Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)

(I know I said I probably wouldn’t write much about the African Cup of Nations, but I just couldn’t stop myself.)  

As befits a tournament held in a brutal, repressive, oil-rich dictatorship, the African Cup of Nations got started with a bang.  The bang, that is, of police firing tear gas on a crowd trying to get into the stadium to watch the tournament’s first match.

Equatorial Guinea is one of the most repressive countries in the world.  I alluded to this the other day, and I wrote about it before when discussing the Equatoguinean Women’s National Team at last year’s World Cup.  Like with the dictatorships of the Arabian Gulf however, the world is willing to overlook this tiny flaw because of the nation’s vast petroleum reserves.  Let me make my biases completely clear–repressive dictatorships should not be allowed to hold international athletic competitions.  It was wrong that Nazi Germany held both Olympic Games in 1936, it was wrong that Italy and Argentina held the 1934 and 1978 World Cups, and it is wrong that Russia and Qatar will be holding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.  (This is by no means an exhaustive list.)  While the pageantry is great, and perhaps the trains really do run on time, the human cost and the moral cost outweigh any potential enjoyment.

FIFA is eternally at the vanguard of paying lip-service to anti-racism efforts, but when confronted with real moral dilemmas, Sepp Blatter & Co. fall back on their favored “sports should be independent of politics” canard.  History has shown over and over again that this is blatantly false.  Of course sports and politics mix; they mix all the time.  Repressive dictators like nothing better than an extravagant showing of sports supremacy to reaffirm their own positions.  They throw the best parties, and making trains run on time is an effective way of using efficiency to mask cruelty.  The mix of politics and sports is how international football has gotten itself into the mess it finds itself in now.  Because FIFA’s former President Stanley Rous held fast to the misguided belief that sports and politics should be segregated (his particularly blind spots being South Africa and Chile) he lost the presidency to João Havelange who ushered in an era of corruption, theft, and cozying up to repressive dictators that has yet to end.

Even before the tear gas started, the Equatoguinean government got heavily involved in the tournament and the national team.  The son of the Equatoguinean President Teodoro Obiang offered the national team a million dollars to win its first match and $20,000 for each goal.  Equatorial Guinea did indeed win its first match, a 1-0 victory over Libya, a country that until recently suffered under its own ruthless dictator.  By all appearances, from the way the teams played the result of the match was fair, although I wonder if Libya would have been allowed to win had they been the better side.

On the other hand, Equatorial Guinea did cheat, even if the cheating went unacknowledged and will be unpunished.  According to Reuters:

[The Equatorial Guinea National Team] starting line-up consisted of five players born in Spain, two in Ivory Coast and one each born in Cameroon, Cape Verde, Brazil and Liberia.  Some players qualified through their parents but there are doubts over whether the naturalised players have lived in the country for five years as required by FIFA rules.

This was the exact same problem that the women’s team had.  Well, one of the problems–no one is accusing the players of the men’s team of not being men.  The entire Equatoguinean men’s starting lineup was born outside of Equatorial Guinea, which is not true of the women’s team.  Coincidentally, the women were disqualified from the 2012 Olympics for fielding an ineligible player (nationality issues, not gender).

(As an aside, my absolute favorite demonym is Equatoguinean.  My second favorite is Burkinabé.)

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 The other first day match was Zambia v. Senegal, a match with more symbolism and latent angst than an Ingmar Bergman film.  Senegal was a team on the verge of greatness, or so everyone thought in 2002 after the team famously upset defending champion (and former colonial master) France in the first round of the World Cup, and then reached the semifinals.  Then as suddenly as they appeared, the team disappeared from non-African international competition.  There were some fairly decent AfCoN showings, and top Senegalese players continued to play in the upper echelons of the game, but Senegal became a buzzword for unfulfilled potential.  For the first time in ages, Senegal actually looks good.

For Zambia, this match has even more symbolic importance.  In 1993, the plane carrying the very talented Zambia National Team crashed into Atlantic Ocean.  Every person on the plane died including most of the national team, the coaches, and the support staff.  That was the Golden Generation of Zambian football, the team expected to reach the World Cup, and the team is still deeply mourned in Zambia.  This year’s tournament and this match in particular are especially poignant.  The 1993 match that the Zambian National Team never played was a World Cup qualifier in Dakar against Senegal; the plane crashed after leaving Gabon, this year’s co-host, for a brief stopover.

Zambia won today’s match 2-1 which is something of a major upset given that Senegal is (was?) considered the tournament’s third-best team, behind only the Ivory Coast and Ghana.  Only a half-filled stadium saw this tremendous result because much of the crowd left after Equatorial Guinea played–another embarrassment for the host nation.

Zambia is still justifiably in mourning about the death of its earlier team, and because of the symbolism, this tournament is something of a redemption for the lost team.  Inevitably that will lead to disappointment, and perhaps unfairly.  So large does the lost team loom in the Zambian consciousness that the Zambians may have overestimated the ability of that team’s prowess.   Just look at this article written about the current Zambia side: “in Zambia there is no doubt [the lost team was] the best that the country, and possibly the continent, ever had.”

This of course leads to the inevitable “What if” questions, so endemic to African football.  Every footballing nation creates its alternate realities to explain away failure, but the African continent as a whole lives by them.  If only the Zambian team hadn’t been killed in a horrific disaster.  If only FIFA hadn’t been so condescending in the 1960’s, which led to the African and Asian boycott of the 1966 tournament thereby denying the great Ghana team a chance to play on the world stage.  If only South Africa had never adopted a policy of apartheid. If only the Nigerian FA weren’t such a corrupt cesspool.  If only Egypt didn’t choke every time there was a World Cup qualifier.  If only the Ivory Coast had better draws in the past two World Cups.  If only Luis Suarez had no hands.  If! If! If! If! If!  There are so many ifs because there that makes a convenient excuse for the absence of a when.  The flaws of African football have been thoroughly debated by those more knowledgeable and intelligent than me, but they seem to agree that change anytime soon is unlikely.

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I suspect that a small but significant problem with African football (beyond the money issues, corruption, and slave trade that disguises itself as “playing in Europe“) is that few outside of Africa think of the continent’s individual countries as individual countries.  Rather they tend to be lumped together as “Africa” even though we all know the major African powers and are not likely to confuse them.  This laziness can also be applied within Africa too, which is why the continent so thoroughly embraced the idea that the 2010 World Cup was the “African World Cup.”  No one thought of the 2002 World Cup as the “Asian World Cup” even though it was the first one to be held in Asia and two Asian countries (who otherwise hate each other) co-hosted.  No one thought of any of the World Cup held in the Americas or Europe as continent-wide tournaments.  Yet when Shakira sang “this time for Africa,” everyone bought into that, forgetting that Africa is just as diverse as Asia, if not more so, and far more diverse than any other continent in the world.

There are two books about African football that I have encountered, Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon and Steve Bloomfield’s Africa United.  Both books examine individual African nations and their unique football cultures and histories, yet both treat Africa as a whole simply because of geographic happenstance, thereby undercutting their own theses that African football is not monolithic.  It also should be noted that in both books even the most disparate countries suffer similar trials, travails, and tribulations.

There must be a way to individualize African nations.  Perhaps once one African nation win the World Cup the world will view African nations as unique in the way that Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay prevented South America from being consolidated into a similar monolith.  However, unless something radical changes in the structure and governance of African football, I doubt that breakthrough will happen.

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In other news, the Ivory Coast beat Sudan 1-0, a score that flattered the latter and should give worries to the former.  Angola beat Burkina Faso 2-1 in a competitive and enjoyable match.
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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: What Have We Learned Thus Far

Today there were no women’s World Cup matches, but since seven of the eight quarterfinalists are set (sorry Mexico, but England is going through), I thought now would be a good time to share what I have observed.  It is important to stress this is based on what I have seen.  History is not destiny, and it is entirely possible that everything I am about to write will be proven entirely wrong.

Germany is cracking

Perhaps it is from the pressure of being the home nation (only the US in 1999 has ever won at home), but Germany is not the dynamic powerhouse we all expected.  Allegedly there are divisions within the team, and captain and team leader Birgit Prinz, one of the game’s all time greats, has imploded in a major way, both on and off the field.  The truth is that Prinz has been woeful for some time now.

I blame Silvia Neid for the team’s problems.  This is the most competitive World Cup ever; it is not a guaranteed coronation for Germany or a valedictory for Prinz.  Letting Prinz, who is 33 and past her best days, start smacks of arrogance and a belief that Germany is so far superior to the competition that it doesn’t matter how out of top form the main striker is.  As a result, Germany, and Prinz in particular, is also getting slammed in the home media and jeered by the fans.  These are fans who know football, and they also have expectations.  Expectations which Germany seems unable to meet.  This is not to say Germany won’t win, but they need a major effort to pull everything together.  When the team is divided over Prinz, the captain of the team, that is not a good sign.

UEFA is still the best conference, but their dominance is overstated

European teams at this tournament have a better record than any other continent.  European teams have won every match except two: England’s draw with Mexico and Norway’s loss to Brazil.  This is a misleading statistic.  With the exception of Canada and obviously Brazil, European teams have not met the world’s best.  This changes with the third round.  This week the US and Japan finally play European competition (Sweden and England respectively) while Norway will try to recover against Australia.  None of these matches is a gimme.  Expect Europe’s record to get worse.

The AFC is the conference of the future

China were the trailblazers.  The great Sun Wen-led team of the late 90’s heralded a bright future for Asian (specifically East Asian) teams.  Although after 1999 China fell from the upper echelons of the game, Asian teams have come into their own in a major way.  Japan look like they may finally putting together a great run, while Australia looks like a strong team for the next four years at least.  South Korea just missed out on this tournament but have enormous talent and potential, and North Korea is an AFC powerhouse regardless of the poor showing this year.  You heard it here first folks, an Asian team will win the Women’s World Cup long before an Asian team wins the Men’s World Cup.

Europe needs new faces

Five European teams are in this year’s World Cup: Norway, Sweden, Germany, England, and France.  All have been at the World Cup before, and Norway, Sweden, and Germany have qualified for every World Cup.  The only other nations that have ever qualified from Europe are Russia, Denmark, and Italy.  Among those nations that have never qualified are Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.  Spain in particular is shocking because the Spanish league is competitive and has skillful players.  I hear whispers and rumors about why Spain doesn’t succeed in national competition, but nothing definite.  Does anyone know why Spain’s women’s team cannot qualify for major tournaments?

Spare a thought for Canada

Has any team this year been as unlucky as Canada?  In addition to the off-the-field issues, they were drawn into the most difficult group and then were steamrolled by a brilliant France.  In part it was simply a bad day at the office, no doubt made worse by Christine Sinclair’s injury.  Canada are a great team, and deserved better.  Unfortunately deserve doesn’t mean anything, and Canada are the best team to go home early.  Maybe in four years when the tournament in is Canada they will finally make the impact they have been promising to make.  Hopefully the team will only move forward from here.  It would be a shame if this poor result obscures all the great progress they have already made.

How many coaches competed in 1991?

Pia Sunhage, Carolina Morace, and Silvia Neid.  All three of these women were top competitors in the first Women’s World Cup 20 years ago.  That is quite a reunion.  Are there others?  I think Hege Riise is an assistant trainer for the US.  If only Carin Jennings Gabarra and April Heinrichs were also involved.  Or maybe not.

Norway is fading fast

Everyone talks about cycles in football, and of course that is true.  China will be back one day even though they are at a low ebb now.  But there are also teams who decline for good; they cannot cope with the sophistication and talent in the game, and it passes them by.  That, I believe, is Norway’s fate, and I sense that Norway’s loss 3-0 to Brazil is a watershed moment.  This loss signals the beginning of the end for the team that the US Women, after the tough loss at the 1995 World Cup, referred to as the “Viking bitches.”

In the early years the Nordic countries dominated women’s football because they were the first, and therefore had a head start.  At that time, only the US, one of the few other countries that also had a similarly enlightened attitude toward women’s sports, could compete with the Nordic countries on the world stage.  But things are different now.  The rest of the world caught up.  Norway does not have the talent or the population to compete, and its national style is long outdated.  It’s not coach Eli Landsem’s fault, but Norway is headed on a long, slow, and permanent decline.  Spare a thought for a once great champion; in a few cycles they will no longer appear regularly.

Women can play the beautiful game

France and Japan use an intricate passing game and Brazil has its jogo bonito.  Canada play with flair, and even the US  team has developed as aesthetically pleasing style to go along with its famous physicality.  Mexico and Colombia too had moments, although Mexico more than Colombia, and both were few and far between.  England has the smart and stylish Kelly Smith, the kind of player England’s men’s team desperately needs but would then reject (a la Paul Scholes.)  The days of the Evan Pellarud long ball style are gone.  Women’s football is a sophisticated and tactically nuanced game.

There is some amazing young talent here, but you’d never know it

Perhaps they are being saved for later, but the coaches have been holding back some of the most exciting young talent in the tournament, and I am not talking Yoreli Rincon (although in four years she will no doubt be better.)  Alexandra Popp has had significant minutes (as a substitute), but Lira Bajramaj has seen very few.  That’s a shame because she is a wonder on the ball.  I would like to see more Mana Iwabuchi, and everyone and their grandmother is clamoring for Alex Morgan to play for the US.  For some reason, coaches have been very hesitant.

African nations have talent, but the need to tone down the physicality

Perhaps the most exciting find of the tournament is Genoveva Añonma of Equatorial Guinea (although Louisa Necib of France makes a good case.)  And even the German fans were impressed by Nigeria’s first half performance against the home side.  Yet both Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria resorted to thuggish fouling and near brawling.  It’s a shame; fans would love to get behind African teams, but they also reject teams that act that way.

The US is back in a major way

Months ago, US fans despaired.  Mexico beat us for the first time in the Gold Cup, eliminating us.  As a result we had to play a play-off against Italy and were the last side to qualify.  Yet, with the exception of one half against North Korea, this US side has looked like the most dominating team of the tournament.  The 3-0 throttling of Colombia was very flattering to the South Americans because on another day it could have been one of those blowouts that this year’s tournament has mercifully lacked.  Whatever Pia Sundhage has done has worked.  Now the real tournament begins; the US faces Sweden, a team that beat the US this year, and not the glorified u-20 teams that were North Korea and Colombia.

Brazil has Marta and you don’t

I have said over and over again that football is a team game.  Having said that, Marta is the only player on the planet who can take the game by the scruff of the neck and win it by sheer force of will. Her first goal against Norway was an entirely individual effort.  Marta tortured the Norwegian back line all the while moving further and further up the all-time goalscoring chart.  One day, when women’s sports are finally seen as completely legitimate, Brazilians will speak of her in the revered tones they use for Pele, Garrincha, and Zico.  One hopes that she gets a major international title to go along with her astounding individual and club success.

The gap has closed.  For now.

Although there have been some dominating performances, there has been no 8-0, 11-0 blowouts.  Women’s football is all the richer for this, as more teams become legitimate contenders for the title.  Let’s hope this trend continues in four years when the tournament expands to 24 teams.

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.

Women’s World Cup Day 4 Preliminary Report: ESPN Finally Messes Up

I would normally wait until both matches are finished before I write anything, but this bothers me so much that I feel it deserves its own post.

I have been very impressed with ESPN thus far, but without a doubt my least favorite commentary team is Beth Mowins and Cat Whitehill.  First Whitehill repeatedly (as in five or six times that I am aware of) compared Japan to Barcelona even though they are nothing alike other than the fact that both teams field short players and pass a lot.  I have not been particularly impressed with either with the tactical analysis or the color commentary, but (the Barcelona comparison aside) nothing really bothered me to the point where I felt like I needed to complain.  Until today.  All throughout the extremely entertaining match between former powerhouse Norway and World Cup newcomer Equatorial Guinea, both Mowins and Whitehill repeated mispronounced the name of equatoguinean star Genoveva Añonma.  Every time they mentioned her name–and it was often because she was undoubtedly the player of the match–they said “a-NAHN-ma.”

(Note:  To be fair, it’s not just Mowins and Whitehill, it’s everyone at ESPN, but Mowins and Whitehill called the match, which means they said it most often.)

Equatorial Guinea was a former colony of Spain way back when the Europeans openly believed that they had the right to carve up the rest of the world.  Like with the Ivory Coast and France or Cape Verde and Portugal, there is a strong Spanish connection and influence in Equatorial Guinea.  Spanish is one of the official languages of Equatorial Guinea.  In Spanish, an “ñ” is actual pronounced “ny” as in mañana.  Therefore, Genoveva Añonma’s last name is not “a-NAHN-ma,” but rather “an-YONE-ma,” (note the long “o”) at least according to the name on the back of her jersey.

Look, we all mispronounce names, especially when those names are from a different culture than our own.  Even commentators make mistakes, and the occasional one can be forgiven.  But I don’t care if Equatorial Guinea came out of nowhere.  It’s called research, and if you call a match, it is your job to get names as correct as possible.  If you cannot pronounce the name of a star player correctly, you are not doing your job.

I’m not asking much.  Spanish is a very easy language to pronounce.  It’s even easier than English, which is also is relatively easy in the grand scheme of things.  We’re not talking about really difficult languages for non-native speaker that they have over a hundred different phonemes that exist nowhere else.  I’m not even asking for proper pronunciation of deceptively tricky languages (for English speakers) like Brazilian Portuguese which uses the same letters as English but with the occasionally different pronunciation–the transliteration of “Ronaldinho” is approximately “Honalgeenyo.”  (For fun, here is Tim Vickery’s demonstration of a Brazilians transliteration of English player Jonathan Woodgate.)

Now, of course I could be wrong.  Obviously language pronunciations differ from country to country and even in Spain there are regional variations, but I suspect that ESPN got lazy, and did not think any viewers would actually look at the player’s jersey, and think “Wait a second, that’s not right.”

This ends my rant.  Match reports to follow shortly.

Women’s World Cup Update: News From Equatorial Guinea

In my last post on this topic, I noted the controversy about the Equatorial Guinea women’s football team.  Specifically there were claims that other teams claimed that a few of the Equatoguinean players were actually men.  At the time I dismissed this as sour grapes until there was proof.

There is still no proof, but now it appears that there is some legitimate cause to question.  Specifically, two star players, sisters named Salimata and Bilguisa Simpore, were dropped from the squad.  Obviously it makes no sense to drop one’s star players just before a major tournament, and it looks especially bad in the light of the allegations.  Also, Saltimata was accused of also playing for Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire, which is a major no-no (once you pick a senior side, you are stuck with it for better or for worse.)  With the caveat that there is not incriminating evidence other than complaints from other teams, and innocent unless proven guilty, the actions of Equatorial Guinea are remarkably suspicious.

If I were a player from Ghana, South Africa, or Cameroon, the three nations who were most directly impacted by Equatorial Guinea’s success, I would be really pissed off right now.