Women’s All Time XI (Take Two)

Now that I am getting more views on this blog (thank you all so much for reading; I cannot tell you how much I appreciate it), I want to ask a question that did not receive any responses the last time I asked it.  Who you would put on a greatest ever women’s team?

One of the most enjoyable things about following sports is those endless pub debates about who is the greatest ever.  It’s completely meaningless, but so much fun.  On SI.com, Jonathan Wilson just published the last part of his Greatest Ever Team Tournament (Ajax ’72 over Barcelona ’11 3-2 in the finals–probably a fair result), and although I have expressed some reservations about it, I think these kinds of debate that Wilson has engaged in is a fundamental cornerstone of a successful fan culture. Sometimes the arguments can be very persuasive and other times less so.  Even when the results are less convincing, the effort reveals a passion and energy that is admirable.  Even in sports I don’t normally follow (cricket, Australian rules football, hurling), I try to find out who the greatest ever is when those sports cross my path–even if I don’t know or care about such basic things as the rules.

That is why I am a bit surprised that I have not been able to find this kind of debate among followers of women’s football.  I think it will make the fan culture a richer experience.  So for the sake of the growth of the women’s game, I am hoping to start a trend.  Please leave your own selections below in the comments section, and tell your friends too.

Now a caveat: I am no expert on women’s football.  There are experts, lots of them, but I am not one of them.  My knowledge is particularly woeful outside of the USWNT.  I so adamantly state my non-expertise is because I need to explain why my list has only a few non-Americans.  In fact, this list is probably closer to being an All-Time American Women’s XI with some foreign influence.  Not only is it mostly American women, but specifically American women who played on the 1999 World Cup winning side.

I have no excuses for this other than it is what I know.  There are not many books on the modern history of women’s football, and YouTube can only take you so far.  News on foreign women’s leagues and tournaments is hard to come by, and I am holding out judgment on the current crop of American women.  So take this with a grain of salt, and please join in if you can.

My Starting XI: 

Solo

Chastain-Markgraf-Overbeck-Fawcett

Lilly-Akers-Sun

Hamm-Prinz-Marta

Now this is probably an awful list, but having said that let me explain why I made the selections I made.

Goalkeeper:  Hope Solo is currently the best goalkeeper in the world.  Is she the best ever, I don’t know, but I suspect yes.  This was not an easy choice.  Briana Scurry was a great goalkeeper for the US, with the 1999 penalty shootout as the highlight of her career.  But she also had a few lows: the 2007 semifinals, of course, but she also fell out of form after 1999, lost her starting place, and had to get back into shape.    The other goalkeeper I considered was Nadine Angerer because it is very hard to side against the only keeper ever to go an entire World Cup without letting in a goal.  Still, I believe that Solo is the best bar none; aside from her talent, she has that insanity that great keepers have.

Defenders:  Of all the choices, these are the ones I am most uneasy about, first because all four are Americans (granted, multiple title-winning Americans), and second because all of them were on the 1999 team.  Three of them were on the 1991 team, although Brandi Chastain was not a starter.  All of these four defenders were at the top of the women’s game for around a decade and a half.  (Plus Chastain gave women’s football its single most iconic moment.  What is often overlooked is that although Chastain took the final winning kick, Overbeck and Fawcett converted the first two kicks.)  Markgraf, although only on one World Cup winning squad, won two Olympic gold medals.  I am confident that they are four of the best defenders ever even if not the absolute four best.

Midfielders:  I am on shaky ground with the midfield because Michelle Akers and Sun Wen were really forwards.  I could have used more orthodox midfielders such as Kelly Smith of England (who also played at forward), Shannon Boxx or Julie Foudy of the US, or Sissi of Brazil, but if that were the case, I would have to leave out players who I believe to be better.

Kristine Lilly is a legend of the game.  She is the most capped player, male or female, in history and probably will remain so.  She won two World Cup titles, two Olympic titles in her long, long career.  She was one of the best midfielders in the game bar none.  Michelle Akers is one of the greatest players of all time; only Marta can also lay claim to that title.  Akers was always the strongest, fastest, most monomaniacal player on the field the commentator during the 1991 final gave her what he believed to be the ultimate compliment, “she plays like a man.”)  She was heads and shoulders above her peers, and when her team underperformed she put them on her back and carried them to victory.  No wonder that FIFA named her Player of the Century.  Akers was not the only player named Player of Century.  Akers was honored by FIFA’s technical committee, but Sun Wen of China won the honor by an Internet vote.  What Akers was for the US, Sun was for China.  She was their best player, and one the greats.  She won the 1999 Golden Ball and co-won the 1999 Golden Boot.  China has never been able to replace her, and the Chinese women’s program has sank into mediocrity.

Forwards:  I debated excluding Mia Hamm.  Hamm was one of the all time great, and the sport’s first superstar, but she was also not of the strongest fortitude and tended to vanish in big moments.  Nevertheless, any list that did not have international football’s most prolific scorer (again man or woman) would be worth even less than nothing.  Before her problems this World Cup, Birgit Prinz was an icon.  All she did was score goal after goal for club and country.  Prinz was a feared name in the 00’s and led every team she was on to success, including two consecutive World Cup wins for Germany in 2003 and 2007.  It is a shame what happened at the 2011 World Cup, but that should not diminish her legacy.  Finally the last person on the list has to be Marta, arguably the greatest individual player of all time.  Now tied for Prinz as the record World Cup scorer (and a ridiculous record of 14 goals in 14 matches), Marta has a simply unmatched technique and she can do thing other women simply cannot.  She has been compared to Pele and Messi although comparisons to Garrincha and Maradona would not be that far off either.  Marta is something of a tragic figure.  Opponents cannot stop her, but her own national federation, though its disdain and apathy for the women’s game, has all but ensured that Marta, when she retires, will do so without a world title.

So am I completely off?  Am I right on target?  Who would you put on your starting XI?

Women’s World Cup Day 11: Heroes’ Exits

Otherwise known as the day that shot my nerves.

The first day of Women’s World Cup quarterfinals saw England meet France and falter to their national nemesis.  Not Les Blues, penalty kicks. And Japan scored the biggest upset in Women’s World Cup history.  Ever.

France v. England

Penalty kicks are the worse way to end a match.  It’s not that there is a better way (God forbid we go back to replays like they still do in the FA Cup), but penalty kicks are largely based on chance and nerve rather than skill.  Penalty kicks are the antithesis of football.  A football match is all about the flow of the game, and the ensuing tension arises naturally.  The beauty of a goal is that it releases that tension (Galeano compared the goal to an orgasm.)  Penalty kicks are the opposite.  Tension doesn’t build because the penalty kicks are stop and start and not a flow.  The successful penalty kick is not a release because it is a false goal in a game of counting.  The successful penalty kick prolongs the crowd’s agony, the missed one enhances it.

Since the beginning of international play, we have been told that one of the primary virtues of English (male) players is their “heart”.  In recent decades, heart has become a substitute for un-English virtues such as skill, technique, and intelligence.  As expected by all but the English, tournament after tournament the Three Lions go out with a whimper and an angry English media on their backs.

But the English women are different.  First of all, their players do have skill, technique, and intelligence.  But unlike, the men, they have heart.  England were completely outplayed by the French in the first half.  Time after time it looked as though England would suffer the same humiliation that Canada suffered at the hands of the French.  Yet England never gave up.

There is a tendency, particularly when talking about English football to use war metaphors.  There is good reason for that; football, particularly international football, is ersatz war.  For some reason the language of war especially suits England, probably because the English game is so physical.  And sure enough, I was thinking about famous English wars with the French throughout history.  The truth is that England were besieged in that first half.

Despite the bombardment, England scored the first goal, and it was midfielder Jill Scott, possible her squad’s best performer.  On a day when England’s other heroes, particularly Kelly Smith, were largely ineffective, it was Scott who gave her nation reason to hope.  But that was not enough.  In the 88th minute, so close to a victory, France finally got the equalizer it was threatening thanks to Élise Bussaglia.  The goal was inevitable, but it was still painful.  By the end of regulation time, Smith and Fay White were hobbled, and coach Hope Powell had unwisely used up her substitutions well before the end of regulation time.

And yet England soldiered on.  I am no fan of English football, but I have much affection for the Three Lionesses, all the more so after today.  Yes, they have the technique and skill, but their heart, their courage, and their doggedness in the face of a far superior opponent won me over.  I wanted Kelly Smith to get her win, to go to her first semifinals ever.

But then it came to penalties, and England’s destiny was written.  England have a horrible record on penalty kicks.  It is one of those leitmotifs of English men’s football–England fight until the very end of extra time and then blow it on penalty kicks.  (Compare that to Germany who almost never lose on penalty kicks.)

The penalty kicks today were a microcosm of every English tournament in history excluding the 1966 World Cup.  First there is hope, then a good start, then someone blows it, then disaster and devastation.  France’s Camille Abily kicked the first shot directly into the arms of keeper Karen Bardsley, and Kelly Smith rockets her shot to the back of the net.  Hopes all around England rose sky-high, just waiting to be extinguished.  France recovered and the next four players all made their shots, England players made the next tow, and then Claire Rafferty missed the goal entirely.  The score was tied.  France converted their final kick, Fay White missed hers.

I feel awful for England.  Despite an initial slow start to the tournament and some wobbles against New Zealand, they played extremely well.  It would have been nice for Kelly Smith to be able to take a triumphant final bow, but alas it was not to be.  Football is a cruel game and “deserves” rarely figures into wins, although it must be said that France were the better team.  For the sake of good football, the better team should move on, but I feel the pain of the English women.  Like every team here they too are fighting for their reputation and their league.  England should be proud of them; they have brought far more honor to English football than their male counterparts have done in years.

Japan v. Germany

To say that no one saw this coming is somewhat of an understatement.  To say that this is the most shocking result ever and that no would have predicted it never, ever, never is closer to the scope of the upset.  Germany were the prohibitive favorites to win their third straight World Cup title.  Not only is the squad teeming with talent, the players all ply their trade in one of the world’s most competitive leagues, they were playing in front of the home crowd, and (probably most importantly) they were playing to get their countrymen to take their sport seriously and support their league.  The German women too were playing to justify themselves and their game.  Throughout the tournament it looked like they were succeeding.  God only knows if that will continue.  If not, the German women’s team is being disproportionately punished for their loss.

Compare that to Japan who are playing to give hope and joy to a nation recovering from unimaginable agony.  In the past the Japanese women have consistently come up short on the big occasions.  They had never beaten European opposition at a World Cup, a point drilled home when they lost to England 2-0 in the final group stage match.  No one gave them a chance against Germany.

And yet despite the predictions that this would be the least competitive of all the quarterfinals, there was a nagging feeling that Germany were faltering under the pressure.  None of their group stage wins had looked convincing, and there was the distraction of the Prinz Saga.  Nevertheless, Germany’s path to the finals looked set, all the more so when the United States lost to Sweden and landed on the other side of the bracket.

Watching this match, it I had the sense that Japan targeted Germany.  Not so much that they merely developed a successful game plan for the match, but rather all their training and preparation for the past three years centered solely around beating Germany.  Every plan, every strategy, every pass up until now was informed by how Germany would respond.  This hypothesis explains perfectly why Japan lost to England in the group stage.  Germany are a very technical adept team and England, for all their skills, are not.  England are far more improvisational (and physical) than the methodical Germans.  In preparing for Germany, Japan were not ready for England.

But today was the real test.  Three previous matches showed Germany’s weaknesses, slight as they were.  Germany lacked the killer instinct of the 2003 and 2007 teams (and even those teams were not impervious, as demonstrated in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.)  This year though, the cracks showed under the media spotlight.  When Nigeria got physical, Germany withdrew.  More importantly, Nigeria also showed that Germany had trouble breaking down organized defenses.  Germany were susceptible to set pieces.  And the most glaring problem (although I feel like I am alone in saying this) was that coach Silvia Neid had been there too long, and her guidance had gone stale.  She bought into the hype about Germany and allowed her team to buy into it too.  For me, there was a moment on ESPN’s commentary that revealed the extent of Neid’s complacency.  Tony DiCicco pointed out that the signs of Birgit Prinz’s decline was apparent for months, and Neid should never have played her.  DiCicco’s co-commentator, the former German international Viola Odebrecht, said that she did not believe Neid knew that Prinz was past her prime.  Odebrecht was defending Neid (her former coach), but to me there was no more damning indictment.  What Odebrecht unintentionally said was that Neid had not been paying attention to her players’ standard of play over the past few months.  Any national coach who does not watch her potentials should be fired on the spot for gross negligence.

No doubt journalists, pundits, coaches, players, experts, fans, and armchair commentators like myself will question Neid’s tactical decisions in the match against Japan, particularly her substitutions.  That is true I suppose, but it misses the (Black) forest for the trees.  Perhaps she could have done more, although a very early injury to Kim Kulig was not Neid’s fault, and she had to make due and waste a substitution.  And perhaps she could rightfully be called out for not putting in Lira Bajramaj (which, I correctly predicted).  But her real fault was not for this one match; it was for letting her team lose focus.  Germany could not cope with the combination of the pressure of expectations (which they had never faced before), trouble in the locker room, an extremely organized opponent who knew how to play them, and the absence of a Plan B.  Losses happen, but in retrospect this one was coming.  Neid may not be culpable for this loss, but it is her fault that her team had been imploding since the match against Canada.  Perhaps we were just to dazzled by the hype to see it.

But in all of this, I am not giving the proper credit to Japan.  As much as I had found the Barcelona comparisons to be overblown, Japan have come the closest of any non-Spanish team to understanding tiki-taka and Pep Guardiola’s vision.  Germany did not lose this match, Japan beat them in spectacular and heart pounding fashion.  If the tournament were to end tomorrow Homare “Grandma” Sawa should win the Golden Ball.  It’s not just that she assisted Karina Maruyama’s brilliant goal or her own hat trick against Mexico.  It was her leadership throughout the tournament.  If Japan pulled off the biggest upset in Women’s World Cup history, then it is because Sawa led them to it.

As important as Sawa was, she was not the most important player of the night.  That distinction goes to goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori who made save after stunning save.  It was a masterclass of goalkeeping.  Japan knew they created history–the upset that will be talked about for as long as there is a Women’s World Cup.  An upset so comprehensive the only comparable match in men’s history that I can think of is West Germany’s defeat of Hungary’s Golden Team in 1954.  Japan understood that, and that is why Japanese players were also in tears at the end of the 120 minutes.

I said it before, and I feel confident repeating it now.  Europe’s reign at the top is ending, and Asia’s is on the horizon.  Regardless of the outcome of her next two matches (and win or lost, Japan play two more), Homare Sawa has taken Japan to a place it has never been before.  The five-time World Cup veteran has left quite a legacy in her last tournament.  Today she is Japan’s hero.

Spare a few thoughts for that other five-time World Cup hero whose career ended tonight.  It is sad that the incomparable Birgit Prinz’s career ended with the whimper that it did–sitting helplessly and miserably on the substitute’s bench for her final two matches, watching Marta making an assault on her World Cup goals record, and all the while becoming a lightning rod for controversy (partially of her own making) rather than an icon in front of her countrymen.  It was not a graceful exit.  To add insult to injury, if Sweden win tomorrow, Germany will be eliminated from the Olympics, the one tournament Prinz has never won.

And spare a thought for those other heroes who played their last match of the tournament today, particularly Kelly Smith, one of the game’s all-time legends.  Football is a very unfair game, and that unfairness should not diminish these players’ skills, talents, or legacies.  Nor should it allow us to forget the gift they have given to us, especially since they (unlike their top male counterparts) have fought so hard for so little.  It is a labor of love, and we must love them in return.

Women’s World Cup Day 9: Contenders and Pretenders

Day Nine of the Women’s World Cup saw England and Germany win their groups in convincing fashion.  In doing so, they demonstrates why all the Barcelona comparison that France and Japan received were completely wrong.  In the quarterfinals, England plays France, Germany plays Japan, and mercifully nobody will mention the War (or Fawlty Towers).

First, an apology. 

At the World Cup, the final two matches of every group are played at the same time.*  As a result, I could only watch one match per group.  As much as I wanted to see New Zealand play Mexico and Canada play Nigeria, both of those games were for pride only.  Therefore I chose the matches that had bearing on the quarterfinals, and regretted it.  I want to congratulate New Zealand for heroically coming back from a 2-0 deficit to drawn Mexico and get the nation’s first point ever at a Women’s World Cup. Like the All Whites at last year’s World Cup, the Football Ferns won fans worldwide with their heart and grit.  I can only reiterate that I hope this is a fruitful beginning for the Ferns and not aberration.  I am hopeful, as the national media has already written proudly about the Ferns’ achievement.  I am sad however, that I missed the haka.  (Watch it here.)  The haka is one of those traditions I absolutely love about New Zealand sports, although admittedly the Ferns’ haka doesn’t have quite the fear factor as when the All Blacks do it.

While New Zealand had its best showing ever, Canada had its worst.  A 1-0 loss to Nigeria means that Canada is going home without points for the first time ever.  I have given loads of credit to Carolina Morace for taking Canada to sixth in the world, but likewise, this results reflects very poorly on her.  To an extent the life of a coach is unfair: the players get the credit for a win, and the coach gets the blame for a loss.  (Unless you are Jose Mourinho; then it is the other way around.)  Fair or not though, someone must be answerable, and that someone is the coach.

England v. Japan

Remember when I said yesterday that history is not destiny?  Well, this is exactly what I was talking about.  Despite England’s mediocre first two matches, despite Japan’s pretty passing and demolition of Mexico, England took apart Japan with stunning ease.  First Ellen White lobbed a honey of a goal over the Japanese goalkeeper and then Rachel Yankey scored a nice second.

I don’t have too much to say, because the match was not particularly interesting.  England deserved the win and England got the win.  Most importantly, England played smart; England avoided giving Japan set pieces in the final third and lo and behold, Japan became a paper tiger.  For all the passing ability, Japan are really strongest when there is a dead ball.  England robbed Japan of its strength, and like a shorn Samson, Japan were powerless.  Japan did have some nice play, but someone who only saw this match would think that England were the skill team.  And this is without Kelly Smith playing her best.

Germany v. France

This was quite a match, but that is not necessarily a compliment.  On a very basic level Germany beat France 4-2.  Germany never trailed, and each time France pulled to within one goal, Germany scored another.  In actual performance though, this match was far more complicated than that.

At this tournament, Germany have been a strange mixture of invulnerability and fragility.  Sure they beat opponents 2-1, 1-0, and 4-2.  Nor have they trailed.  The German bench is extremely deep (some key players were rested today.)  The German attack is like wave after wave of white hitting opponents.  The Germans have a winning mentality.  They know they are the best and never doubt it.

Yet in these group stage matches, opponents scored three goals on Nadine Angerer, which is just one fewer than she has given up in the past two World Cups combined (2007 being a perfect shut out.)  France scored two goals today.  The last time Germany let two goals in during a World Cup match was 1999.  Both goals today came in exactly the same way, poor marking on corner kicks allowed French players (Marie-Laure Delie and Laura Georges) to head the ball in.  Despite Germany’s dominance, I have the nagging suspicion that France lost the match rather than Germany winning it.  Had France been a little less intimidated, a little more aggressive from the beginning, then perhaps the match would not have been so one-sided.

And then there is the Prinz factor. I want to give Birgit Prinz the benefit of the doubt, but I fear she has become a poison to her team.  She sulked on the sidelines rather than give encouragement, and looked miserable when Germany did well.  Prinz is in an odd situation that few female athletes have faced before, although this is not unusual in men’s sport.  On one hand we want our athletes to have a competitive fire and confidence that borders on self-absorption.  On the other hand, that same confidence can be repellent, especially when the player is doing poorly or not on your team.  Prinz is well off her best form, and now open to attack for having a star athlete’s demeanor. It is sad though because Prinz is a star athlete, one of the great players in the history of women’s football.  This is an awful way for her legacy to end.

Despite the fall of Prinz, Germany has stars to spare.  Today Inka Grings scored a brace, Kerstin Garefrekes led the team quite capably (and opened the scoring), and Celia Okoyino da Mbabi put the game completely out of reach.  Then there is the curious case of Fatmire (Lira) Bajramaj who played today in front of her home crowd Mönchengladbach.  Bajramaj, now with Frankfurt, was an integral part of Turbine Potsdam’s Champions League title last year and second place finish this year.  Because of her talent and her background (her family fled from Kosovo to Germany when she was young), she has become the face of the German National Team.  She placed third in last year’s FIFA Player of the Year award (take that with a grain of salt given that the runner-up to Marta was Prinz and the Women’s Coach of the Year was Silvia Neid.)  Yet she seemed to have fallen out of favor with Neid, as today was her first start all tournament.  Supposedly this is because her finishing ability leaves something to be desired.  Today she displayed her dazzling dribbling abilities, her keen intelligence, and her lovely passes, but again, she could not finish.  This was not completely her fault.  She was robbed of what would have been a brilliant a goal by French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz (see below), although she could have done a better job.  Despite her good play, I am guessing she did not win back Neid’s favor.  Marta’s  position as the world’s best is not in jeopardy.

I have no idea what to make of France.  Unlike Germany which fights for everything, France approached this match with classic Gallic ennui.  Camille Abily and Sonia Bompastor, France’s two best players, started the match on the bench.  To top that off coach Bruno Bini told reporters beforehand that this match was not that important.  Who knows if France even wanted to win this match.  Gallic ennui.

What a blunder.  Sure enough, in the second half Abily and Bompastor were substituted in.  There is no guarantee that France would have won or drawn had Abily and Bompastor played from the beginning, but France guaranteed that they would lose before they stepped on to the pitch.  They fell victim to their own hubris and the hype of being called the female version of Barcelona.  As a result France was overwhelmed and now has a confidence-sapping loss to show for it.

And then there was the goalkeeper issue.  Bajramaj was in the box, and the goalkeeper Sapowicz fouled her.  Sapowicz was red carded, and Germany won the penalty which Grings converted.  This was the first red card of the tournament.  It was deserved, although the referee was a little too card-happy throughout the match.  (Since Germany v. Nigeria, the refereeing has not been fantastic.)  It is fairly shocking to see a goalkeeper red carded, and it is amazing that the keeper would have been so foolhardy.  Now the backup keeper will play the quarterfinal against England.  Julie Foudy and Ian Darke mentioned that Lyon’s goalkeeper was kept out of the international squad because of “personality issues.”  One wonders what those issues are, but one also wonders if that should be enough to keep a champion goalkeeper out of the squad.  If Pia Sundhage could bring back Hope Solo, why would Lyon’s goalkeeper be left behind.

Or it could be that France are just not ready for the big time yet.  Perhaps France’s pretty passing simply have fooled us all.

Not that Germany is ready yet.  Unlike in 2003 and 2007 Germany’s faults are very clear.  Whether they can be exploited by a stronger team than France is an entirely different question, but Germany are no longer the all-conquering juggernaut that they once were.

And this too is progress.

Footnotes:

*  Both matches in the group are played at the same time because of what happened in the 1982 World Cup.  Austria and West Germany controversially colluded in the final match of the group to ensure that they would both move on, and Algeria would be eliminated.  At that time, Algeria had already played its final match, so both Austria and West Germany knew that for both nations to advance, West Germany had to beat Austria 1-0.  West Germany got the goal early in the match and then for the remaining time, the two nations just kicked the ball around the pitch.  Even the Austrian and West German fans deplored the obvious fix.