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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 2: Ho Hum

Day 2 of the Women’s Football tournament at the Olympic brought absolutely no surprise results whatsoever as the United States, Great Britain, and Brazil all stamped their tickets to the quarterfinals.

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Football is the most popular sport in the world.  It is also the most popular sport in Great Britain.  So it beyond galling to hear the attendance figures for the women’s tournament.  The men’s attendance figures have underwhelmed, but there is at least something of a reason for that, it’s a u23 tournament.  But the women’s tournament is the second biggest event in the women’s game.  If the World Cup can attract large crowds, especially in the United States, which is not a footballing nation, then why can’t the London Olympic Games?

In today’s round we saw something that had been absent thus far, a draw.  In a tournament that has been full of high scoring dominations, it was a bit jarring to see a 0-0 draw.  That was the match between Sweden and Japan, a match that should have settled who would be top of the Group F heap, but instead left everything up in the air.  Japan are the better side, they had more opportunities, and they are more talented (Lotte Schelin aside), but unlike at the World Cup, they are no longer the surprise team.  In a way, the horrifying tragedy in Japan freed the team from expectations–just being at the tournament was a triumph.  Now they are the world champions and they have to face those expectations head on.  Add that to the fact that they are the focus of every other major team’s ire (Sweden included), the Japanese federations continues to treat them disrespectfully, and their talisman Homare Sawa is very, very close to the end of her career.  Which is not to say that Japan are falling apart, far from it, but their surprising silk-and-steel approach from last year is no longer stealth.  Canada were not good enough to take advantage of that, but Sweden were. Even stronger sides are potentially lurking around the corner.

Japan and Sweden are still the most likely top two teams from the group to advance, but today’s draw puts them both in an uncertain position with regard to the seeding.  Both teams want the top spot, and now other factors will come into play.  Canada are the major factor.  Canada are, by some distance, the third best team in the group, but they have potential to upset Sweden.  Canada have Christine Sinclair who is coming perilously close to breaking Mia Hamm’s international goal record, and she scored twice today against South Africa in a 3-0 victory.  Sweden will have stop Sinclair, and that is no easy feat.

Japan’s problem is less against South Africa than against the scoreboard.  If Sweden and Japan both win their next matches, then goal difference will determine the top seed.  Right now Sweden have the edge by virtue of their 4-1 shellacking of South Africa (who were saved from complete humiliation by virtue of a stunner of a goal from Portia Modise).  Japan will need to be even more ruthless against Banyana Banyana in order to ensure the theoretically easier draw.  (Not that the draw will be easier in actuality.  The quarterfinal opponents for the top two Group F sides will most likely be Brazil, Great Britain, or France.)

I am not sure if South Africa will be going home with their heads help high or not.  Getting to an international tournament for the first time is a major accomplishment, but this has not been a particularly pleasant tournament for either of the African nations.  In their two matches each, have been outscored by a combined total of 15-1.  Both Cameroon and South Africa are new to the world scene, but given how well Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea acquitted themselves at the World Cup, one wonders if this Olympics has been a positive step for African women’s football, or part of a frustrating sine curve with small peaks and deep valleys.  I can’t imagine that it is about talent.  More likely it is about a lack of support, funding, and infrastructure.

In Group E, Brazil and Great Britain advanced with wins, the latter easily and the former with much difficulty.  In the next match, Britain need to win, while Brazil need only a draw for top seed.  Great Britain have done themselves proud thus far, which is far more than their male counterparts can say.  This time it was a 3-0 victory over hapless Cameroon.  Cameroon were very physical, which seems to be a trait of African teams.  Nigeria are always brutal with challenges, and Equatorial Guinea were also quite rough at the World Cup.  But Britain got the job done, and in style.  Arguably in better style than Brazil did with their 5-0 victory.  When was the last time anyone said that about a British side?

Brazil eked out a 1-0 win over New Zealand with a Cristiane goal in the 86th minute, thereby breaking Kiwi hearts who almost saw the Football Ferns’ greatest ever result.  Unlike the African teams or Colombia, New Zealand are not hapless.  They are extremely well-organized and fielded some talented players (Ali Riley being the foremost example).  Every tournament they get a little bit better.  The problem with New Zealand is that they don’t have enough.  Like the men’s team at the 2010 World Cup, the women’s team they lack the fire power and therefore rely (rather successfully) on defensive prowess.  Unlike the men though, the Ferns have not yet had that one good bit of luck to score an unlikely goal to cement the result.  The next match is the first time in this tournament, and possibly ever, that the Ferns have a real shot to win.  The pressure is on.  They need a win and a good win to ensure that they will get one of the third-place berths.  Right now they are in third in the hunt behind Canada and North Korea–a North Korean loss to the US and a Ferns’ triumph over Cameroon are not unlikely scenarios.

Speaking of the North Koreans, one wonders what they will blame for their humiliation to France.  After all, lightning doesn’t strike twice.  While I am not surprised that the North Koreans lost to France, I am surprised by how they lost.  The North Korean women don’t usually get humiliated.  They are in fact rather good at smothering attacks, and given that they play Japan in continental competition, they know how to play against technical sides.  Given that four of the five French goals came in the final 20 minutes, one wonders if North Korea just gave up or ran out of steam.  Maybe the new Dear Leader told them that in defeat they would win.

Finally, the US beat Colombia 3-0, in a match marred by Lady Andrade’s assault on Abby Wambach (Andrade’s arm just happened to fly into Wambach’s face).  The US dominated almost from beginning to end and were rewarded with goals from Wambach, Carli Lloyd, and my beloved Megan Rapinoe.  It is dangerous to apply group form to later matches, but right now the US look a world above the competition.  Colombia, on the other hand, are far more interesting because of how awful they have been.  The mediocrity of Colombia speaks to a general malaise in South American women’s football.  Only Brazil have risen above the mediocrity, and one wonders if that rise will continue once Marta and the current generation decline and retire.  New South American superstars, Brazilian or otherwise, are not readily apparent.  It is a reminder to all American pessimists that we may complain about the future of  our team, but since 1991, the worse they have done in a major tournament is 3rd place.  We have had 21 years of sustained excellence, and the promise of more to come.  South America’s future is far more bleak.  Football’s greatest continent may have no future in the women’s game.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 1: Queen Bees and Wannabes

Although the Opening Ceremonies does not begin until Friday, Olympic football officially kicked off two days ahead of time as all 12 women’s teams took the field.  If last year’s World Cup taught us that the gap is women’s football is closing, this first day of the Olympics showed us that the gap is still substantial.

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There is no sense in starting with any match other than the meeting between the United States and France.  It was the match that everyone wanted to see in the first round, and it may well be the most anticipated match of the group stage (maybe Sweden v. Japan).  In every way these two teams are polar opposites: the Americans are the established power and the French are the upstarts; the Americans are an athletic, counterattacking side while the French play a more aesthetically pleasing possession/short-passing game (no Barcelona comparisons please, have a little respect); the Americans came from all over the now-defunct WPS while most of this French team is made up of players mostly from reigning European club champion Olympique Lyonnaise; the stars of the American side are the forwards Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach, while the face of the French side is the playmaking midfielder Louisa Necib (the “female Zidane”).  There are other comparisons I could make, but life is short.

This match was a rematch of the World Cup semifinal in which the US beat the French side despite being thoroughly outclassed.  The French took that defeat in true Gallic fashion–snippy losers to the core.  But France served notice that day that they are world beaters in the making.  This impression has only solidified since.   Lyon defended their European title, and in a friendly just before the Games began, France beat world champion (and rival aesthete) Japan 2-0.

On the other hand, the US beat Japan 4-1 in their recent friendly.

So even though this was expected to be a tough match for both teams, it was something of a shock to see the French go up 2-0 within 14 minutes.  Shades of the Euro finals perhaps when Spain went 2-0 up early and the match was effectively over (actually the match was effectively over at 1-0, but who’s counting?).  Five minutes after France’s second goal, Abby Wambach scored from a Megan Rapinoe corner, and it was game on.  (A moment just to talk about Megan Rapinoe.  I love intelligent playmakers, and I adore lesbians.  Rapinoe is both, so naturally she is my favorite US player.  Everyone remembers Wambach’s header against Brazil at the World Cup, but how many remember that it was Rapinoe, with her intelligence, vision, touch, and skill, who found Wambach’s head in the dying moments of the game.)

An Alex Morgan brace and a Carli Lloyd goal later, and the US won 4-2.  In every way, for me this was the most impressive victory of the first round, more impressive than the 5-0 and 4-1 whippings that Brazil and Sweden (respectively) issued to their African opponents.  Unlike Cameroon and South Africa, France are a medal contender, and that medal is gold.  The fact that the US came back from a 2-0 deficit and then dominated the second half so effectively shows how good the US actually are.

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;*

In one match the US did just that.

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Looking at the scores, you could be forgiven for thinking that Brazil have this tournament locked up.  A five goal margin victory has not been seen at the two major women’s international tournaments in quite some time.  But Brazil’s 5-0 leads to more questions than answers.  Are Brazil that good or are Cameroon that bad?  It is impossible to judge this early in the tournament, but the evidence points to the latter.   Cameroon are international virgins, and, well, welcome to the real world, kid.  Truth be told, Cameroon did an excellent job holding back a potential massacre for 65 minutes (when they were already down 2-0).  Brazil have more dazzling talent than any other nation in the world (see: Marta), but are handicapped by an apathetic federation and severe coaching deficiencies.  Whether they can overcome their deficiencies against New Zealand (who have Ali Riley and are more organized) and Great Britain (who are better organized and are a better side than New Zealand) remains to be seen.  Cameroon are what we thought Equatorial Guinea would be last year, except that the Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth brought over a few non-Equatoguinean ringers to play alongside their own homegrown talent.

In other Group E play, Great Britain eked out a 1-0 victory in Cardiff over New Zealand.  Kudos to the Football Ferns for keeping the score respectable.  Hopefully, the quarterfinals await for them, although they really need to make sure that they keep it close with Brazil and beat Cameroon lest North Korea or Canada steal that spot out from under them.  No pressure.

Great Britain, who knows?  New Zealand gave them trouble last year at the World Cup when nearly the exact GB side were England, but both times Hope Powell’s side were able to pull out a win when it counted.  I reserve the right to not make a judgment about GB until after the group stage is over.

Japan, like the US had a tough opponent in the first round, in this case Canada.  Not to make too much of a comparison, but Japan v. Canada was a lot like Spain v. everyone else in men’s football.  Teams cannot play against Spain because when they try, they get absolutely hammered.  (Just ask the still-traumatized Italians.)  So they get physical and defensive instead.  And Spain still win but are then called boring.  Japan v. Canada is a little like that in that Japan are a technically gifted, passing side with loads of talent, while Canada, since the departure of Carolina Morace, have become something of a bruiser team.  Japan were better and the 2-1 score was fair enough.  I’m hoping Japan can sustain their brilliant form from the World Cup.  We are all the richer for an excellent Japan.  (Plus, I suspect the US needs them as motivation.)

Sweden were dominant in their 4-1 victory, but South Africa, like Cameroon, are international novices.  Plus there were problems that led to their best player almost being excluded.  One hopes to see Banyana Banyana do well, but I think it will take another couple of tournaments before that happens, if South Africa can sustain that.  In comparison, Sweden have been at the top since the beginning of the women’s game, but are the eternal also-rans.  I imagine that it grates them to no end to know that Norway have won the World Cup and Olympic gold, while Sweden continue to the be the eternal bridesmaids of international women’s football.  The real test will come against Japan.  Like the US, I imagine the thought of Japan is incredible motivation, but motivation is no guarantee of victory.

Last and probably least is Colombia v. North Korea.  Mercifully, this was not a 0-0 draw.  North Korea won 2-0 thanks to a Kim Song-Hui brace.  Given that North Korea are banned from the next World Cup for positive steroid testing in their players, it is somewhat grating to see them at the Olympics, especially as Equatorial Guinea were disqualified from Olympic qualification, also for rule infraction (fielding an ineligible player).  I will never understand the arcane rules of international sports administration.  Colombia again failed to impress which is a shame because South America really needs a second top women’s team, if for no other reason than to challenge Brazil and make them better.  Argentina never quite pulled off being the other great South American side and I fear Colombia will share that fate.  I blame machismo and sexism.  If South Americans nations and their football administrations got behind their women’s teams like they do their men’s teams, South American football would be the dominant force in the world.

As for North Korea, the main story of the match is not their win, but rather the unbelievable gaffe that happened prior to kickoff.  Stadium screens at Hampden Park showed the North Korean players’ names next to the South Korean flag.  South Korea, the nation North Korea has been at war with for over 60 years.  The players walked off the field, and the match was delayed for an hour while that was sorted out.  Sometimes an apology just does not suffice.

Way to go, London Olympics.  A smashing start even before the Games officially begin.

Footnotes:

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

Um, yay?

Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the legislature must pass a same-sex marriage bill within two years.  If the legislature fails to act, same-sex couples will be able to formalize their unions before a notary public or a court.  This is a momentous step, although it seems like the LGBT community of Colombia actually feels let down.  CNN reports that activists see it as a victory.

The Colombian legislature is split between allies and bigots.  From an American point of view, the Constitutional Court took a tremendously positive step, but I can also see why the Colombian LGBT community is unhappy.  It leaves the specifics to a legislature that will more likely than not drag its feet, and that has, multiple times in the past, rejected same-sex marriage bills. There is, as expected, opposition in the government.

It is unclear what will happen.  The Court ruled that same-sex couples in de facto unions constituted a family.  However, the Court did not necessarily say the legislature had to call it marriage.  Nor did the Court extend marriage to same-sex couples as advocates had hoped.  In theory the legislature could pass something like civil unions, although I am not an expert in Colombian law, so I cannot speak to the available options.

More on this story as it develops (no doubt at a snail’s pace.)  In the meantime, I understand Uruguay is on the verge of passing a same-sex marriage bill.

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.

Argentina Draws, Colombia Wins

Group A of the Copa America has played.  Colombia beat Costa Rica 1-0 today.  Yesterday though Argentina barely drew with Bolivia 1-1 after a Sergio Aguero goal saved blue and white pride.

I am trying to figure out whether this was a case of nerves or something else.  It’s one thing to draw with or lose to Bolivia in Bolivia where the dreaded elevation comes into play, but the Copa America is in Argentina this year.  By any standard this was embarrassing, and it could have been worse. Bolivia are on the whole the worst team in South America, and there is no indication the team will ever get better.

Now the first match is usually where all the jitter comes in, and Argentina have plenty of time to recover, but is Argentina perhaps overrated?  Is too much expected of Messi and his compatriots? Did Sergio Batista fall to the pressure of taking Carlos Tevez, and thus is no longer in control of his team?   Or is this something Argentina will just shake off?

And what will happen if Brazil win?

Women’s World Cup Day 7: USA Roll; Sweden Cannot Finnish

On this day the United States Women’s National Team rolled over Colombia in front of a sold-out crowd, while Sweden completely unimpressed in a 1-0 victory over North Korea.  Must be the lingering effects of the lightning.

Sweden v. North Korea

I feel bad to say this, but I hate watching Sweden play.  I like Sweden, mind you.  The people are nice.  The only openly gay (male) footballer in the world is Swedish.  My first car was an old Volvo.  The Swedes gave the world ABBA which is an invaluable gift.*

But my God, Sweden (the team) are so boring.  They are completely incapable of scoring on gimme shots.  Rather than dancing around at the end of their pitifully poor 1-0 victories, they should be trying to figure out exactly what is wrong with their game.

North Korea’s problems are pretty apparent, and they are not weather-related.  North Korea are too young, too inexperienced, and lacking in attacking weapons.  Defense does not really win tournaments.  I worry about though is what will happen to the North Korean players.  Unlike the men, the women are a powerhouse of the AFC, but like the men they could not get out of the group stages of the World Cup.  Will there be a six-hour dressing down?  Will the coach be sent to a labor camp?  More importantly, without the massive attention that a men’s World Cup brings, if those things do happen, will anyone pay attention?

United States v. Colombia

The US needed a statement game.  Sure, in the first round they were the only team to win by more than one goal, but since then France and Japan each put up four goals.  Furthermore, the USWNT’s first half against North Korea was not convincing, even if the second half was a complete US domination.  The US needed a 90 minute domination.

And they got it.  3-0 is a great result, although on another day that score could have been far more embarrassing for the Colombians.  The goals, first from Heather O’Reilly, then Megan Rapinoe,** and finally Carli Lloyd were all from distance.  O’Reilly’s shot in particular was of stunning quality; it will be one of the top strikes of this tournament.

Three positives are readily apparent.  The first is that the US has looked better than it has in a long time.  The second is that Pia Sundhage is the best coach the US has had since Tony DiCicco.  Finally, there is extraordinary depth in the US squad, and any player can come off the bench and play brilliantly.  Both the US and France have scored five goals.  Only Japan have scored more.  Unlike Japan and France, all the US goals came from different players, which indicates that there is not just one dangerous player.

On the other hand, the US finishing has left a lot to be desired, particularly from the forwards.  Amy Rodriguez should probably not be starting, and Abby Wambach, as good as the rest of her game has been, seems to be under some kind of hex.  Time after time she could not put the ball in the back of the net, even though some of her attempts were agonizingly close.  Wambach is one of the leaders of the team, and taking her off is highly unlikely.  Nevertheless, I could not help but wonder what the score would have been had Alex Morgan played.

One thing that has struck me about the USWNT is how white it is.  When US football fans complain about how the USSF doesn’t try to go into the inner city and immigrant communities, we are usually talking about the failure of the men’s program.  Nevertheless, I wonder why these same criticisms are not applied to the USWNT. Is it because of how successful they are?  Or is it just not something we think about?  Compared to the US women, the men’s team is a veritable Rainbow Coalition, and yet I never see arguments that the USSF could be doing more outreach.  I offer no opinion, but I am curious what people think about that.

Colombia, like North Korea, is essentially a junior team with senior aspirations.  Like North Korea, they were found out in a major way.  Not that they were particularly awful (although they are arguably the worst team at the tournament), but the inexperience–both the team’s and the coach’s–showed.  Hope Solo was basically a spectator as the Colombia attack could not trouble her.  It was telling that Yoreli Rincón, the self-proclaimd “next Marta,” was left on the bench after a disappointing performance against Sweden.  If Colombia had been better, how would the US have fared.  It’s important to remember that before feeling like this is 1999 all over again.

One hopes that Colombia is a team for the future. although there are reasons to fear otherwise.***  There is talent there, but other factors are always at play.  This is the story of women’s football, particularly in Latin America.  All the talent, but none of the infrastructure, and worse, confronted by at best apathy and at worst utter contempt.

The US now plays Sweden.  Both nations have qualified, but this match is for control of the group.  The US needs only a draw to win the group and (hopefully) not face Marta and Brazil in the quarterfinals.

Footnotes: 

* Once upon a time, Sweden was one of the great sides in world football.  In the 1940’s, they were near the very top; had the World Cup been held in either 1942 and 1946, Sweden may have even won one.  Sweden hosted the 1958 World Cup, the tournament that gave the world the Brazil of Garrincha, Didi, Vavá, Djalma Santos, Nilmar Santos, and a seventeen-year-old kid whose real name was Edison Arantes do Nascimento (you might have heard of him.)  Sweden were such good hosts–the Swedish crowd cheered for the brilliant Brazilians as vigorously as they cheered their own home side in the Brazil v. Sweden final–that the Brazilians carried two flags in their victory lap: their own and the Swedish flag.  Since then Sweden has again never reached those heights, although there was the occasional good result, such as 3rd place at the 1994 World Cup.

** Rapinoe, a starter before the World Cup, was relegated to the bench before the tournament in favor of Lauren Cheney.  Today her goal came shortly after she was substituted for Amy Rodriguez.  Immediately after scoring, Rapinoe ran over to the microphone in the corner and belted out “Born in the U.S.A.”  While I appreciate the exuberance, I would question whether Rapinoe has ever actually listened to the song, which is not the patriotic anthem it is made out to be.  I would humbly suggest that the next time Rapinoe scores a goal she sings this instead (warning: not for those with delicate sensibilities.)

*** As I write this, I am watching ESPN’s brilliant and tragic documentary “The Two Escobars” which I would advise everyone to watch if you haven’t already.