Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 4: Changing Of The Guard

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.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 3: Pride Goeth…

After failing miserably at predicting winners during last year’s World Cup, I have redeemed myself somewhat by correctly predicting all eight quarterfinalists at the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament.  Not that it was that difficult.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Each round in the group stages of a football tournament has its own feel.  The first round is about the initial look, and therefore teams tend to be skittish about each other and themselves.  The second round is a chance for redemption from a bad result or a solidification of a good one.  The final round is about resignation, desperation, or domination.

That is not however, a universal truth.  Today’s match between Great Britain and Brazil had very little to do with resignation, desperation, or domination.  Both teams were going to go through to the quarterfinals regardless of the result, and both quarterfinals will be difficult regardless of opponent.  Yet, this match was as Wembly Stadium, one of football’s most storied sites.  Team GB was playing at home in front of 70,000 strong crown.  Just as the Atlanta Olympics put women’s football in the US in the public eye, these Olympics could do the same for women’s football in Britain.  That the opponent was Brazil, spiritual guardian of the Beautiful Game and the nation of Marta, only added to the importance of the match.

Britain v. Brazil was the third of the big three matches (US v. France in Round 1 and Japan v. Sweden in Round 2), and it did not disappoint.  Predicting the future is impossible, but I believe that this was the turning point for Brazil.  They have been found out.  When they cannot rely solely on their superior footballing abilities, they perform very poorly–and the rest of the world is improving quickly.  The side that this Brazil women’s team is most like is the 1982 Brazil World Cup team.  Beautiful but lacking the winning edge.

Great Britain is by no means the most talented squad in the tournament, but they are full of individual talent, most notably Kelly Smith.  They also have a decent coach in Hope Powell.  A GB goal in the second minute rattled Brazil, but the truth is that the Samba Queens were just bettered from start to finish.  GB missed a few chances to widen the score, but they were not made to pay for it (GB is the only team not to give up a goal this tournament thus far).  A 1-0 win for GB.  Readers of this blog know of my dislike for England’s men’s football team, but I have nothing aside from the utmost respect for the English women (and GB is mostly England).  I wish them and especially Kelly Smith good luck in the tournament.  Truth be told, it is far more likely that GB will medal than Brazil will. which is a tragedy for Marta.

In other Group E news, New Zealand finally won a match and have advanced to quarterfinals.  Yes, it was against Cameroon, and yes, the 3-1 victory was aided by a Cameroonian own goal.  But take nothing away from New Zealand; with each tournament the Football Ferns have improved by leaps and bounds.  One can only hope that this tournament is a stepping stone to even better results.  New Zealand are the younger sibling of the Anglophone world, and who doesn’t want to see his kid brother or sister do well?

The way the quarterfinal draw has worked out, it can divided into two halves: the Anglophone and non-Anglophone halves.  In one half Canada play GB and New Zealand take on the United States, while in the other half Sweden meet France (a rematch of the 3rd place match from last year’s World Cup) and Japan stare down Brazil.  If the Anglophone half looks easier to you, you’re not alone.  In fact, the non-Anglophone half fields the four best teams in the world excluding the US and Germany.

Nothing that Sweden or Japan could have done would have made a difference other than swapping opponents.  Both had the same record, 1-2-0, but Sweden had a better goal difference.  Japan have not scored a goal since its first match against Canada.  I am not sure what Sweden’s excuse is, they were up 2-0 against Canada and ended up with a 2-2 draw.  Sweden are the eternal bridesmaid in international tournaments.  Prior to the first World Cup in 1991, they were one of the dominant teams in the world, and had the World Cup started a decade earlier, no doubt they would have won at least one.  (The US coach Pia Sundhage was a member of the Sweden National Team for years.)  But the World Cup began when the US and Norway were in their ascendancy, and Sweden have yet to win a big prize.

Japan at least had a game plan, which was go for a draw.  Japan deliberately fielded a weakened team and intended to come in second so that they did not have to leave Cardiff.  This meant that South Africa actually got a result instead of three straight losses like Cameron and Colombia.  I suppose a draw is a draw, and that is respectable, but given that Japan deliberately played for a draw rather than a win, if I am a South African player do I feel good or bad about the result?

In the final group, the US and France each beat their opponents by a 1-0 score.  France over Colombia, a team that I am completely done with, and the US over North Korea.  The US dominated the first half despite only scoring one goal, and held on for the second as starters were rested.  The real story of the US though has been the ongoing saga of woe that Hope Solo has again created by virtue of lacking an internal editor.  I don’t really want to rehash the scandal; it is everywhere and it’s embarrassing to the team.  I will say though that whatever you feel about the commentating abilities of Brandi Chastain, that does not excuse Solo’s reckless mouth, which has been alienating others since 2007.  Goalkeepers are a crazy breed, and Solo is no exception, but she is veering awfully close from the realm of crazy and into the realm of toxic.

This also reinforces my belief that Twitter is a very bad thing for professional athletes.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

On to the quarterfinals.  At the risk of making myself foolish again, my quarterfinal predictions are: Great Britain, US, France, Japan.

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.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

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.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

Footnotes:

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

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.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

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.

Euro Day 16: A Comedy Of Errors

The football gods have a dark, ironic sense of humor.  The British football media and fans have complained endlessly about Spain’s tiki taka style.  Therefore, those same complainers were forced to watch an England team that could not keep possession, could not pass, and could not score.  And then they lost in that most English of ways.  Penalty kicks.  Again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The first twenty minutes of this match were surprisingly entertaining; the next hundred were unbearable.  Italy were woeful; England were worse.  Neither team could score, and all attempts (particularly those from England) were almost a parody.  But beyond the shooting, at least Italy looked like a football team–albeit a mediocre one.  England’s players are supposed to be elite; instead they looked like a group of toddlers who had never actually seen a ball before.  The passing in particular was horrendous.

Based on all available evidence, one must conclude that the football gods hate England.  Or maybe not hate exactly.  More like they take pleasure in the suffering of England.  The more ironic the punishment, the better.  This is the only conclusion I can draw from the six years I have been watching the sport.  At the 2006 World Cup, England were ignominiously dumped out by Portugal and a winking Cristiano Ronaldo, then one of the rising stars of the Premier League, who got Manchester United teammate Wayne Rooney red carded for stamping on another Portuguese player.  England didn’t even make the 2008 Euro, and had to hear the rest of the world extol the 2008 Euro as the best ever.  In 2010, England finished second in their group to the United States, were booed of the field by their fans after a lackluster draw against Algeria, and then lost 4-1 against hated enemy Germany after a legitimate England goal was disallowed (calling to mind the famously controversial English goal from the 1966 final against West Germany).  The entire Fabio Capello era was a just a big joke at England’s expense, ending in his abrupt resignation just before the Euro.  And in the years before I watched there was the 1-0 loss to the US in 1950, the dog that urinated on Jimmy Greaves in 1962, the World Cups England did not qualify for in 1974, 1978, and 1994, the other Euros England failed to qualify for in 1964, 1972, 1976, and 1984, all the losses to German opposition (especially those in penalties) who barely think of England as a rival, the 1998 loss on penalties to England’s other hated enemy Argentina (after a red card for a petulant David Beckham), all penalty kick losses (5 out of 6), and, of course, the Hand of Diego.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The American football fan must at some point come to terms with England.  Given the closeness of the UK and US politically, culturally, and linguistically, it is unsurprising that most Americans fans generally see England as something of a big brother to be emulated.  I tend to see them as the drama queen neighbor with whom I am constantly forced to interact and whom I resent for it.  But there is really no other frame of reference for most monolingual Americans because outside of the UK there is very little in the way of football coverage in English (save for American coverage which varies dramatically in quality).  Additionally, the English Premier League is the richest and glitziest league in the world and the one with the best marketing arm, which means everyone around the world watches it.

Look at any American media outlet that has a section about soccer/football.  If there is a writer from another country, the chances are that said writer is English (even if he or she writes about another country that is not England).  Because of the language barrier, Americans, when they read coverage in the foreign press, are more likely to read the British newspapers.  Likewise, American blogs and newspapers are more likely to follow the lead of British media.  ESPN learned that for international tournaments, it is a good idea to have at least one football announcer with an English accent.  It may seem chauvinistic and insulting, but this comes following the failures of many different American announcers, one of whom had never watched a game of football in his life prior to calling a World Cup.  (As I side note, I was really bothered by the cheerleading and excuse making coming from Ian Darke and Steve McManaman in the booth.  It was not until the absolute end that either would admit that England were awful.  It’s one thing to cheer on the US team for an American audience, but it another to cheer on the English team for an American audience.)

As a result we in America are inundated with the opinions of the British.  Trust me when I say it is claustrophobic, especially for me who sees the English ideal as the enemy of football.

As I mentioned yesterday, I am really tired of hearing the English media drone on and on about how boring Spain are.  Tiki taka is the opposite of the English ideal which holds that technique is suspect, possession is cheating, and short passes are beneath contempt.

So the gods of football delivered their latest ironic punishment to England.  England’s players displayed no technique whatsoever, their passes went wrong more often than right, and Italy routinely stripped them of possession.  (And to rub it in just a little bit more, England took the lead in the penalty shootout only to blow it.)   Sure the result was technically a 0-0 draw, but England were thoroughly outclassed and shown up as utterly awful.  One cannot even blame Roy Hodgson given how little time he had to work with the team.

Perhaps it is time to rethink the bias against tiki taka, no?

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Italy meanwhile have just come off an emotionally and physically draining match that showed up their weaknesses and pushed them to the physical limits.  Germany, their opponents in the next round, will have had 48 hours longer to rest and were on cruise control against Greece.  Germany also have a far more talented squad.  The odds are incredibly stacked against Italy.

Expect an Italian victory.  Germany never beat Italy.