Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 5: OhMyGod!OhMyGod!OhMyGod!OhMyGod!OhMyGod!

The semifinals of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament reinforced a very simple message: if you have heart problems, don’t follow the US Women’s National Team.

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It’s not easy to think of titles for these posts, you know.  My goal is to capture the importance of the matches as well as adding a spark of cleverness.  I like to think that I have a 15.6% success rate (not that I’m counting).  So it should come as no surprise that I spent last night thinking about how to title this post.  My initial idea was to title this post “Rematch” because every single possible final combination had taken place already either in the groups stages of this tournament or last year’s World Cup–or in case of US v. France, both.  I was also thinking about a Canadian bacon joke, but it’s been done.  And if Canada won, I was thinking about “Blame Canada” or “(Don’t) Blame Canada.”  Nothing really clicked.

And then came the US v. Canada match at Old Trafford, one of football’s greatest locations.  Football, bloody hell.

Both semifinals were excellent.  The men’s international game can only dream of having something this good any more.  But it’s churlish to compare the men and women.  Today is about the women’s game, and what a day we got.

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On any other day, the match between Japan and France would have been the talk of the tournament.  Japan and France are the two most technical teams in the game.  Possession, short passing, artistry (so much as it can exist in football).  The teams last met in an Olympic warmup match that France won.  Perhaps this is the reason why some idiots predicted France to beat Japan.  To be fair, France are one of the top teams in the world.  However, they seem to be one rung on the ladder below the world’s Big Three–US, Germany, and Japan.

There are two important things one has to know about Japan, which France did not realize, and which would behoove the US to remember in the final: (1) Japan play much better in real competition than in friendlies; and (2) Japan, for all their technical skill, prefer winning to maintaining stylistic ideology.  That is how Japan were able to get to a 2-0 lead against France; Nadeshiko gave Les Bleus enough rope to hang themselves.  Which is not to say that France played badly, they most certainly did not, especially in the second half.  Certainly they gave Japan more than one moment of fright.  To say nothing of France’s 75th minute goal by Eugnie Le Sommer, which completely changed the attitude of the match.  And of course there was the penalty kick, the one that Elise Bussaglia missed.  Had she made it, it is entirely possible that France would have won.  But this is entirely in the realm of the theoretical.  Les Blues went toe-to-toe against the world champion, stared them down, but in the end the challengers blinked.  Japan were able to exploit France’s own mistakes (lousy set piece defending and sloppy goalkeeping by Sarah Bouhaddi), for goals from Yuki Ogimi and Mizuho Sakaguchi.

France took the loss with their usual bonhomie and good sportsmanship.  “Today was even more disappointing than the World Cup,” said coach Bruno Bini. “In the last 20 minutes we played very well and were even better than Japan. They barely reached our side of the pitch.”  This is why France lose against superior teams when it counts.  It’s the same reason why Arsenal again and again.  A moral victory is not a win.  This is the French mentality in a nutshell: we played better and we deserved to win, why doesn’t the official scoreline recognize our superiority?  Bini is clearly an acolyte of Arsene Wenger.  (And by the way, a football match is 90 minutes, so if you played better for only 20, then that is 350% longer that Japan were the better side.)

In contrast, Japan take nothing for granted.  If playing “better”does not work (and I am not convinced that France played better), then they change their game plan and play smarter.  That is why France lost in the last two major semifinals and why Japan will play for their second straight world title.

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Stop me if you heard this one before.  It’s a women’s soccer match.  The US is facing a team with one of the best players in the world.  Victory is by no means certain, and the specter of defeat is staring the US in the face.  Suddenly in the final minute of overtime stoppage time, a US star heads the ball into the back of the net (the latest goal the tournament had ever seen to that point), and saves the US chances.  The US win and move on.

Just over a year after Abby Wambach saved the US against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals sending the match to penalties (which the US won), Alex Morgan scored the winning goal in a 4-3 victory over Canada in a brilliant, wonderful, contentious, controversial match.  Already people are calling this the greatest women’s Olympic match of all time or even the greatest women’s match of all time.  I will go one farther, this is one of the greatest football matches, men’s or women’s, ever played, right up there with Italy/West Germany 1970 (also 4-3) and Italy/Brazil 1982.  It was non-stop action for 120+ minutes and was (mercifully) won without penalties.

If you are a fan of the US Women’s National Team, you have seen quite a few (perhaps too many) tight matches that were all terrific but exceedingly nerve-wracking.  There was the 1999 World Cup final of course, and then the two matches at last year’s World Cup that went to penalties–the quarterfinal against Brazil that I alluded to above and the final against Japan.  The last two Olympic finals were also very tight and tense.

I have mentioned my admiration of Canada’s Christine Sinclair many times, and today she was at her finest.  A hat trick against the US.  I cannot remember the last time when anyone did that; I think it was over a decade ago.  But Sinclair, she just took her team on her back and forced them to be great.  Canada’s play this tournament has mitigated (if not erased) the awfulness of the 2011 World Cup.  But today Canada were at a new level, one that I don’t think the world has ever seen from them before.  Their win over Great Britain was no fluke; Canada are in the upper echelon of women’s football, and woe be unto anyone who does not take them seriously (including their own federation.  Dear Canadian football authorities, treat the women like queens; your men’s team will never be that successful).

But no matter how good Canada were, they had a major obstacle in front of them, and that is the US.  The fact that the US and Canada are neighbors, and the fact that the US got a big head start in achieving football success has to gate the Canadians.  But more than that, what really bothers the Canadians is their pitiful record against the US.  Big Red have not beaten the US in 11 years and the USWNT’s record against Canada in that time is something like 22-0-4.  It gets even more pathetic when you include the Michelle Akers/Mia Hamm days (official FIFA head-to-head, the US leads with 42 wins, 4 draws, and 3 losses).  The Canadian players have been squeezed into the role of plain, younger sister to the USWNT’s superstar athlete/scholar/prom queen.  It’s like A League of Their Own but without Madonna or the bittersweet/uplifting/tearjerker ending.

Because Sinclair was so on today however, the US team had to work that much harder, and the first line of counterattack was my favoritestplayerofalltimeMarryMe! Megan Rapinoe.  Rapinoe scored the first two goals to counter Sinclair’s, the first of which was an amazing shot from a corner kick.  It was almost Roberto Carlos-like.  The second, well, my Rapinoe-love keeps on growing, so words cannot describe it.

The match went something like this Canada 1-0 US; Canada 1-1 US; Canada 2-1 US; Canada 2-2 US; Canada 3-2 US.  At this point the controversy happened.  The referee Christiana Pederson awarded an indirect free kick to the US for a call against Erin McLeod, the Canadian goalkeeper.  Apparently McLeod held the ball too long (over six seconds).  I have never seen that before, and it is a rare call that almost no referee makes, although Pederson was technically correct according to the Laws of the Game.  There is a question about whether Pederson warned McLeod ahead of time.  Rapinoe took the kick, and the ball hit Canadian player Marie-Eve Nault in the hand which resulted in a penalty.  Abby Wambach converted.  By this point the game was nearing the 80th minute, and without a doubt, it was the turning point of the game.  Canada did not score again, and Alex Morgan got her 123rd minute Header of Glory.  The Canadians, as you can imagine, are not happy about it.

I don’t want to devote too much time to the call, other than to say that I pretty much agree with everything Ray Curren wrote at AllWhiteKit.  In any football match there are at least 20 bad calls, some which have more of an effect than others.  But a football match is 90+ minutes, or in this case 120+.  The team of the receiving end of the questionable call has to take some responsibility for not doing enough in the rest of the match.  As Curren points out, although Canada had a heck of a game, the US were still the better side.  When refs make bad calls (such as the 2010 World Cup US goal against Slovakia that was taken away), it is natural for the angry fan to suspect them.  In my admittedly short time watching the game however, there are only two matches where the referee’s interference clearly made a difference and the referee was himself suspect–South Korea’s matches against Italy and Spain in the 2002 World Cup.  The only reason I still hold onto to the belief that those matches were fixed is because one of the referees was Byron Moreno.  Beyond that, calling a referee’s ethics into question is the worst thing that can happen for the game.  And besides which, Pederson is Norwegian.  As a Norwegian, one can imagine that the USWNT is the last team she would have tried to help.

What is most a shame about the controversy is that it takes away from the fact that this was by any standard an unbelievable match, possibly the best in the women’s game ever.  Old Trafford was lucky to host it.  One hopes that the match will be remembered for the exceptionally high quality of play and excitement rather than questionable officiating.

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So now it is on to the final (and the bronze medal match.  Go Canada!).  I have learned my lesson from the World Cup; no predictions.  I will say though that the US and Japan are the two teams at the top of the women’s game, and they have earned their places in the final.  As a US supporter, I am hoping for some redemption.  The US has beaten Japan in recent friendlies, but as I have said earlier in this post, you can never go by friendlies and Japan find a way to win.  No one knows that better than the US.

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