Euro Day 2: Welcome To Hell

Day Two of Euro 2012 proved it was good to be white, as both the white-shirted squads from Denmark and Germany beat (respectively) the Netherlands (orange) and Portugal (red). Also, Ukraine and Poland have huge neo-Nazi problems.

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So first an apology.  Because of my work schedule I cannot post daily updates about the Euro, which depresses me tremendously.  Although I like to eat as much as the next person, a part of me was hoping to get fired for the summer so that I could sit in front of the television and write about the foibles of the European Championship participants (especially England).  That did not happen, and although I am sure I will be thankful about that when the tournament finishes, right now I am just devastated at not being able to watch my time watching televised football.  As it is, I am forsaking overtime just to write these blog entries.  (If you could do me the favor of spreading the word about this blog, I would be much obliged.)  I will try to write updates on Saturday and Sunday.

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Day 1 started with all the bloated pageantry and self-regard that one expects from a FIFA-sanctioned tournament.  Apparently the actual matches were entertaining, but I could only follow by live blog, so the less said on my part, the better.  Greece and Poland drew 1-1 and Russia demolished the Czech Republic 4-1.  This proves two things: (1) Russia are the Group A favorite and everyone else is playing for second; and (2) Russia are a Euro-only tournament team that falters come World Cup time.  More than likely, none of these teams which is probably a good thing.  Winning will only make people, and giving happiness for Eastern Europeans is like giving a seal a million dollars; sure the seal is now rich, but it has no idea what to do with the money.  (The Greeks, on the other hand, certainly will know how to celebrate, but right now they probably shouldn’t.)

The major problem of the Euro is the specter of racism which has already reared its ugly.  I’m not quite sure anyone should be surprised by this given that we have all been complaining about this inevitability since UEFA awarded this tournament to Poland and Ukraine.  FIFA and UEFA are dealing with it in completely expected ways–pretending it isn’t happening until they are forced to, calling the nations who are complaining hypocrites, and forcing everyone to shake hands.  Bill Archer has been writing some good columns about this.  No sports tournament will ever solve the problem of racism, but the fact that FIFA and UEFA hide their heads in the sand until they are forced to accept awful reality of the situation shows exactly how meaningless their words and gestures really.  Expect the same problem (and officials reactions) to come up before the World Cup in Russia in six years.

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Without fail, in the months leading up to the Euro the talk turns to how this the best tournament in football, lacking only Brazil and Argentina.  (Which is also how it is also viewed in Brazil and Argentina.)  Because Asians, Africans, and Americans (North and South) can’t really play that well, and get into the World Cup only because of affirmative action.  It’s a dangerous fallacy, but it pops up like clockwork every four years.

Group B of the Euro though actually is the toughest I have ever seen, and it is called the Group of Death for good reason.  Every tournament has a Group of Death, but usually what that means is that there are two top teams, one potentially dangerous second tier team, and one unknown quantity.  Group B of Euro 2012 though is a real Group of Death in that every team is a top 10 team in the FIFA rankings (make of that what you will).  Even little Denmark, widely expected to be the cannon fodder won their qualification group (over fellow Group of Deather Portugal).  Germany, Denmark, Portugal, Netherlands.  This is the closest you will get to a real Group of Death, short of losers actually being killed–which will probably happen when UEFA inevitably award Serbia the right to host the Euro.

As it became clear that Denmark was going to beat the Netherlands 1-0, we heard over and over again that this is the biggest upset of the tournament so far.  No matter how true this is–and this was a huge upset–it is still an incredibly stupid and hollow thing to say on the second day of a tournament after only three matches have been played.  But it was a huge upset.  Germany and Holland were expected to be the two survivors of Group B and the two teams most likely to challenge Spain for the championship.  Today’s results don’t make that prediction untrue, but it is certainly much that much harder for the Oranje to advance.

Credit to Denmark who were up against a far more skilled team yet found a way not only to win but win in an entertaining fashion.  Part of the entertainment value is because Denmark were a scrappy underdog up against a veritable football Goliath (granted, one prone to self-destruction) and won without draining the life from the match through incessant fouling and such.  Denmark even looked good, which Adrian Healey had to keep repeating, possibly because he himself was having trouble believing that this was possible.

Like most people, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Dutch, and like most people it is because of Total Football, a style that has not actually existed since the late 1970’s, a style that I never saw, and a style that never actually won an international tournament.  I have a soft spot because who doesn’t want to see the Netherlands finally get the World Cup victory it has gotten so desperately close to winning three times before failing?  (Answer: Germans.)

Nevertheless, I was quite happy to see Denmark win.  Until the day I die, I will never stop believing and repeating that there is no such thing as deserve in football.  Yet the Dutch waltzed in thinking they deserved the win because they are the Clockwork Orange who have a proud history of beautiful football (pretend 2010 never existed), whereas Denmark are just boring Viking spawn.  Keeping in mind that Denmark have just as many international titles as the Netherlands have (one) and Denmark also have a much beloved team that failed in glorious fashion (the 1986 World Cup team).  Also remember that that the Danes beat the Dutch when they improbably won the tournament in 1992–expect to hear a lot about that the farther Denmark advances in this tournament.

Denmark was certainly defense-minded (like most teams from small nations… and Italy), but they actually played rather than resorting to incessant, cheap fouls–a lesson the Dutch could have learned in 2010.  Smart money says that the Dutch will still advance in to the next stage and the Danes will not, but for Holland, it has just become much harder.  If they are not in Hell, then they are at least in a limbo.  And their next match is against ancient archenemy Germany.  If the Oranje lose that one, not only will they be eliminated, they will retraumatize their countrymen.

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Ah, Germany.  What is that famous quote by Gary Lineker?  “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”  It’s so true.  Except that it isn’t.  Germany have not won a tournament since 1996.  In that time, France, Brazil, Greece, Italy, and Spain have won the tournaments that Germany entered and Germany have at best finished second.  At the World Cup two years ago, Germany were the revelation, this new, exciting, young, multicultural squad with such potential.  They were the instant favorites for this tournament.

Since 2010, Germany’s performance has been lackluster.  Now I grant you that there is not much to rate, but they stopped looking like the impressive side from two years ago, and started looking deadly ordinary.  Probably because now other teams are expecting them (see also: opponents’ reaction to Spain).  Against Portugal, Germany did find a way to win, but it was not pretty, and Germany look awfully mortal.

As for Portugal, why do analysts given them any credit?  They talk big, but can’t pull it out.  Every tournament it’s the same thing.  The only time they got close was the 2004 Euro at home in which they still came in second.  Even Holland and Denmark have a Euro title.  But Portugal?  Nothing.  The reason they are given so much credit is because they have Cristiano Ronaldo, the second-best player in the world (MESSI!  MESSI!  MESSI!)  and for some reason analysts who should know better think that one player will make the entire difference.  Even Maradona did not all by his lonesome drag Argentina to victory in 1986.  That is historical revisionism.  And the Greasy One is by no means Jesus Cristiano, a messiah who will lead Portugal to footballing glory where even Eusebio failed.

Portugal are strong (unlike their national economy), defensively organized, and they poach second-string Brazilians.  Much like every other national team, including those with better overall players but no superstars.  Against better teams once Portugal are broken, they cannot respond; they can only prevent the score from becoming a humiliation.  That is what happened at the World Cup with Spain, and that is what happened today with Germany.

Germany and Portugal also carried the shadow of another Euro, and the crumbling European economy.  Today’s match had the potential for much metaphor.  Depending on which economist you trust, Germany are trying to either (1) keep all those other lazy spendthrift nations afloat; or (2) prevent nations harmed by the 2008 Recession from growing their economies by forcing upon them harmful austerity measures.  And in football, like in the Eurozone, Germany again proved that it could have its way with Portugal.

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I didn’t watch much of the ESPN commentary between matches (weekends are when I do my chores, so the chance to listen to Alexei Lalas prattle on is going to have remain untaken), but I did notice Michael Ballack in the booth, and I wondered what he was thinking.  Four years, he was Germany’s star.  Two years ago, after an injury that kept him out of the World Cup–and estranged the Boetang brothers–Germany performed wildly beyond expectations.  Philip Lahm turned out to be a good replacement as stand-in captain and did not want to give the armband back, despite Ballack’s protestations and veiled threats.  Finally coach Joachim Low came out and told Ballack in so many words that his services were no longer required.*  What was going on in Ballack’s mind.  Alas, I will never know.

Footnotes: 

*  As a side note, this demonstrates how powerful the British media is.  Low says that Ballack is no longer coming back, and this dictate goes unquestioned.  Fabio Capello says (correctly) that David Beckham is too old for the national team, and the media and therefore the British population go crazy resulting in Capello having to walk back his statement and become further emasculated in his job.  This is why Germany win titles and England do not.

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Women’s World Cup Day 11: Heroes’ Exits

Otherwise known as the day that shot my nerves.

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

France v. England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan v. Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s World Cup: Quarterfinal Predictions

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s World Cup Day 9: Contenders and Pretenders

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

First, an apology. 

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

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

England v. Japan

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

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

Germany v. France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this too is progress.

Footnotes:

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

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.

More Bad News For US Soccer

The United States U17 team was crushed by Germany (4-0) in the Round of 16 at the U17 World Cup in Mexico.  Mexico beat Panama 2-0 to make the quarterfinals.

Now it’s important to remember that in the grand scheme of things the results of an underage World Cup mean relatively little.  These tournaments have some merit, but are generally taken too seriously.  Many a young “golden generation” could not make an impact on the senior level when it counted (see: Portugal at the 2002 World Cup.)  Furthermore, there is no shame in losing to Germany, although a 4-0 loss is a little hard to swallow.

Nevertheless, this is yet another indication that football in the US in not on the right track.  At all levels save for the senior US Women’s National Team, we are falling further and further behind the rest of the world.  This is an emergency, and something needs to be done to reverse the trend.

Women’s World Cup Day 5: French Fry Canadian Bacon

Well, I predicted that starting now we would see some goal fests, but I was completely blindsided by which match it came in.  This round gave us some shocks: obviously the 4-0 French victory over Canada, but to my mind the biggest surprise was the fact that a home crowed booed the German team off the field at half-time.  It says volumes about the way Nigeria played, both in terms of its tenacity and organization but also its kamikaze play, which bordered on thuggishness.

It also says that a women’s football team will not be treated any differently than a men’s team.  If the crowd is unhappy with the way the team plays they will let it be known, gender be damned.  To my eyes, this is progress!

Despite a bad night, Germany still eked out the 1-0 win and, along with France, qualified for the quarterfinals.  Nigeria and Canada are out.  What a night.  Although the results were predictable (although I thought Canada would make the quarterfinals) everything you thought you knew has been turned on its head.

France v. Canada

Wow.  That’s all I can say.  France have officially played the best match of anyone so far.  Clearly bringing along most of the Lyon squad was a good idea, but the real glory has to go to Clairfontaine.  In previous years, group stage blowouts came about because one team was incredibly good and the other team was incredibly outmatched.  That is why you would see scores such as 7-1, 8-0, 11-0, and so on.

France v. Canada is incredible, possibly unique, because it was an early round match between two of the world’s best sides.  Both France and Canada are very talented, and both had a reasonable expectation of victory.  Until the match started that is.  From the beginning, France dominated and never let up.  It was a champion’s performance.

For Canada this game is fraught with “What Ifs?”  What if Christine Sinclair’s nose wasn’t broken?  What if they hadn’t played Germany first?  What if they had been in a different group?  What if there had been no problems between their coach Carolina Morace and the Canadian Soccer Association?

Unfortunately, Canada has to live with the reality of the situation.  The way France played tonight though, I am not sure that there could have been a different result, no matter what the what if.  The goalscorers for France were Gaetane Thiney (twice), Camille Abily, and Elodie Thomis, but really it didn’t matter who scored.  This was a team effort, as was each goal.  France may lack a Marta, a supreme individual talent who can change the match, but they have an entire team that plays at the highest level.  In contrast, Canada have Sinclair, but few of her teammates are at her level.

As of the end of two matches, France is firmly atop the Group A leader board.  The next match against Germany will determine who wins the group.  France’s tactics will be both interesting and telling.  A draw will be group enough, but will France want to win?  Germany looks mortal right now, and a defeat could be a near-fatal psychological blow.  Furthermore, France’s best (Lyon) beat Germany’s best (Turbine Potsdam) in the Champions League, and France may want to prove that was no fluke.

Back in Canada, it will be interesting to see what happens to Morace.  She won her struggle with the CSA, but the enemies she made now have a reason to get rid of her.  Will her team stand up for again?  Would they boycott the Olympics?  The program is moving forward, but the result was poor, and inevitably the coach shoulders the blame.

Nigeria v. Germany

The history of the World Cup is littered with ugly matches. Usually they are called the Battle of Somewhere or Other (Berne, Santiago, etc.)  Most recently a horrible refereeing job from Howard Webb mixed with thuggish tactics from an outmatched and far less talented Dutch team ruined last year’s World Cup final.

Nigeria have, to put it kindly, a history of physical play.  In 1999, the Nigerians tried to rough up the USWNT in group play, although they lost 7-1.  This was because in 1999 Nigeria was hopelessly outmatched.  Nigeria have shown in this World Cup that they are catching up to the rest of the world.  Giving up two goals in just two matches to two of the world’s best sides is completely respectable.  Their brutal play however is not.  I have said before that I think fouling and on-pitch violence are far more serious forms of cheating than diving, the bane of the American and English football fan (and which has gone happened in this tournament, despite some commentary to the contrary.)  Diving is a way to trick the referee.  On-pitch violence is the last resort of a team with no self-belief.

I think that sums Nigeria perfectly, and that is a shame because unlike at previous tournaments they are actually very good.  Violence alone that held Germany to a mere 1-0 victory.  It was instead, tough-minded organization, strong defense, and bit of bad luck during a set piece.  Nigeria’s violent behavior did not lead to any goals though, and once Germany scored, they could only keep the score down.  Nigeria’s biggest problem is not that they are outmatched, it is that they have no offensive weapons.

Like Morace, it will be interesting to see what happens to Nigeria’s coach.  Ian Darke indicated he thinks she will be gone, both because of the early exit and because of the controversy surrounding her homophobia (which he danced around until the very end of the match.)  I suspect Darke has no idea about how bad things are for gays and lesbians in Nigeria.  Most likely Nigeria’s coach is a heroine back home for expelling players she suspected of being lesbians.  (FIFA came out against her statements, but pretty much everything FIFA says about tolerance is lip service.  Where was FIFA when Marcello Lippi, among other, made homophobic remarks?  How can FIFA allow Qatar to hold the World Cup if they really cared?)  As much as I hate to say it, the truth is, from a success standpoint, Nigeria should retain her.  Despite the losses Nigeria is on the right path.  Only in terms of football development.

The refereeing in this match was bad.  More cards should have been given, and Germany’s coach Silvia Neid looked ready to shoot daggers.  But this match also revealed something important: Germany is incredibly mortal.  A better team need to resort to Nigeria’s guerilla warfare to exploit Germany’s weaknesses.  One shaky mach is an aberration; two is a pattern.  Germany have trouble finishing, and Neid is stuck in the past (specifically 2003-07.)  Nowhere is this clearly than the starting presence of Birgit Prinz who was pulled out early twice.  When Germany meets a better team (France?  Brazil?  USA?) they may have some real problems.

Collectively, the team appears nervous, and perhaps playing in front of the home crowd is more hindrance than help.  That the home crowd jeered the team into the locker room at halftime puts even more pressure on the Germans.  Their countrymen have bought into the hype, and if the Germans don’t win, all hell will break loose. They are not just playing for themselves and their country; they are playing for the respectability of women’s football in Germany.

Next up is historical frenemy France.  In order to win the group, Germany must win.  This is a new situation for Germany, and the way the players deal with the pressure will determine whether they remain world champions or finally relinquish their title.