Women’s World Cup Day 15: Rising Sun

The final of the World Cup saw the Japan beat the US on penalty kicks 12 years after the 1999 final, proving that I should never ever make predictions again.

Japan v. United States

The problem with following sports is that when your favorite player or team loses you get irrationally depressed.  Chances are you don’t know the player(s) except maybe through media such as Twitter.  Most likely you have more loyalty to the team than the players do.  Unless you work for the team, and very few of us do, the result on the field has no bearing on your daily life.  Yet being a fan is like being in love, and therefore you invest a part of your heart and soul into your team’s performance.  When they win you rejoice; when they lose you ache with pain.  It’s a communal love shared with the players, but even more so with the other fans who for that instant become an extended family.  There is no good reason for this.  It’s not logical.  it just is how it is.

Today the United States Women’s National Team lost in the World Cup final to Japan on penalty kicks.  Technically they drew 2-2, but only one team lifted the trophy.  I, like my fellow fans, share the tremendous sadness of the US Women, because I too love them.  This is the worst I have ever felt after a football match.  The only team I have ever been this invested in is Barcelona who generally win, but I cannot imagine I would feel any worse if Barcelona lost.  I am not the only fan who is depressed today; Julie Foudy looked near tears afterwards.

Another reason for the tremendous sadness is because I worry about the fate of the WPS.  While a US win may not have saved it, one wonders if the loss is a deathblow.  I hope not.  The US Women played a tremendous tournament, fought well in a tough match, possibly the greatest match women’s football has ever seen, and came up just short in the end.  They have given us far more than the US Men ever have, yet MLS is secure while the WPS is not.  It just doesn’t seem fair.  For all the attention that the US Women got over the past few weeks (God bless ESPN), one wonders if that attention will be refocused onto the league, which does not have major network exposure.  For myself, I will gladly buy an Alex Morgan jersey if they make it in a men’s size, but I am a focus group of one.  The sad thing is that there is no reason the WPS should be flailing.  If anything, this World Cup has shown that women’s football can be of very high quality.  At the international level, the women can put on a better show than the men.  Yet for a whole host of reasons, the women’s game cannot get the same kind of attention and respect.  If that is not enough to make one cry, I don’t know what is.

On to the actual match.

In as much as anything is fair in football, this was a fair enough result.  What the Unites States did to Brazil, Japan did to the United States.  The US had chance after chance in the beginning but could not convert those chances.  Japan fell behind twice but came back twice.  One cannot talk about US tenacity–getting outplayed and still fighting for the win–without giving that same credit to Japan.  They beat the #1, #2, and #5 ranked teams in the world.  The entire tournament Japan played with a style that up until this point was practically unknown in women’s football.  They are the first team from Asia to win a World Cup.  They are the first team not from Europe or the Americas to even win any World Cup, men’s or women’s.  Samurai Blue have nothing on Nadeshiko Japan, and no Japanese player, male or female, will ever have Homare Sawa’s legacy.  Givenf the horrors Japan has faced in the past five months, how can you not be a good sport and feel at least a little happy for Japan?  Even through the tears, there is a small smile.

Both teams would have been worthy winners.  It was an incredible match, from beginning to end, but once Sawa got Japan’s second goal near the end of extra time though (thereby earning the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball, and probably World Player of the Year come December), it felt like Japan was going to win.  There was something in the air, and the US seemed deflated.  Sure enough, in the penalty kicks the US fell apart.  Penalty kicks are a cruel but necessary way to end a knockout match.  Most teams are unlucky to go through one.  The US had to go through two.  Penalty kicks are as much a matter of luck as skill, and this time luck was not with the US.

Although the officiating in this tournament was suspect tonight was very good (a pleasant change from last year’s “Three Stooges” reenactment.)  Everything about this final was pretty clean, save for Azusa Iwashimizu’s red card, and even that was very much in the spirit of the game.  She sacrificed herself to save her team.  There is something noble about that, aggravating as it is.  But that was the story of the match.  The Japanese defense saved the team as it did against Sweden and Germany.  If I could remake my team of the tournament, I would change one position: Saki Kumagai instead of Faye White; Kumagai kept Abby Wambach at bay for almost the entire match.  Another person who deserves to be singled out is Japan’s goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who was stellar during the penalty kicks.

For all the Nike ads about pressure, for all the pressure that the US overcame in the past few weeks, tonight they faltered under the pressure.  The US outplayed Japan, they even dominated possession (or so it seemed), their record against Japan is ridiculously good, and they had the lead twice.  Yet, the pressure of being so close to victory did them in.  In the first half hour the US could not convert any of their many chances.  Some of this was due to positioning, some of it was due to plain bad luck.  But both Japanese goals came because the defense, which was rock solid for most of the tournament, fell to that pressure.  Spare a thought for Christie Rampone.  That’s a tough way to end a distinguished career.

One person who cannot be blamed is Pia Sundhage, who was also holding back tears.  This entire tournament she has done nothing but instill confidence in her side and out-coach her opposition.  If not for her, the US would never have gotten past Brazil or France.  Today the result could have gone either way.  She did not control the penalty shoot-out and had no reason to think that her players would not be able to perform.  If she does not keep her job, there is something seriously wrong with the USSF.  We US fans owe her a debt of gratitude; she took a team in conflict and brought them an Olympic title and a World Cup silver medal.  Thank you, Pia Sundhage, you are in our hearts.

If there is one bright spot for this US team, it is the knowledge that we can continue to be competitive in years to come, especially with players like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.  Given the way the US played today, I have faith in the future.  Perhaps in four years, the US will finally take back the World Cup.  One hopes so; these players need to get the monkey of 1999 of their backs.  Mia Hamm has long retired, and US Women’s football has a new galaxy of stars.  It is up to us Americans to recognize and appreciate them.  They have merited our love and affection; let’s give it to them.

So now I am going to go cry myself to sleep.  Thank you, dear readers for being with me on this journey.  You have made me feel like a real writer.  I hope you come back when I write about other things, whether football related or no.

The Awards: 

FIFA’s Team of the Tournament:  See for yourself.  Some of those choices (and some of the absences) baffle me.  But never think that FIFA choices make sense.

Golden Glove: Hope Solo

Golden Boot: Homare Sawa; Silver Boot: Marta; Bronze Boot: Abby Wambach

Golden Ball: Homare Sawa; Silver Ball:Abby Wambach; Bronze Ball: Hope Solo

Fair Play Trophy: Japan

Best Young Player: Cailtlin Foord

Women’s World Cup: Team Of The Tournament

In the days before the final (and third place match), there is little to write about, and I am not quite ready to risk predictions today. Instead I am going to pick a team of the tournament (which I think will remain the same even after the final two matches.)  I went with a 4-3-3 even though no team actually used that formation.

Agree?  Disagree?  Want to give your own team of the tournament?  Please leave comments.

Team of the Tournament

Hope Solo

Ali Krieger – Christie Rampone – Faye White – Sonia Bompastor

Camille Abily – Homare Sawa – Louisa Necib

Genoveva Añonma – Abby Wambach – Marta

Super Sub: Megan Rapinoe

Alternates:

Precious Dede, Ali Riley, Lauren Cheney, Lotta Schelin, Cristiane, Kerstin Garefrekes, Maribel Domínguez, Heather O’Reilly, Aya Miyama

Goalkeeper:  Hope Solo is the best in the world, and in my opinion the best there ever was.  She saved the Americans time and time again, never more so than in the quarterfinal match against Brazil.  Her only competition, and this is a distant second, is Precious Dede of Nigeria, who let in a grand total of only two goals the entire tournament–one to France and one to Germany.  Not a bad showing.

Right Back:  This was actually the hardest position for me to pick, because there were so many good candidates.  Ali Krieger was the class of the tournament, but not far behind her was Ali Riley of New Zealand who was the brightest spot of a developing team. (and who is also generally excellent for the Western New York Flash.)  Special mention to Equatoguinean right back Bruna, she of the now infamous Hand of Oh My God!  It is not that Bruna was a class above everyone else consistently (hence she did not make my alternates bench), but her man-marking of Marta was a class for most of the match.  She shadowed Marta so effectively, that she kept the Brazilian quiet until the very end.  How effective was it?  When Marta went to talk to her coach, Bruna followed her, (and since Bruna speaks Portuguese, it prevented any kind of communication.)

Center Backs:  I admit the choices here were somewhat sentimental.  It was hard to choose center backs because unlike the outside backs, center backs tend to get singled out more for their few mistakes than the (many more) times they successfully stop the attack.  The center back takes more abuse from the goalkeeper than anyone else because they are always at the back (unlike the full backs who charge down the flanks).  Center back is not a glamorous position, but it is an extremely important one.  Being a center back requires intelligence and leadership.  The center backs keep the shape of the defense, and it is no surprise that center backs make the best captains.  With that in mind, my center backs were Christie Rampone and Faye White, two very successful veterans.  Few could argue with my choice of Rampone, who has been a rock at the back, but White is tougher to justify.  Overlook the missed penalty kick that will probably haunt her forever.  The truth is that England’s defense was very good, and White, as captain, was responsible for that.  England just came up short against a far superior team, and even that superior team only won because of the roulette wheel that is penalty kicks not because they broke down White’s defense (and she was hobbled by the end of that match.)

Left Back:  Right back offered too many good choices, but there is only one choice for left back: Sonia Bompastor.  She was the only good part of France’s defense, and her charges down the left were a terror to all teams that opposed her.  She was also the only person to truly beat Hope Solo on goal, a goal that made Solo furious.  Bompastor is the best left back in the women’s game.

Right Midfield: This was another really tough position.  Camille Abily scored only one goal this tournament.  Nevertheless, her contributions were tremendous to an excellent French side.  It was very hard to decide between Abily, Heather O’Reilly, and Kerstin Garefrekes, but in my opinion, Abily just ekes out O’Reilly.  O’Reilly was very important to the US side; when she sat out with an injury, the US lost.  Garefrekes was  one of the few bright spots of an imploding Germany.  Blame Silvia Neid and Birgit Prinz, but Garefrekes was blameless.

Central Midfield:  Homare Sawa.  Because Japan are such a great team, and each player makes the others better, it is very difficult to separately honor any of the Japanese players individually, and I have done them a disservice by not including more on this list.  One Japanese player stands head and shoulder above everyone though: Sawa.  She is the intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual engine behind her team’s machine, and she is the player of the tournament.  She is the only player in the tournament thus far to score a hat trick, and her assist for Karina Maruyama’s goal gave Japan its most important win ever.  Alas, there is only one choice, because there are so many good contenders.  Lauren Cheney deserves some appreciation; when she is at center, she is one of the most creative US players.  (The problem was that she often started on the left and then moved into center, which is why she is not more competitive on this team.)  Had Germany done better, Simon Laudehr would be on my list somewhere.  Give a little love for the veterans Formiga and Kelly White who are playing in their last tournament; if there were a lifetime achievement award, both would get it.  Finally,some mention should go to Kim Kulig of Germany and Nilla Fischer of Sweden, who proved that when the starting center midfielder is not playing, a team can go south very quickly (especially when the opponent is Japan.)

Left Midfield:  This is cheating a little bit I suppose.  Louisa Necib was an attacking midfielder for most of the tournament, but she is one of the breakout stars of this tournament, and I had to include her.  Therefore I am moving her to left with the understanding that at some point in the second half Megan Rapinoe, another break out star, will come in for her.  Necib is one of the most graceful players out there, and was repeatedly compared to her countryman Zinedine Zidane who is also of Algerian heritage, as was repeated ad nauseam.  Hopefully she will not get crushed under the weight of that comparison because Necib has talent, creativity, and ball striking ability to spare.  Rapinoe lost her starting spot, but rather than sulk a la Prinz she became the best substitute of the tournament.  She was responsible for both Abby Wambach’s tying goal against Brazil, and Alex Morgan’s beautiful chip goal against France, and she scored a goal of her own against Colombia (Born in the USA!.)  Another great player is Aya Miyama whose mastered the art of the set piece.  How the Japanese produce such consistently good players in that department is beyond me.

Right Wing:  One of the other major breakout stars of this tournament was Genoveva Añonma.  She only scored two goals, a brace against Australia, but they were her team’s only goals.  That pretty much describes Equatorial Guinea.  Añonma kept that team afloat.  She was their everything.  Even though Equatorial Guinea was eliminated, Añonma announced herself as one of the world’s attackers.

Center Forward: Abby Wambach.  It’s hard to remember now that coming into the tournament, Abby Wambach could not score a goal to save her life.  This was exacerbated in the match against Colombia where attempt after attempt refused to go in no matter how well she struck the ball or how fortuitous the opportunity.  It was not until after her should-have-been-illegal, off-the-shoulder goal against Sweden that the floodgates opened.  It’s not  that Wambach scored so many goals though as much as when she scored: the tying goal against Brazil and the winner against France.  Wambach’s ability to carry her team is second only to Sawa.  There is no one else who could be the center forward.  There are however, honorable mentions.  Maribel Domínguez and Lotta Schelin, although not high scorers carried their teams.  Domínguez is a particularly poignant case.  If she were ten years younger, Mexico would be a force in the foreseeable future.  Hopefully the team will be able to live in the house Domínguez built, but unfortunately Marigol has to move on.  Special mention must also be given to Christine Sinclair who kept Canada in contention against Germany and then played through a broken nose.  Canada deserved better than its finish and so did Sinclair. Because they didn’t, Sinclair missed out on the team.

Left Wing: Marta.  The best player in the world and possibly of all time.  Brazil exited early but that is the fault of federation and coach, not of Marta who scored four goals, two in spectacular fashion that only Marta could pull off.  That is not to mention her the other parts of her game: (1) her assists, and (2) by virtue of being Marta, she kept opposing defenders occupied long enough for her teammates to score.