Hooray For American Samoa!

I don’t know how I missed this (damn work!) but the American Samoa national football team finally won its first match.  I mean its first match ever–at least in terms of matches sanctioned by FIFA.  This is after almost two decades and over 30 attempts.  In fact, I don’t think they ever even drew a match before.

I love rooting for the football minnows, and they don’t get smaller than American Samoa, whom the BBC so delicately referred as the world’s worst team.  (Rankings-wise this is accurate, but it’s still mean.)  Finally the team beat Tonga 2-1.  Match reports say that the team celebrated as though they had won the World Cup, which is understandable given the team’s history of futility.  Yesterday they drew the Cook Islands 1-1, so thus far in this World Cup qualification campaign they are undefeated.

The last time American Samoa was in the news was in 2001 for the infamous 31-0 loss to Australia’s second string team.  It is to date the worst drubbing in international football history (breaking the previous record of 22-0 which Australia had set against Tonga two days prior).  American Samoa instantly because the butt of all jokes, which is actually rather unfair because it ignores the full story of the match.  The American Samoa team was ridiculously understrength because of passport issues and high school exams, and for a territory which (a) is tiny and (b) cares far less for football that for American football, basketball, and baseball, that was a fatal death knell.  A few of the fielded players were as young as 15, and some had never played a 90 minute match before.  Truth be told, 31-0 probably flattered the American Samoan team almost as much as it did the Australians.

The other part of the story is that Australia deliberately ran up the score, and not because the Socceroos were jealous of how many points the Wallabies score in a typical rugby union match.  At the time Australia were in the OFC, which is by far the weakest conference in FIFA.  Not surprisingly, Australia had only appeared once at the World Cup–in 1974.  Despite the 31-0, Australia still missed out on the World Cup (Uruguay beat them over two legs in a playoff).  Australia knew that staying in the OFC would only hinder its development, and like with American Samoa, football was competing for attention and resources with far more popular sports.  Changes were made for the next cycle, but finally Australia left the OFC for the AFC, a conference far more suited to a developing football nation with legitimate World Cup qualification hopes. This was only fair.

Unfairly, American Samoa became a worldwide laughingstock, forever associated with the 31-0.  There is a very moving essay by the writer Ben Rice in the book The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup in which that match play.  Following the loss, the-then American Samoa coach Tony Langkilde said of the match and his team:

It is a learning curve.  We are a member of FIFA and we have a right to play.  We are very happy to be here and to build from here.  I do not think we are downhearted.  The only way is forward.

(p. 63)

As soon as I read that quote, I developed a deep affection for American Samoa.  I hoped that one day the world would see them move forward.  Finally it has.

Women’s World Cup: Semifinal Predictions (A Chance To Be Wrong Again)

I just looked over my quarterfinal predictions, and boy was I off.  Woefully so.  One out of four correct is not just bad, it’s embarrassing.  (I had a much better record with the Asian Cup.)  To be fair I don’t think I am alone in choosing Germany over Japan, and US v. Brazil could have gone either way, but I don’t know what I was thinking when I picked Australia over Sweden.  In hindsight I feel shame.

So hopefully no one is listening to these predictions as I make them.  With that in mind, here goes nothing:

United States v. France

Both the US and France are coming off of emotional highs.  Both matches went to penalty kicks.  Both teams are fighting for their leagues and reputations as well as the title.

The US have the better coach.  For all the fan complaints about Pia Sundhage, the only female coach left in the tournament, she has always delivered when it counted most–usually at the expense of Brazil.  She would never have sat her best players in the final group match and said it wasn’t important. (Yes, yes, the US still lost.)  France have an extra day of rest, but I doubt that will make a difference.  The US has the advantage in size, strength, and physical preparation.

On the other hand, France, unlike Brazil, are a tactically sophisticated team who prefer to keep possession rather than use the counterattack.  The French players are also superior to the US players in terms of individual skill, but unlike Brazil (who were also superior in individual skill), the French squad does play together and functions as a team, largely because much of the squad plays for the European champions Lyon.  France’s defense has looked shaky at times, and the strikers have some trouble finishing, but they have dominated each match they have played thus far, except the match against Germany (and there were other circumstances involved.)

In the end, I am not sure the US will be able to come down from their emotional high against Brazil.  France is a completely different team, a better team, and I believe they are ready for the US.  I hate to say it, but I think France is going to win this match.

Sweden v. Japan

For all the earlier trashing I did of Sweden, they have proven to be the most ruthlessly effective team of the tournament.  All the problems with finishing vanished and left behind a squad of assassins.  Unlike every other semifinalist, Sweden got their quarterfinal done in the allotted 90 minutes.  No overtime, no drama, no problem.  Australia were gone.

The converse is that unlike England, Brazil, and Germany, Australia did not win their group.  In fact, Australia were arguably the weakest quarterfinalist.  In Japan, Sweden will not find a team prone to defensive errors.  Rather, they will find a tightly organized, defensively sound squad of giant killers led by the great Homare Sawa, who, if there is any justice, should win the tournament’s Golden Ball.

On the other hand, Japan have three things major negatives: (1) Sweden are taller and stronger than Japan.  (2) One wonders if Japan can replicate their awesome form of the last match against Sweden.  (3) Before the match against Germany, Japan’s record against European opposition was horrendous.  Even with one win, it is still poor.

Additionally, because this is the farthest that Japan have ever gotten at the World Cup, and because they eliminated the mighty Germany en route, one wonders if the players are still hungry or are now sated.  Samurai Blue only dream of the success and style that Nadeshiko Japan have achieved at this World Cup.  Even if Japan lose, they have already given their country its greatest football moment ever and the promise of a none-too-distant Women’s World Cup triumph.

My heart says Japan, but my head says Sweden.  I have to go with Sweden.

Women’s World Cup Day 12: Guh?!?

Day 12 of the Women’s World Cup saw Sweden take apart an Australia hobbled by defensive errors, and Brazil become the most hated side in the tournament as the US won on penalty kicks in what was by far the most controversial and dramatic match of the tournament.

Sweden v. Australia

This match was on too early in the morning for me.  I didn’t watch it.  Australia had a shaky defense, and Sweden punished them for it.  I would suggest that you go here if you want a good summary of the match.  Otherwise, I am wiped out from emotion.  Before I fade, I want to write about the US/Brazil match.

United States v. Brazil

Remember Bruna’s handball against Australia?  Well, the officiating in today’s game would make Bruna watch in horror.  The officiating in this match was so awful, so mind-bogglingly bad, that it threatens to overshadow the entire tournament that already has more than its fair share of questionable officiating.  Calls went the wrong way, handballs went unpunished, an offside goal was allowed, a penalty kick may have been wrongfully given, and a penalty save was retaken for unknown reasons.  Instant replay FIFA, instant replay!  And make the referees talk to the media.

I have no idea where to start with this match, so I will begin with what I always being with: there is no such thing as deserve in football.  (Unlike baseball however, there is crying, and a lot of it.)  Brazil deserved to win because they deserve a world title; they have the best players in the world, particularly Marta who is now tied with Birgit Prinz for all-time leading scorer at the Women’s World Cup.  The US deserved to win because had they lost, it would have been because they were robbed by poor officiating.  Brazil deserved to win because, despite the constant (and deserved) criticism of Kleiton Lima’s tactics, the only goal that Brazil let in all tournament before Abby Wambach’s extra-time, stoppage-time header was Daiane’s own goal at the beginning of this match.  The US deserved to win because they had a more organized system and work better as a team.  Both teams deserved to win because they are fighting for women’s football in their respective countries, and a loss could be fatal.

That is why it is a good thing that deserve has nothing to do with it.

The quarterfinals of this Women’s World Cup have now given us three extra time stunners, two of which went to penalty kicks.  As I said yesterday, penalty kicks are a horrible way to decide who moves on even if there is no better alternative.  It is a shame too, because the losers go home in a disgrace they didn’t earn.  Officially, any match that goes to penalty kicks is a draw, but the truth is that one side wins and the other side loses.

US v. Brazil was possibly the strangest match I have ever seen.  Seemingly it was a tactical battle between a very good coach with decent players (Pia Sundhage) and a very bad one with spectacular ones (Lima).  Ahead of time, ESPN told us that the match would be all about whose side successfully penetrated the other side’s shaky defense.  It seems like Sundhage got the upper hand in the beginning because Daiane scored an own goal within 74 seconds of the starting whistle.  Following that, the US remained tight and organized, denying any opportunities to Brazil’a attacking trident of Marta, Cristiane, and Rosana.

As is the wont of the Brazilians when they are not allowed to play their game, they got visibly frustrated, Marta especially, whose petulance began to irritate the crowd–not just the Americans, but also the neutrals (re: Germans) who were watching.  Yet, despite Brazil’s frustration, the back line miraculously held together, and as the back line held, the front line gained momentum.  By the end of the first half, Brazil were in control even if they were down a goal and had less possession.

In the second half things started to go very badly very quickly for all involved.  Brazilians are notorious for diving, both the women’s team and the men’s (and there is most certainly diving in women’s football, despite what ESPN says.)  It is because in Brazil almost any contact is called for a foul.  Robinho has had a very difficult time in Europe because he does not get the same kind of protection (coddling) from European referees, and Neymar, possibly the world’s most notorious diver, is sure to have the same problems when he moves.  Whenever you read about Dani Alves of Barcelona, you are sure to see the phrase “Oscar-winning performance” attached to his name.  I have written a half-hearted defense of diving before, so needless to say I don’t find it nearly as egregious as most of my fellow Americans.  Besides which, no one in the American press is going to talk about all the diving Abby Wambach did (Marta’s hypocritical rage at Wambach’s diving was what earned her a yellow card.)  No, no.  Americans don’t do that kind of thing.  Or so we are told by the American media.

It will be interesting to see who is named FIFA player of the year this December.  I wonder if it will be Marta again.  The world votes, yet the world does not know many female players.  Despite scoring four goals and assisting in, I believe, two others (and now being in the lead for the Golden Boot), this has not been Marta’s tournament.  Like Messi last December, a loss in the World Cup does not mean she is not the world’s best.  If it were not for Marta, there would be no Brazil.  Formiga may be the engine that powers the machines, Aline may be the captain, but Marta is the heart and soul of the squad.  They all follow her lead, probably more than they follow Lima’s.  Marta has been criticized for her frustration, for screaming at the officials, for diving, etc. (although she does not dive nearly as much as her teammates or other Brazilian players.)  But the truth that everything Marta does is calculated to pump up her team.  As a result, Marta walks the line between leader and villain.  This dichotomy is exacerbated by the fact that she is the most famous female player in the world.  We want our great athletes to have fire, but then we criticize them for having too much fire.  Marta did not deserve to targeted as Public Enemy #1.

And she did become a villain today.  The crowd jeered the Brazilians, but their loudest boos and whistles were aimed at Marta.  Lord, how they hated Marta.  But the problem with aiming all the venom at Marta and her teammates though is that they were just doing their job.  Their obligation is to win not to please the non-Brazilians in the crowd.  If there were problems with the officiating, and there most certainly were problems with the officiating, then the Brazilians have the obligation to use it to their advantage, unsporting as it may seem.

Which brings us to Brazil’s goals.  The first one is by far the more questionable of the two.  Marta was brought down in the box by defender Rachel Buehler.  Buehler was red carded and a penalty kick was given.  It was debatable whether Buehler should have gotten carded and whether there should have been a penalty at all (supposedly Buehler had a fistful of Marta’s jersey which is a major no-no.)  What happened next though was just strange.  Hope Solo saved Cristiane’s penalty, but then the referee called for a retake.  Apparently one of the American players encroached on the penalty area, or perhaps Solo came off her line, it is not very clear and the referee was not telling.  If the latter, the call was horribly wrong.  Solo was given a yellow card, probably for dissent.  Marta took the penalty, converted it, and instantly became the villain.

According to a strict interpretation of the laws of the game, the referee was correct if there was encroachment.  But every time that kind of decision is made, there is always cause for question because the infraction is so minimal and the consequences so major.  It was the same last year in the World Cup quarterfinals in the match between Spain and Paraguay.  Spain converted a penalty, the referee called it back, and the penalty was saved the second time.

By the end of regulation time, Brazil was spent.  At the beginning of extra time Marta scored another goal, once again a goal that probably should not have been allowed because of an offside infringement from Maurine.  But the goal was of such spectacular quality that any lover of beauty in sport would overlook that.  It was a goal that only Marta could score.

After that goal, the US looked like they had been beaten.  They attacked and they attacked, but could not penetrate the leaky and yet impenetrable Brazil defense.  Set piece after set piece was turned back.  The Brazilians, sensing victory, could not hold the ball.  Instead of using smart and fair tactics like Japan did yesterday against Germany, the Samba Queens took to diving, which inflamed the crowd all the more.  Every time a Brazilian, especially Marta, touched the ball, a chorus of jeers, boos, and whistles rained down on the field, and no doubt from the ESPN studio where Brandi Chastain was set to explode.

And then Brazil made an error that came back to haunt them.  Érika took a dive that required treatment.  She thought she was killing time, but the referee put that time back on the clock.  Two minutes into the stoppage time that Érika created, that is the 120 + 2 minute, Abby Wambach broke through the defense that no other team could break through.  She headed a ball, perfectly delivered by Megan Rapinoe, past the goalkeeper Andréia.

Once it got to penalty kicks, it was clear the US would win.  Andréia is good, but Hope Solo is better.  Andréia kept out Shannon Boxx’s opening goal, but the referee made Boxx retake it; Andréia was off her line.  Boxx converted this time.  Although Cristiane, Marta, and Francielle converted their kicks, the sweeper Daiane, the woman responsible for the earlier own goal, kicked timidly and Solo stopped it.  The US players all converted their penalties.  Twelve years to the day after the USWNT’s greatest moment, the final against China in the 1999 World Cup final, the US again won on penalty kicks.

If nothing else, Pia Sundhage should keep her job.  The squad made it to the semifinals, and beat one of their biggest rivals in the process.  They won in a spectacular Hollywood fashion that put to shame Landon Donovan and the US men’s heroics against Algeria last year–both matches coincidentally called by Ian Darke.  Yet, I sense that today is the end of the line for the US squad.  Despite all the heroics, despite the crowd adoration, despite the great advertisement for US Women’s football, and hopefully the WPS, the world has caught up.  Maybe Brazil couldn’t do it today, but there is France next and after that Sweden or Japan.  The US squad won an emotional victory and a physically draining one.  One wonders if the US have anything left to give or if their energy has reached its peak.  Now that Brazil is out, I back my home country, but one can only wonder if they have enough.  For all their talent and physical ability, Sweden has already beaten the US, and France and Japan have improved at a frightening pace by using a game of technical virtuosity completely unknown in the United States.

I wonder if this tournament is a swan song for the US Women’s National Team.  They won a great victory, but what happens after next week?  Is the USSF properly developing the next generation of female football stars?  I suspect that even more than the men’s program, the youth development for the women’s program has been met with little outside of apathy and incompetence.  That would be a catastrophe.  The US has the resources to contend for every tournament, but the rest of the world has been caught up, as evidenced by this tournament.  The US will no longer coast to the later rounds by virtue of a legacy built by Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, two World Cups victories, and three Olympic gold medals.  If the USSF does not prepare the next generation properly, then the US Women’s Team like its oldest and most bitter enemy Norway, will find itself relegated to football oblivion.

Women’s World Cup: Quarterfinal Predictions

Well, it’s that time.  I’ve been a little afraid to make any definitive predictions.  It’s not that this World Cup has been so unpredictable; it’s hasn’t been.  It’s not that there have been so many draws (only 3), but the remaining teams are so close in quality that I am waffling.  With that in mind, here goes nothing.

Germany v. Japan:  This is the only match I really comfortable about predicting.  Germany are going to be too good for Japan.  Japan’s pretty passing is going to do absolutely nothing against the speed, strength, and organization of the Germans.

Sweden v. Australia:   Sweden are on a high having beaten the (probably overrated) US, but the truth is that Sweden are not that good.  Australia are very good, but has some clear weaknesses, particularly at center back.  I am going to predict that Australia’s coach will make the necessary changes, and the Matildas will eke out a win.

England v. France:  Unlike against Japan against Germany, France’s pretty passing will make a difference against England.  England did a good job in beating Japan to win the group, and they are improving, but Kelly Smith is still not at her best.  France lost badly to Germany and were heavily exposed, but I think that is going to galvanize the French who have talent to spare.  I am calling this match for France.

Brazil v. United States:  This is the big one; the one that no one wanted to see in the quarterfinals.  Both teams have their defensive frailties, but only the US’s frailties have been exposed.  Brazil also have Marta who could be the X-Factor.  So many US fans keep talking about revenge for 2007, conveniently forgetting that the US already got revenge at the Olympics in 2008, robbing the Samba Queens of a chance to get their first world title.  They want revenge just as much if not more than the US.  The difference between the teams may very well be that whereas Brazil’s offense is incredibly potent (if not always consistent), the US’s offense has really only capitalized on mistakes of Colombia and North Korea, the two worst teams in the tournament.  I am afraid that an early exit for the US means the end of the WPS (although a win may not save it), and I sure that an early exit would be the end of Pia Sundhage’s tenure.  Nevertheless, I think this time the match is going to Brazil.

Women’s World Cup Day 10: How Many Brazilians Fit On One Field?

Day 10* of the Women’s World Cup saw the US Women turn into the US Men by going down 2-0 very early in the first half, and get beaten 2-1.  Brazil conquer Equatorial Guinea with three goals in the second half.  The bad news for the rest of the world (especially the United States who has to play them next) is that those goals were scored by players who aren’t Marta.

The Other Matches

Just as I had to apologize yesterday for not watching two matches, I have to apologize for choosing Brazil v. Equatorial Guinea and US v. Sweden over Norway v. Australia and Colombia v North Korea respectively.  Well, actually I refuse to apologize for not watching Colombia v. North Korea.  That match had “dull and meaningless” written all over it.

But Australia v. Norway, that was important.  I have no excuse for not watching other than I wanted to see Brazil play instead.  I probably should have chosen Australia/Norway given that the match actually had significance and the commentary team was the wonderful Healey/Markgraf rather than the more difficult to listen to Mowins/Whitehill.  But, you know, Marta!

Australia’s defeat of Norway means that finally a European side has been eliminated.  Norway needed the win while Australia needed only a draw.  Although Norway went up 1-0, immediately afterwards Australia equalized.  Near the end of the match Australia put another away, both goals were scored by Kyah Simon.  I thought Norway would probably go through, but I can’t say that this result was unexpected, especially after Australia’s tough match with Brazil.

As for Colombia and North Korea, I didn’t watch it.  Every time I switched over to ESPN 2, the score was 0-0, so I switched back immediately.  The match ended 0-0, so both teams got a point (and North Korea got a one point better goal difference.)  This also means that the team with the worst record in this World Cup was Canada, whose goal differential was worse than Equatorial Guinea’s.  Oy.  It’s a good thing the next World Cup (in Canada) is four years away.

A quick note.  Like the 2010 World Cup, the officiating at the 2011 Women’s World Cup began strongly and then went downhill very quickly.  If the standard of international refereeing is that bad that consistently in two consecutive major tournaments, the problem may not just be with the refs.  Something needs to change, but no doubt FIFA will do nothing.

Brazil v. Equatorial Guinea

Pop quiz.  What is the only team not to have given up a goal yet this tournament?  The answer is Brazil.  Yes, that’s right, Brazil with the leaky defense, the outmoded tactics, and lousy coach.  That Brazil.  Three clean sheets.  On top of that, only two other sides (Germany and France) scored four goals.  Brazil had the best goal differential of any team in the group stages.  Yet Brazil’s defense gets maligned nonstop.  Give credit where credit is due, however uncomfortable and shaky Brazil look in the back, their defensive record is thus far the strongest of the tournament.

Equatorial Guinea has a Brazilian-born coach, a Brazilian-born goalkeeper, a Brazilian-born midfielder, and at least six or seven players who play for Brazilian clubs.  (There are probably other naturalized Brazilians on the squad that I am missing but Wikipedia doesn’t have much on the squad.)  Does this make Equatorial Guinea–or EQG as Beth Mowins repeatedly called it–Brazil’s B team?

The first half of this match was a mess, as every Brazil first half has been.  Añonma (or is it Añonman, someone please let me know) looked dangerous, and Bruna (yes, that Bruna, the one who should have been red carded for a handball) attached herself to Marta like a conjoined twin.  It’s no secret that if you want to neutralize Marta, you man mark her with a good (and fast) defensive player to deny her space.  Other WPS teams have done that a lot lately.  This is an extremely effective way of neutralizing great players, and it works regardless of whether the player is Marta, Messi, or Maradona.  The problem with this strategy is that it leaves the marking team one player short, which means that the rest of the attacking team can overwhelm–if the attacking team is capable of being overwhelming.

That was Brazil’s problem in the first half.  Without Marta, the entire attack stuttered.  Aline** may be the captain, but Marta is unquestionably the team leader.  That is the problem with Brazil sometimes, they other players depend on Marta too much and fall apart when she is not dominating.  At the half I kept shouting at the Brazilians through my television, telling them that they could not depend on Marta, and had to pick up their own game.  Clearly their coach Kleiton Lima said something similar because in the second half, they picked up their game.  In the 49th minute, Érika (a defender!) juggled the ball and volleyed it over the keeper for a spectacular goal.  This was the second Brazilian goal this tournament that was juggled first.  Brazil’s samba style is unmatched.

Despite Bruna’s attempts to neutralize her, Marta (who has scored a ridiculous 12 goals in 13 World Cup matches) was still vital.  First she set up Cristiane’s first goal, and then she won the penalty which led to Cristiane’s second. As Brazil got better and better, Equatorial Guinea fell apart, and the players not named Añonma (or Añonman) repeatedly broke some very basic rules, as though they completely forgot how to play when confronted by Brazil.  Not quite as bad as this, but certainly not something you should see from players of this caliber; I wonder if the Equatoguinean players face similar pressure.

The reward–Brazil now have to play the United States in the quarterfinals rather than the finals, something neither team wanted.

Sweden v. United States

I did not feel good watching this match.  Everything US fans were afraid of came true.  The defense fell apart, the forwards couldn’t score, and the midfield couldn’t pull it together.  Then they went down by two very avoidable goals.  Does this sound familiar?  It should, I just described a typical US men’s match.

Every loss is ultimately a team loss, but some players deserve more blame than others.  In this case the goat was Amy LePeilbet, a center back turned into a left back for this tournament.  LePeilbet had been shaky since the first match, and it finally caught up with her.  I don’t want to pile it on LePeilbet too much because (1) I am sure she feels awful; (2) I don’t enjoy kicking someone while they’re down, and no doubt LePeilbet has played her last match of the tournament; and (3) as I write this no doubt preteen girls across the nation are creating “Amy LePeilbet Sucks” blogs.  Nevertheless, she was directly responsible for both of Sweden goals.  First she fouled Lotta Schelin in the box, and thus setting up a penalty kick (and getting yellow carded), then Nilla Fischer’s free kick deflected off her into the net.

The problem is that the entire US lineup was fairly woeful.  With regard to analysis, I’ll defer to those whose expertise is far greater than mine, but there were a few things that I saw that seem like huge flaws.  Abby Wambach did her part today; she scored a goal, broke her drought, and gave life back to the team.  Granted it came off of her shoulder, and was therefore an illegal handball, but call it justice for all the times her shots against Colombia wouldn’t go it.

Sweden won, and all credit to them.  They are the first team to beat the US twice in one year since 2002, and they are the first team to ever beat the US in World Cup group play, something else that sounds depressingly familiar (as is the dependence upon 4-4-2.)    Sweden scored two goals, which is a marked improvement for them, and this is only the fifth time they beat the US in their history, and the first time at a World Cup.  I still maintain though that Sweden is not that good.  They are solid but not spectacular.  Even if they do get past Australia, which they probably will, I cannot see them upsetting Germany.

And speaking of Swedes, Pia Sundhage bears some responsibility for this loss, although I am not sure how much.  Sundhage has been a decent coach for the US.  She restored belief to a team in crisis, but her team selection has left much to be desired.  Any arm-chair tactician can dissect Sundhage’s decisions, but it is clear that something needs to be done.  If anyone can do it, Sundhage can.  On the other hand, it is not clear that something can be done.  The US won the Olympics after losing the first match to (former?) archenemy Norway, but in the Olympics, the US still won their group and didn’t have to play Brazil until the final.  Right now, the confidence is low.

Coach of the US Women’s National Team is one of the most thankless positions in sports, right up there with coach of the Brazilian men.  Because of such outstanding past success, there is no acceptable result except victory.  Can you imagine if Bob Bradley, or any US men’s coach, was judged by the standards that Pia Sundage has to live up to?

It was interesting watching ESPN’s coverage of the tournament.  Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, and Tony DiCicco had a very hard time trying to figure out whether to be cheerleaders for the US, angry fans, or cold hard analysts.  Foudy has been more of a cheerleader and Chastain and DiCicco (especially Chastain) have been more angry fans.  Chastain can barely contain her anger.  DiCicco’s comemntary, usually very insightful, was remarkably unfair to Sundhage today.  He called her out for playing LePeilbet as left back, which is fair criticism, but comparing her to his own tenure was not.  He blamed Sundhage for using a converted center back instead of moving an attacking player into the defense, like he did with Chastain, who was actually a striker before he moved her.  When DiCicco coached the USWNT, there were no league.  The only team for his players was the USWNT, and the only coach was him.  Therefore, he had time to mold Chastain as he saw fit.  Sundhage, unlike DiCicco must vie with the WPS.  Her time with players is more limited, and she is not her players’ primary coach.

This is one of the big issues that plagues the international game, you can only use what your country has and hope for the best.  If you don’t have a good left back, then you improvise with a lesser or makeshift one.***  The international coach, unlike the club coach, cannot simply buy quality players (unless the nation is wealthy from oil-production, in which case the rules change.)

Nevertheless, the WPS is a godsend to American football.  If the US is faltering on the international stage it is because the program is in a down cycle as the rest of the world has caught up, and the US is for once behind the curve.  The US is used to being the top dog, but this is no longer the case.  Michelle Akers retired 12 years ago, and Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, and Joy Fawcett are also long gone.  The US cannot just hope another Golden Generation appears.  To be a real contender at every tournament, quality players have to be constantly developed.  The US is quite capable of that, but needs to follow through.

Footnotes: 

* Technically this is Day 11, but I am only counting days on which there is are actual matches.

** Mowins’s and Whitehill’s pronunciations continue to annoy me, particularly Mowins.  Today in addition to Añonma, she regularly mispronounced the names of Maurine, Cristiane, and Aline.  Surprisingly, she more or less corrected pronounced Rosana’s names.  In the first half, Mowins kept talking about how Equatorial Guinea earning a draw against Brazil would be the biggest upset ever in the tournament’s history.  This is only half-true.  From a FIFA rankings point of view, I see what she means, but realistically, she’s wrong.  Brazil had already won the group in and only a miracle would have changed that.  A draw with Equatorial Guinea would have put the group beyond reach for Australia or Norway. The Brazilians had nothing to play for except practice and momentum.  A major upset is when there is still something on the line, such as France v. Senegal in 2002 or Spain v. Switzerland in 2010.  The US’s loss to Sweden was a far bigger upset (had Brazil drawn or lost) because there was still something on the line to win, FIFA rankings be damned.

***  Even the Brazilian men lack strong players in key positions.  In 2010, the two best right backs in the world, Maicon of Inter and Dani Alves of Barcelona were on the squad, and neither would (or could) play at left back, a position that Brazil desperately needed.  In the end, Maicon played at right back, and Alves rotated around the midfield.  Brazil still has not found a great left back.

Women’s World Cup Day 8: Of Handballs And Bad Calls

Day 8 saw Australia beating Equatorial Guinea 3-2 despite a baffling missed call from a referee, and Brazil thrash Norway 3-0 due in large part to skill and talent of guess who!

Australia v. Equatorial Guinea

Confession:  I did not see this match in full.  I wanted to, but I also wanted to sleep this morning.  Therefore I only saw most of the second half, and the highlights.  However, that was enough to know that Australia were much better than Equatorial Guinea.  On the other hand, I knew before the tournament that Australia were going to beat Equatorial Guinea.  In fact, I am starting to feel that my prediction that Norway would go through was incredibly short-sighted.

The talking point of the match thus far is a botched call by the referee.  Australia, leading 1-0, had a shot on goal that was picked up by Equatoguinean defender Bruna while the ball was still in play.  Bruna thought there was a free kick for an off side, but there wasn’t.  Her actions should have led to a penalty kick.  The referee missed this completely.  About five minutes later, Equatorial Guinea’s super striker Genoveva Añonma scored the equalizer against Australia.  Fortunately for the referee, Australia still won, so her mistake will quickly fade from collective memory.

I have sympathy for the referee.  Unlike in the Germany/Nigeria game, this match did not become a brouhaha (although Equatorial Guinea, like Nigeria, got very physical.)  Although she missed a very obvious call, that call did not alter the match outcome.  In fact, it in no way harms Australia at all because even if the Matildas tie Norway in the next match, they will have the edge on goal differential and qualify for the knockout stages.  The referee issued a sincere apology afterwards, which is very rare.  (As Tony DiCicco pointed out in the commentary booth, an apology is far more than the no response the US got after the men’s team was robbed of a victory against Slovenia by a completely incorrect call.)  Hopefully this one mistake will not impact her career.  I don’t see why it should if Howard Webb can still referee at a high level of competition after he allowed last year’s war of attrition that masqueraded as a World Cup final.

I also have immense sympathy for Equatorial Guinea.  A large part of their problems are self-inflicted, such as fielding players who  have played on other nations’ senior sides (a major violation of the rules.)  But a number of Equatorial Guinea’s problems are not have come from outside and are not the team’s fault, particularly the unfounded charge that they fielded men.  It is awful for players such as Añonma to be accused of that and then have to play in front of the judgmental eyes of the world, which take any accusation as gospel.

Equatorial Guinea have been more than punished for their off-the-field mistakes.  During this tournament, FIFA, whose ability to make something bad far worse is unparalleled, declared that Equatorial Guinea has been disqualified from Olympic qualification because they fielded disallowed players.  Although the punishment is appropriate, the timing of the announcement was highly unfair.  FIFA could have waited, but when has FIFA ever done anything right?

It is easy to forget that despite the glitz, and the media spectacle, and the occasional boorish behavior, professional footballers, especially those who represent their country are doing this because of a love for the game and a desire to give joy to a crowd of people.  With the occasional exception, these are not bad people who do not deserve to be treated like pariahs.  They sacrifice their health and their bodies, and more often than not a career is ruined before it can truly begin.  This goes double to the women who have to fight four times as hard to get a quarter of the attention.  And how much more so for those women who play on behalf of apathetic and/or corrupt federations who barely treat the men’s teams right let alone the women’s?

I may have been a little harsh of Beth Mowins and Cat Whitehill the other day after lambasting them for their inability to properly pronounce the name of Genoveva Añonma.  Today Adrian Healey and Kate Markgraf called the match, and the had a completely different pronunciation of her name (a-NOHN-ma).  Also, the back of Añonma’s jersey read Añonman, which is (a) not the name she is known as, and (b) a different name than she wore the other day.  So I apologize for being harsh, and I’ll agree not to worry about it anymore, because Equatorial Guinea have only one more match before they go home.  Who knows if they will ever be back.

Brazil v. Norway

I have come to the conclusion that watching Brazil can make a person bipolar.  Today, Julie Foudy said exactly what I and many other have been saying for some time.  If the CBF were to give the same kind of care and attention to the women that their male counterparts were given, they would be an unbeatable world force.  There is no other team that has Brazil’s talent.  Obviously there is Marta, but Marta is not the whole team.  There is also Andréia, Cristiane, Rosana, Ester, Renata Costa, Formiga, Maurine, and others.  And this is not to mention all the talent they have had in the past (Pretinha, Sissi, Maycon, Daniela, etc.)  I cannot think of any other squad that has such exquisite talent and creativity.  Yet they are constantly fighting an uphill battle, even more so now with no preparation, a tactically inept coach, and a world that is closing the gap.

And yet, unlike so many of the other teams in this tournament, Brazil only need a moment of magic to completely change the match around.  Finishing has been a major problem for teams at this tournament.  Not Brazil.  They may not have created all the chances of other teams, but when they have, they have used it to tremendous advantage.  In two matches, they have scored four goals, two from Marta and two from Rosana.  (Although Cristiane has not yet scored, she was very much involved in three of the four goals.)  All four of those goals have left the viewer open-mouthed in awe at the skill.  The last time Norway was shut out in the group stages was 1991, the first Women’s World Cup.  Yet today they were held to nothing.  Despite dominating the early part of the match, Norway could not make anything work.  Once Marta got her amazing first goal in (in part aided some of the so-called “dark arts”) Norway fell apart. The two goals in the second half came within minutes of each other and immediately after the second half began.  It was all over by the 49th minute.

The irony is that Norway is the one country that the Brazilian men cannot beat. Not that they play very much.

Today was Marta’s day with two goals and an assist on the third.  If in the last match she was did not perform to her potential, today she was everything.  In addition to scoring two goals, she assisted Rosana’s goal.  And by assist, I mean she drew all the defenders to her with a mesmerizing run, leaving Rosana completely open, and then she passed to Rosana who scored with ease.  In scoring two goals, Marta is now tied for second in most overall goals scored at the Women’s World Cup.  It is fitting that the woman she tied with is Michelle Akers, the only other legitimate candidate for the title of greatest female football player ever (sorry Mia Hamm fans, but you know I’m right.)  It also means that Marta is now just two goals behind the leader, Birgit Prinz.  If Marta were to overtake in three World Cups what took Prinz four to set, that would make an already difficult tournament for the German unbearable.

Unlike all of the other nations who have legitimate designs on winning the title, Brazil have already done the hard work and beat both their tough group stage opponents.  In contrast, Germany still has to play France, Japan still has to play England, and the US still has to play Sweden.  Although Group D is not finished, it really is.  Brazil eked out a win over Australia and crushed Norway.  While those two teams will battle each other tooth and nail for a spot in the quarterfinals, Brazil have to play Equatorial Guinea, who has already been eliminated.  More important than winning, Brazil will need to avoid injuries and cards and use that match to shore up whatever weaknesses the Seleção have (i.e. defense,* which DiCicco pretty convincingly pulled apart in his post-match analysis.)  Brazil will need more than just the occasional flashes of magic if they really want to win this World Cup, and this is where the hard work begins.

Footnotes:

* The stereotype of Brazil (men and women) is that the offense is spectacular and the defense leaks like a sieve.  At least for the men, and probably also for the women, this is just not true.  Brazil pretty much invested the back four and the attacking fullbacks in the 1958 World Cup.  To date, the Brazilian men have allowed fewer goals in than any other major World Cup nation, including the stereotypical defensive powerhouse Germany.

Women’s World Cup Day 4: Magic Marta Meets Mighty Matildas. Much Mayham.

Before anyone comments angrily (although please comment!), yes I am aware that my title is deceptive.  Marta was not the X Factor that she has been in the past.  But I will address Marta’s contributions later.

Norway v. Equatorial Guinea

It’s impossible to overstate how much Equatorial Guinea exceeded expectations.  Of course, expectations of Equatorial Guinea were so low, that I think Beth Mowins and Cat Whitehill expected the Equatoguineas to run out of the stadium crying after Norway’s first pass.  The Norwegians seemed surprised that their opponents stuck around as well.

Equatorial Guinea probably became everyone’s second team after this match.  Like Mexico and unlike Colombia, they never for an instant let up.  There were all trying to score.  A 1-0 Norway victory was cruel; Equatorial Guinea deserved something.  All the more so when you consider (a) all the controversy surrounding them; (b) that some of their best players are not playing: (c) this is the team’s first World Cup; and (d) many of the players are inexperienced in international play.

The rock of Equatorial Guinea is the extremely skilled Turbine Potsdam player Genoveva Añonma.  Equatorial Guinea’s entire strategy can be summed as “Get the ball to Añonma,” which was actually a pretty good strategy.  She’s an incredible talent, possibly the find of the tournament thus far.  (Equatorial Guinea have some good players.  A few of them are actually Brazilians, which is a time-honored football tradition: when you don’t have talent, appropriate someone else’s.)  The weakness of this strategy though is that Añonma had trouble finishing.  Finishing has been one of two consistent team weakness in this tournament.*

just as a side note, Equatorial Guinea seems to have the most interesting fans.  There was one man who kept dancing in agony around his row of seats while wearing an Equatoguinean flag as a cape.  There also appeared to be some nuns cheering the team, which I found extremely funny.

Norway have been a fading power for quite some time.  This month at the u19 European Championship, Germany crushed Norway in the final by a humiliating 8-1.  Even today, Norway did not deserve the win.  Norway lack killer instinct, and this is a problem.  The fact that every match has been so close this tournament means the women’s game has gotten to a point where (unlike in previous World Cups) the talent gap between nations has significantly closed, and not having a killer instinct is fatal.

The truth is that Norway’s demise has been coming.  Just as in the men’s game once-mighty nations such as Scotland, Hungary, and Austria have all fallen forever from the elite, so too is Norway on that route in the women’s game.  Quite simply, Norway does not have the population to compete.  Who are the top 4 in the world?  The USA, Germany, Brazil, and Japan.  The up-and-comers?  Colombia, Australia, and North Korea.  All of these nations have a significant population pool in the tens of millions if not hundreds of millions (and China, when it finally pulls itself together, has over a billion).  As the gap between programs closes, the presence of the less populous nations (Equatorial Guinea, Norway, Sweden, and New Zealand) will become rarer.  A good result is not impossible (look at tiny Uruguay in last year’s World Cup), but sustained success almost certainly is.

This is a good thing, and this tournament is the proof.  No match thus far was won by more than one goal save for the US win over North Korea (maybe it was the lightning), and for the first half of that match North Korea were the better side.  Quality is not nearly as disparate as it was even four years ago.**  This Women’s World Cup is incredibly entertaining, and the low scores contribute to the excitement.  Compare to the men’s World Cups, in which every tournament since 1986 has been called the worst ever.

Brazil v. Australia

Like the US against North Korea, Brazil were completely on the ropes for the first half.  Then after the break, Brazil remembered they were Brazil and started to dominate.  The goal was a beautiful piece of skill from Rosana (notice how Tony DiCicco and Adrian Healy pronounced her name correctly) which came from some equally beautiful preliminary by Cristiane.  It was a reminder to the other teams in the tournament.  Even when Brazil are on the ropes, the players are so good they can change everything in a matter of seconds.

But right there is also the problem with Brazil.  There is no reason for the team to have played such a poor first half.  Australia were terrific, yes, and I don’t want to take anything away from them, but Brazil nearly lost it just as much as Australia nearly won it.  Something more pernicious is at work.

Brazil have Marta, but Marta is one player in a team sport.  It is a shame that some people (like Grant Wahl) judge players by whether they have won major international team tournament.  It is a false measurement of greatness because no player wins alone.  History has romanticized Maradona in 1986 and to a lesser extent Garrincha in 1962.  Sure, both players anchored Argentina and Brazil respectively.  Both were the star players without whom victory would be impossible.  Yet, the credit they are given unfairly maligns their teammates’, relegating top players to the status of mediocrities.  Pele’s World Cup victories are his also his team’s.  If Messi does not win the World Cup, that is of a reflection on his Argentina not on him.  If Marta does not win a World Cup, one must understand why Brazil failed, not Marta.

The problem with Brazil is that unless there is a major tournament the team does not exist.  This would be unheard of for the men.  The CBF gives them almost no support whatsoever.  They were the last team to arrive in Germany.  Except for those players who play for Santos, they never play together as a team.  They had no meaningful friendlies before the tournament started.  Their manager is borderline tactically inept. A sweeper?  Really?  Their warmup matches are the group stage which is a very dangerous game.  The CBF has effectively told the Canarinhas that they have to coast on talent because they won’t get anything from the Federation.***

That Brazil, the nation most identified with footballing genius, is so woefully lacking in women’s football is on the surface baffling.  The problem lies at the very heart of Brazilian society.  Only recently have Brazilians started to see women’s football as legitimate, and that took was Marta winning the World Player of the Year time five times in a row (and counting.)

Brazil’s failure to achieve its full potential is a tragedy for women’s football.  This team could be the best in history, but cannot because its own country stands in the way.  No other goal in this tournament, skillful as they may have been, came close to the beauty that was created by Cristiane and Rosana.  I applauded when Rosana scored.  When Brazil are in its groove, they play a completely different game than everyone else (witness the semifinal against the US in 2007.)  But that groove requires more than just being terrific players, something the nation of Brazil knows only too well from the failure of the 1982 World Cup team.

Again, this is not to take away from Australia, although I am afraid I have done so.  Football is a cruel game, and the best do not always win.  Australia is by no means the best team in this field, but the fact that they completely out-played Brazil for at least half a match shows how good they can be.  Unlike Brazil, they played as a team rather than as a collection of phenomenally gifted players.

In the first half, I could not see how Brazil could pull out a win.  They took so many shots of goal that goalkeeper Andréia was probably the Brazilian player of the match.  One of the Australians even nutmegged Marta.  And then there is Lisa De Vanna.  So much has been written about her.  Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe she was the super sub from Australia four years ago.  She’s an immense talent, but like so many other talented players at this tournament, she could not finish.  If the ball does not go in the net somehow, all the lovely touches mean nothing.

In football, individuals goal tally is the most overrated statistic out there.  It is the team’s goal tally that really matters.  Marta did not score, but she played an important role in creating chances.  Lisa De Vanna did not score either, but aside from putting a few scares into the Brazilians, her impact was negligible.

If Australia can correct its finishing problems, then the Matildas† should be able to advance.  If not, then the match against Norway and their finishing problems is going to be very interesting.  And of course there is still Equatorial Guinea.

Finally I want to plug a website that has been a great source of information and entertainment.  All White Kit has been wonderful with its World Cup coverage, and I highly recommend that people go and read it if you have any interest in women’s football.

Footnotes:

* The other major problem across the board is fitness; there is a lot of cramping going on in the final twenty minutes of matches due to the hat and humidity.  One thing you cannot fault the US for is its fitness.  They are completely prepared for the entire 90 minutes, weather be damned!

** The opposite side of the coin is to watch for blowouts starting tomorrow.  The first round is always the hardest and the minnows have put up a good fight.  Now the real question is whether they can keep that up or whether they will be found out.  Colombia, Equatorial Guinea, and New Zealand in particular are in real danger of humiliation if they let up for even a moment.  The other nations in their groups need to beat them and beat them by a lot.

*** As US fans, we have legitimate complains about the USSF.  I myself have written about them more than once.  It is important to remind ourselves though that as idiotic as the USSF can be, in their own weird way, they want to do what is best for American football, both men and women.  Compare that the negligence bordering on sabotage that the CBF has shown toward the Brazilian women or the abject corruption found in so many of the national federations.  It’s important to remember every once in a while that Sunil Gulati is not actually a villain, and he’s trying to build a good program, whether or not he is doing it the right way.

†  I know it’s not their national anthem, but I am always so disappointed when Waltzing Matilda is not played before an Australia match.  For the record, the national anthem is Advance Australia Fair.