With the first knockout round of the Olympics women’s football tournament upon us, the time has come to say good-bye to some of the greatest players in the world. Among those we will no longer see in London: Marta, Kelly Smith, Lotta Schelin, and Ali Riley.
There is no deserve in football. I cannot say this enough. One of the great things about the game, and conversely one of the terrible things about the game, is that on any given day a minnow can take down a whale. Or a team that everyone loves for their outrageous skill and aesthetic abilities can lose to a team that is less talented and awful to watch but organized. In 2010, New Zealand (the men) were mediocre to put it kindly, yet they were the only side not to be defeated in the course of the World Cup. No result in written in the stars.
The Olympic quarterfinals were always going to be difficult. Six of the seven top-ranked teams in the world competed today, and no victory was assured. Even the US could not count on success. New Zealand have improved by leaps and bounds, and at this rate it will not be long before they claim their first major scalp at either the Olympics or the World Cup. The US however, were not to be that first scalp. The score was 2-0, on goals from Abby Wambach (of course) and Sydney Leroux. It is important to recognize two things about the match: (1) the US were the far superior team; and (2) the US squandered multiple opportunities, which has become a concerning trend of late. Since the match with France, the US seems to have taken the foot off the gas a bit. Perhaps that was necessary to make it this far, but the next two game are clutch, and opportunities cannot be wasted. Wasting opportunities is how a team ends up placing second at the World Cup.
All credit to New Zealand. The win against Cameroon was their first at a major international tournament, and it was great to see them in the elimination rounds. I’m not kidding when I say they are everyone’s second or third team. The 10,000 people at St. James’ Park (a very low number for that venue) adopted the Football Ferns. Hopefully next time the USWNT will make it a little less difficult to root against by not wearing the colors of Sunderland into Newcastle United’s home stadium.
The match that did get a good turnout was Great Britain v. Canada. Canada have had a really rough time lately in international tournaments. At the World Cup, they were shambolic in a group with Germany, France, and Nigeria. No wins, one goal. In this tournament too, the draw was stacked against them, but Big Red persevered, which is a reassuring sign that the next World Cup (in Canada) will not be a humiliation.
The 2-0 defeat of Great Britain will be a tough one to take for the host nation. Following GB’s (heavily attended) defeat of Brazil, it looked like women’s football was finally about to make inroads into Great Britain. A GB v. USA semifinal at Old Trafford would have sold out. Now who knows if it will be well attended. At last year’s World Cup in Germany, attendances remained strong even after the host nation was eliminated, but I don’t think that will be the case at these Olympics.
Canada earned the win, and the result was fair. One might suggest that this was an upset, but despite the fact that GB were undefeated and had not let in a goal all tournament, Canada are the higher ranked side. It is easy to forget that there is immense talent in the Canadian side, because of the recent group stage woes and because Canada are constantly overshadowed by the US. But they are not a team to be trifled with, and they still have Christine Sinclair.
On the other side of the draw, the question about whether Brazil’s 5-0 defeat of Cameroon was an omen or a fluke has been definitively answered, and it was the latter. Once again, tactical ineptitude and lack of preparation caught out Brazil. This may have been the Samba Queens’ last best hope for a title as the current generation ages out, and the new one does not look particularly strong. Brazil may have dominated large swaths of today’s game, but that was because Japan tried a counterattacking strategy rather than a possession-based one. Brazil may have been the more talented side, but when Brazil go down a goal, the players lose their collective heads–exactly what happened to the men’s team two years ago in South Africa. One gets the sense that Brazil feel that they are due the win simply because they are Brazil. (Repeat after me: There is deserve in football.) But it doesn’t work like that. Brazil’s overarching problems are not the team’s fault, but at this point we in the rest of the world are close to throwing up our hands and saying, “Too bad; they could have been great.”
I cannot say I am particularly thrilled with the conduct of Japan either–not so much for throwing the match against South Africa, but rather by talking about it and cheating the South African players out of any post-match pride. Fan don’t forget things like that, and we will see if the British public (they ones who show up) will hold that against the Japanese players who had built up such good will following their response to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. Bad show, Nadeshiko, bad show.
The only team that stands between Japan and the final is France, who beat Sweden. Like the US, Canada, and Japan, France scored two goals. Unlike the other three, France allowed in a goal (scored by Nilla Fischer). Also unlike the other three, this was an upset both in rankings and in actuality. Sweden once again proved to be the bridesmaid, and I cannot see that ending any time soon. France meanwhile have set up a semifinal against Japan for the title of “Which side can be meaninglessly compared to Barcelona more.” France won a friendly against Japan just prior to the Olympics, but Japan have shown that they are remarkably crafty, first with the draw against South Africa and then with the strategy change against unsuspecting Brazil. Also, friendlies are horrible determinations of future performance.
Nevertheless, I am holding to my original prediction of US v. France in the final. My quarterfinal track record was 3/4, and my group stage predictions were nearly spot on. We’ll see how well I do, from hereon in.