bolts of that tactics behind the 4-6-0 formation and what each player’s role was.  Those commentators can better describe the individual match-ups, such as the way Xavi kept Andrea Pirlo out of the match or how Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique neutralized Mario Balotelli.

But tactical minutiae do not get to the larger picture of why Spain could use the 4-6-0, and what being able to use that formation says about Spain.  The common wisdom is that defense wins tournaments.  One could certainly posit, by virtue of its series of 1-0 victories, that Spain is defense heavy.  Yet this is not a fair assessment.†  What the 4-6-0 really does is show how effectively Spain have undermined the common wisdom; defense doesn’t win tournaments, the midfield does.  The reason Spain scores are not higher is because every team that faces Spain sets up an extremely defensive system.  It is the implicit concession that no other side in the world can match Spain’s talent or ability.  When a team does not accept that and tries to play its own game against Spain, the results are disastrous.  Look no further than the Euro 2012 final; Italy, to its credit, played toe-to-toe with Spain.  Their efforts produced an entertaining match, and even an edge in possession at half time, but could not prevent a 4-0 drubbing.

Midfield players, especially Spanish midfield players, need two virtues to be successful: (1) they must be able to pass and control the ball well; and (2) they must have the intelligence and vision to make effective passes.  Midfielders can take on attacking duties or defensive ones.  When a team controls the midfield, it effectively controls the game.  This is the essence of tiki taka: “If I have the ball, I will probably score, and you will definitely not.”  The more midfielders a team has, the more players there are who are able to control and possess the ball (granted, at the expense of the traditional virtues of strikers and defenders).  Spain adapted this philosophy through Barcelona where it was originated by none other than Johan Cruyff.  Tiki taka is latest step in the evolution of Total Football.  Spain are what everyone wanted Holland to be.

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The final against Italy may well be the apex of tiki taka football the way that Holland’s 4-0 victory over Argentina was the apogee of Total Football (or Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Italy was the pinnacle of its jogo bonito style).  Never has Spain come through in such a devastating way at such a big moment.  All four goals (and the passes leading to the goals) were beautiful, the first two astonishingly so.  Moreover, Spain’s goals were the essence of team goals.  They may have been scored by Silva, Alba, Torres, and Mata, but the creators were Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas.

For the past four years, Spain have dominated the international scene as no team has ever done before.  In Kiev, they ensured that they will become legendary.  Pele’s Brazil, Puskas’s Hungary, Cruyff’s Holland, Beckenbauer’s Germany–Xavi and Iniesta’s Spain are at the very forefront of the conversation.

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Two quick notes before I sign off.

(1) If you have not been following the animated match reports from Tim Bradford of When Saturday Comes, get thee over to his YouTube page immediate.  They are wonderful.

(2)  Finally, given the television schedule and my work schedule, I am not sure how I will do with the football at the women’s Olympics, but I am really hoping to be able to write about that tournament as well.  Hopefully, I will see you then.

Footnotes:

*  In fact, in the three major international tournaments, the World Cup, the Euro, and the Copa America, there had never before been a four goal victory in a final match.  Even the great Brazil sides of 1958 and 1970 won by “only” three goals–5-2 over Sweden and 4-1 over Italy, respectively.  A caveat: the South American Championship did not become the Copa America until 1975.  Before that time it was a round robin tournament (as were the 1989 and 1991 editions of the Copa America and the 1950 World Cup), and therefore there was no actual final.

**  It is important to distinguish the “contemporary” era (i.e. post-World War II when worldwide tournaments began again after a hiatus) from the modern era.  The contemporary era began in 1950 with the resurrection of the World Cup and an uninterrupted cycle of regular football tournaments.  The modern era, i.e. when the game that we recognize as today’s global football game truly developed, began with the Uruguayan victory at the 1924 Olympics.  In the modern era, Spain is not the first team to win three consecutive major international tournaments.  Argentina won three South American Championships in 1945, 46, and 47.  Earlier than that the great Italian side of the 1930’s won the 1934 and 38 World Cups as well as the 1936 Olympics (which were a major tournament back then) and for good measure the Central European Cup, which lasted from 1933-35.  Uruguay won the 1923 and 1924 South American Championships and the 1924 Olympics.

*** 4-6-0 is not a Spanish system per se.  In 2008, Luis Aragones used a 4-4-2.  At the World Cup the system was more like a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1 (although it was rather fluid).  Even in Poland/Ukraine, Del Bosque, did briefly switch away from 4-6-0, but switched back after being dissatisfied with the result.  Del Bosque used a 4-6-0 because of David Villa’s unfortunate injury and absence and because Del Bosque had more faith in his midfielders than in his remaining strikers.

† Helenio Herrera, the innovative coach who refined and popularized the infamous catenaccio style of Inter Milan and Italy, lamented that a system he believed to be attacking (when correctly applied) had instead become shorthand for stifling defensiveness, grinding out matches, and cynical play.  While catenaccio is a tactical system and tiki taka is so much more, one can see the similarity in the perceptions and misconceptions about both.