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