The Lionel Messi Award For Excellence In the Field Of Being Lionel Messi Goes To Lionel Messi

Are you shocked?  If you are then you clearly have never watched football in your life.  (Welcome, Stranger!  Make yourself at home.)  I don’t think I have ever been less surprised by anything ever except perhaps the revelation that Britney Spears did not in fact save herself for marriage.  Seriously people, if you want real European drama–fun drama, not Oh-my-God-the-Euro-is-collapsing! drama–watch Eurovision.  Every year the winner will surprise you, which is how this year’s competition ended up in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Back to football.  I think the surprise is that Messi won with only 47.88% of the vote.  Clearly he’s slipping.  I mean the man wins La Liga, the Champions League, and the Club World Cup, and all he gets is a meaningless gold-ish statuette and the chance to be serenaded by James Blunt.  Cristiano Ronaldo received 21.6%, and Xavi, the perpetual bronze medalist in this FIFA-sponsored charade, a mere 9.23%.  From these results one can learn the following about this year’s World Player of the Year voting: 30.83% of the voters were Portuguese, Madridistas, or related to Xavi.

I had no doubt that Messi would win the award and in as much as individual awards matter, he completely deserved it.  Messi is the legend of our time, and only churls dispute that.  Nevertheless, I would have given the award to Xavi.  I’ve said this before, but individual awards in a team sport is the height of ridiculousness.  The winner of the Golden Ball should be Barcelona not Messi.  Xavi more than anyone represents the whole of Barcelona.  He is the heart of the team, the engine of the club, the conductor of its orchestra, the knitter of its intricate patterns, [add your cliché here].  This is the third time in a row that the man has finished third.  He is finally respected and appreciated; there will not be anymore headlines like Daily Mail‘s now infamous “The best players of the world (and Xavi)” from 2008.  Nevertheless, he will never win because his football is cerebral rather than sexy.  Xavi is great enough to be widely admired, but not spectacular enough to be celebrated.

Almost as surprising as Lionel Messi’s award was the Coach of Year, which went to Pep Guardiola (just under 42% of the vote).  Neither of the other two finalists, Sir Alex of Manchester and The Special One of Porto London Milan Eyepoke Madrid, got anywhere near Cristiano Ronaldo’s second place percentage, but both topped Xavi’s meager total.  I can kinda sorta see why Ferguson got votes; he won the Premier League–granted it was over mediocre opposition, and then he got his ass handed to him by the Blaugrana.  But Mourinho, that one is baffling–or it would be if I didn’t understand how these awards are actually chosen.  What exactly did Mourinho win last year?  The Copa del Rey.  That’s it.  In eight matches against Barcelona, he won once.  The title he won was the least consequential of the three he chased.  Tactically he got it wrong over and over again, and frankly cheapened Madrid at every turn acting more like a child than a coach.  There are so many better candidates than Mourinho.  Why not give some consideration to Mancini who won the FA Cup (which is slightly more important than the Copa del Rey)?  Or Allegri who won Serie A?  Or Villas Boas who won a treble with Porto?  Mourinho’s inclusion is just further proof that if you hog the media spotlight and are proclaimed by idiotic pundits as the greatest ever, then you will always be considered for the FIFA awards, season be damned.  Ask Wesley Sneijder about that.

I suspect that Messi and Guardiola would gladly give up their awards in a heartbeat to be leading La Liga right now.  Or at the very least to have won at Espanyol this weekend rather than disappointingly draw.  I wonder though if Cristiano Ronaldo would have given up Madrid’s 5-1 win at Granada to win the Player of the Year award, especially now that Karim Benzema is usurping his place as the Golden Boy of the Bernabeu.

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The most fascinating awards for are the awards for the women’s game, which is why I am going to talk about them later.  I would like to try and close out this post with something thoughtful.  Whether I am successful or not, you be the judge.  But first, frivolity!

If you are looking for an in-depth discussion of this year’s Puskas Award, you’ve come to the wrong blog.  Neymar won it, and truth be told O Fauxhawk did produce something magical.  Great goals however, are spectacular in their own way, but they are an aesthetic judgment, in no way objective.  And goals are really a team effort, even if it looks like one person is doing it all.  Enjoy the art, admire the dance, but don’t pretend that a goal’s greatness can be quantified or voted upon.

The Fair Play Award went to the Japanese Football Association, because apparently this award is now given to nations that have endured tremendous and unthinkable tragedy.  To wit, last year’s winner was the Haiti U-17 Women’s Team.  Thank you FIFA; your meaningless trinket has completely smoothed over the pain and damage from an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown that ruined the lives of an unfathomable number of people.

Men’s all-star team of the year (there’s no women’s team, because that would mean FIFA would have to pay attention to the women) is as follows: Iker Casillas, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Nemanja Vidic, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi.  Putting aside the fact that there are no left backs on this team, something is clearly wrong with it.  I know.  Here is the real team of the year:  Victor Valdes, Dani Alves, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Segio Busquets, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Lionel Messi, Pedro.  See what I did there?  I named an actual team that performed at the very highest level rather than a collection of names, some of which were very dubiously included.  Wayne Rooney ended his season well, but it was far from an annus mirabilis.  In fact, I’d wager it was a year he would like to forget.

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In as much as Messi and Guardiola were obviously going to win, so too was Norio Sasake of Japan the coach of Japan’s World Cup champions the Nadeshiko.  He earned around 45% of the vote.  His closest competitors,  Pia Sundhage of the USWNT (runners-up) and Bruno Bini of France (semifinalists) won 15.83% and 10.28% of the votes respectively.

It is hard to argue with any of the three finalists especially Sasake who from any angle deserves recognition for Japan’s accomplishments.  But one has to wonder if FIFA focused too much on the international game.  In World Cup years, everything at club level is generally overlooked in favor of World Cup heroics (exception: last year’s awards where Messi and Mourinho won rather than Xavi/Villa/Iniesta, and Vincente del Bosque).  This is all the more true in the women’s game where the muckamucks only watch the international play, i.e. the World Cup.  Maybe the Olympics too–we’ll know they watch the Olympics if at next year’s awards all three finalists are managers of the top performing Olympic teams.  The problem is that in non-World Cup years, FIFA pretends that everything else doesn’t exist.  This ignorance of the women’s game is how Silvia Neid won the award last year.  Neid has been one of the most illustrious coaches in the history of the modern women’s game, but she did almost nothing of note in 2010.  She won because she was one of the few names the voters knew, and they knew Germany won the last two World Cups.  Completely ignoring club play, last year the only nominated coaches were international coaches, one of which was the German U-20 Women’s coach (who was nominated this year despite coaching in one competitive match.  At least she won it.)

This disrespect would be unthinkable in the men’s game.  It’s flat-out pernicious, and it gives the message that women’s club football is unimportant.  That attitude has some dire consequences.  Santos of Brazil recently disbanded its women’s team, the most successful women’s club team in South America’s short history, along with its futsal team to help pay Neymar’s exorbitant salary (an extremely shortsighted move, given that Neymar is soon for Europe.  The Club World Cup saw to that.)  Santos no doubt was aided in this massacre by a lack of interest in the women’s team; a lack of interest that was no doubt fed by Brazil’s quarterfinal exit in the World Cup.

Because this was a World Cup year, no one would question that three national team coaches were the three finalists.  Unlike in the men’s international game where style and creativity have slowly and painfully drained away, the women’s game still has beauty and striking contrasts.  The women’s international game is still important because it is still the highest level of competition.  Nevertheless, it is scandalous that the awards completely ignored what happened at the club level.  Lyon ended the German domination of the Champions League, the Western New York Flash eked out a WPS championship over a very talented Philadelphia Independence, and International Athletic Club Kobe Leonessa won the L-League in Japan.

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Finally, we come to the women’s Player of the Year.  I predicted after the World Cup final that Homare Sawa would win the award to go along with her World Cup championship, her Golden Boot, her Golden Ball, and her L-League title (the L-League came after I made the prediction).  Sawa has attained a level of stardom in Japan unknown to any female player not named Mia Hamm.  She’s a superstar there, and justifiably so.  On the biggest stage, at the biggest moment, Sawa almost singlehandedly dragged her team  to victory when defeat looked all but certain.  She is near the end of her very long career, and 2011 was the ultimate valedictory.  Sawa’s most important contribution: she gave Japan steel.  The knock against Japan for a long time has been that despite all the great technique, the team lacked the killer instinct.  It is easy to imagine that had there been no Sawa Japan would not have made it past Germany in the quarterfinals.  She didn’t score the winning goal, but she set it up.  Against Sweden and the United States, it was Sawa who saved Japan, scoring crucial goals, never letting up the pressure.  Sawa represents the complete opposite of what a Japanese woman is supposed to be, and yet she is being celebrated as a national hero.  There is something both heroic and poetic about her and her accomplishments.  (And she makes a very classy figure in her kimono.  Does this woman look like a killer to you?)  Has there been as effective a talisman in the game since Michelle Akers?   I am hard-pressed to think of another.   Forget the female Messi, who is the male Sawa?

If anyone deserved to break the 50% mark in the voting (or unanimity), it should have been Sawa.  Yet, of the five big awards (men’s and women’s player, men’s and women’s coach, Puskas Award), only Sawa did not break 40%.  In fact, she garnered only 28.51% of the votes.  Second place went to Marta with 17.28% of the vote and third place to Abby Wambach with 13.26%.  All three finalists were clearly their team’s leaders.  When things looked bad, all three of them at one point or another during the tournament completely changed her team’s momentum by doing something spectacular and jaw-dropping.  Both the final between the US and Japan and the quarterfinal between the US and Brazil featured spectacular play and dramatic heroics from all three women.  All three of these women were integral to their clubs’ success, and in Wambach’s case, she held magicJack above water as she both played and coached.  (One person who was not considered, but should have been was Christine Sinclair whose own dramatics this year should have overcome Canada’s poor showing.)

Nevertheless, despite how similar the three women were in importance to their respective teams, the voting should not have been as close as it was.  Here are the full tallies.  Some of the contenders were deserving, some were head scratchers (at least Birgit Prinz was not on the list; legend that she is, her inclusion would have turned this award into a farce).  I cannot wait to see who voted for whom.

I confess, I was afraid that Marta would win this award.  I have gone on record many times as an unabashed Marta enthusiast.  She is the best player in the world and perhaps ever.  I also made no secret how unimpressed I was with the way the crowds treated her at the World Cup, making her the scapegoat for her teammates’ behavior in the quarterfinals largely because they know who Marta is.  One can debate whether she deserved to win five Player of the Year titles in a row, but one cannot argue with her abilities (for the record, she looked rather pissed off when she didn’t win this year, which shows how great a competitor she is).  Nevertheless, I was terrified Marta would get this year’s award because of what it would represent.  Had Marta won, it would mean that the Player of the Year Award was not being judged by accomplishments but rather by reputation.  Around the world, voters know who Marta is and probably Wambach to a lesser extent.  Had won of those two won, it would have revealed a depressing ignorance of the women’s game, even at the highest level.  It would mean that the voters didn’t watch the World Cup.  For now at least, we have been spared that indignity.  (Not that this is unique to the women’s game.  Messi’s win last year was extremely controversial, especially in the Netherlands and non-Catalan Spain).

Sawa’s win felt like a victory for women’s football, even if the margin of victory was somewhat less than thrilling.  It makes me worry less about the game, especially in light of the WPS’s problems, which I have not yet written about on this blog.  To wit: although there will be a season this summer, there will only be five teams in the league.  There are ominous sign of collapse.  Vero Boquete, arguably Philadelphia’s and Spain’s best player, went to Russia for the European season; who knows if she will be back with the Independence when the WPS season starts.  Even more disturbing is the news that Marta and Abby Wambach may not return, which is akin to a death-blow.  There are other great players, but how many other names does WPS have?  Can Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo carry the league?  They may have to; God help us all.

Music listened to while writing this post  Glazunov: Symphony No. 2 in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 16, “In Memory of Liszt”; Symphony No. 3 in D Major;  Symphony No. 4 in E-Flat Major, Op. 48; Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 55.

WPS Talent Drain

Verónica Boquete is going to FC Energy Voronezh, a club I had never heard of before, but is, according to Wikipedia, the most successful club in the Russia’s top women’s league.  (Brazil’s Aline, Cristiane, and Fabiana will also be going to Russia to play for WFC Rossiyanka.)  I adore Boquete; she plays for the team that I love, the Philadelphia Independence.  According to Equalizer Soccer, Independence coach Paul Riley expects her to be back, akin to WNBA players who go to Europe during the offseason.  I hope she returns because she is an amazing and elegant player.  Nevertheless, I fear this is a permanent departure given the general chaos that is the future of the WPS.

Boquete was named the league’s player of the year (the Michelle Akers Player of the Year.)  She was a major reason why the Independence made it to the title game, losing to the Western New York Flash on penalties.  It was not an unexpected result; the Flash has the much vaunted attacking prowess of Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, and of course, Her.  Despite the Flash’s big names, in my eyes Boquete was the revelation of the year, at least from a league view.*  She’s a tough, ridiculously gifted, never-say-die midfielder who deserves to be treated like any star in the men’s game.  Because she is Spanish, she (ironically) does not play for a high-profile women’s national team, which means she will not get the same worldwide recognition as other gifted non-Americans such as Louisa Necib, Fatmire Bajmaraj, Homare Sawa, and Marta.  Fortunately, WPS fans got the chance to appreciate her brilliance, even if the rest of the world–including the Spanish–did not.

But now she’s going to Russia and will get a salary that the WPS cannot compete with (about $114,000).  The influx of money into the Russian game is a mirror of what is happening in the Russian men’s game, which is why Samuel Eto’o is now the world’s highest paid player, despite moving to a team that was 11th in the Russia’s top league last year, and is no fixture of the top league.  (This is the same team that also now employs the former Brazilian great Roberto Carlos.)

The amount of money funneled through the Russian top leagues is a statement of intent, at least by the billionaire robber barons of the post-Soviet era who want Russia to be a football powerhouse.**  If said billionaire robber barons are willing to spend the money, I am not going to begrudge them the right to build a strong women’s national league.

Still, I can be sad about it.  Boquete’s departure portends bad things to come for the WPS and probably a mass exodus, at least among the top players.  Boston Breakers are on the verge of collapse (again), the attendance of Sky Blue FC did not improve despite a post-World Cup bump around the league, the WPS is fighting with magicJack (formerly Washington Freedom) owner Dan Borislow, and the second WPS commissioner has left her position only a year after taking the job.  The WPS is without a sponsor because Puma did not renew.  The 2012 season will see the international players leave for the Olympics.  Swedish international Caroline Seger is going back to her home country to play for Tyresö FF, and Marta’s future is up in the air.  If Marta goes elsewhere that would be devastating, and a real blow to the WPS’s claim that it is the best women’s league in the world.

There are also bright sides (although regular season attendance was down that trend was reversed by a post-World Cup bump, and the playoffs were the best attended ever.***), and I strongly advise you to read the Equalizer Soccer post I linked to above about the WPS offseason.  At the moment though I am not feeling very hopeful.  I blame Hurricane Irene.

Footnotes:

*  The revelation of the year in the entire sport was Homare Sawa, which is why she will deservedly win FIFA female player of the year award.  In my eyes, the top three players of the year in order are Sawa, Boquete, and Marta.  I doubt FIFA will see it that way, but FIFA has even more of an ignorance about the women’s game than it does the men’s game.

**  Even when their money is not in Russian clubs.  Roman Abramovich, the owner of the English club Chelsea put a lot of his own money into the Russian National Team and was behind Guus Hiddink’s tenure there.  Abramovich also seems to have some connection to the Russian club Zenit St. Petersburg although I cannot figure out what it is.

*** Even though WPS figures are not particularly thrilling, it should be noted that leagues across Europe would be envious of WPS numbers.  Look at the attendances for Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga, Europe’s premier league.  The WPS 2011 average was 3,535.  During the playoffs it was 5,982.

Nadeshiko Boom

This story makes me very happy.  Ever since their World Cup victory, the Japanese Women’s League has been experiencing a major boom in popularity.  Homare Sawa in particular has become (deservedly) a national icon.  This triumph came from years of groundwork resulting in the spectacular performance at the World Cup both in results and in style.

My first thought when I read this story was about the WUSA, the American women’s league that arrived in the wake of the 1999 World Cup and which folded a few year later.  It’s not a fair comparison though, if for no other reason than because the WUSA had huge ambitions whereas Japan’s women’s league has been somewhat more modest.   Japan’s league was also in a position to capitalize off of the Nadeshiko triumph (much like the WPS is trying to do), whereas the WUSA began after the World Cup buzz had started to fade.

One hopes that this will be the start of great things to come for Japan.  The nation is football-mad, and the women’s team’s triumph came at a time when Japan so desperately needed good news.  Japan were deserved winners of the World Cup, but the real reward should be a popular and sustainable league.

Something that one hopes to see all around the world, World Cup victory or no.

Women’s World Cup Day 15: Rising Sun

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

Japan v. United States

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

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

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

On to the actual match.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Awards: 

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

Golden Glove: Hope Solo

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

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

Fair Play Trophy: Japan

Best Young Player: Cailtlin Foord

Women’s World Cup Final: A Preview

A longer post will follow, but I just wanted to say two things:

1.  Congratulations to the Japanese, particularly Homare Sawa.  You have done your nation proud, and I hope you get a hero’s welcome when you get back.

2.  I am depressed.

Women’s World Cup: Team Of The Tournament

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

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

Team of the Tournament

Hope Solo

Ali Krieger – Christie Rampone – Faye White – Sonia Bompastor

Camille Abily – Homare Sawa – Louisa Necib

Genoveva Añonma – Abby Wambach – Marta

Super Sub: Megan Rapinoe

Alternates:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s World Cup Day 13: Am I Bleu?

Day 13 of the Women’s World Cup saw . . . aw, the hell with it . . . USA! USA! USA!

[Ed. note: In my first draft of this post, I realized I did not actually put any scores in.  Both the US and Japan won 3-1.]

United States v. France

I have never been so glad to be so wrong.  My throat is raw and sore from all the screaming, and I fear I may never recover.  I blame Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.  I completely lost all composure after Morgan’s lovely chip goal–set up by Rapinoe–in the 82nd minute.  Over and over again the US defy all logical analysis.  You know how the English talk about heart as an excuse for a lack of proper technique?  The US Women actually have heart (and unlike the English men, they play well and win.)  The USWNT never give up.  They can be behind, outplayed, down a player.  The refs can have it in for them.  The US just win.

The US began strongly, but France start slowly and build up (see: Nigeria, Germany, England.)  In the 9th minute, the US took the lead.  Heather O’Reilly’s passed to Lauren Cheney who finished beautifully.  US up 1-0, which was comforting because the US have a ridiculously good record of winning competitive matches after scoring the first goal.  Ridiculously good, as in the US never lost a match after scoring first.

That goal woke up France, who seemed to realize that they were facing a better team than England.  This was a fascinating match on a tactical level because in addition to the 4-4-2 of the US against the 4-2-3-1 of France (and Jonathan Wilson believes that the latter is designed to beat the former), it was a really a battle between a team with a strong defense, Hope Solo, and an offense that is good in spurts (US) and a team with a dynamic offense and an awful defense (France).  With the exception of Sonia Bompastor, who scored France’s lone goal in the 55th minute, France’s back line is woeful.  And the goalkeeper Sapowicz is very poor.  But that offense–Necib, Abily, Thiney, and Delie–that is a murderers’ row right there.  Fear Les Bleues at the next World Cup and at the Olympics.

For most of the match, France looked like the were going to win.  Bompastor’s goal was really an inevitability.  The US could not maintain possession, and after Cheney’s goal the US had very few chances on goal.  But then Pia Sundhage made some smart substitutions and Abby Wambach channeled her inner Michelle Akers (who got deserved love from Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain in the penalty booth), put her team on her back, and carried them to victory.  When I said yesterday that I debated not putting Mia Hamm in my all time XI, it was because I was thinking about using Wambach instead.  Her goal changed everything against France, and the French wilted.  It was like air being let out of a balloon.  They saw what happened to Brazil and they must have known, “We can’t beat them; they just keep coming.”  Although I have said over and over that I believe Homare Sawa deserves the Golden Ball, if the US beats Japan, Wambach certainly made an eloquent case for herself.

Nike must be loving this.  Their whole “Pressure Makes Us” ads?  Dead on.  It completely makes up for their “Write the Future” campaign from last year which imploded in hilarious fashion.

Both matches today were a battle of the established class against the up-and-comers.  The US and Sweden have been at the top of the game since the 1980’s while France and Japan are both relatively new, at least in terms of being in the upper echelons of the game (Japan has been around forever, but never like this.)  The young Turks are pounding at the door, and they can’t be kept out forever.  The US were able to beat back their opponents, but Sweden were not.  Given that France has Clairfontaine, one wonders how long the US will be able to maintain supremacy.

There is always a question of what is the American style.  When we think of style, we think of the jaw-dropping Brazil’s samba flair, or the easy-on-the-eye passing/possession games of France and Japan.  The USSF desperately wants an American style, and I cannot imagine that Pia Sundhage (who, as I have said all along, has been a wonderful coach for the US) is unaware of that.  The truth is that there is an American style, which Sundhage has helped to foster.  It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing style out there, but it uniquely American.  There are no tricks.  It is a very direct, muscular, and physical style of play.  More important, it is a never-give-up attitude.  The US Men have it in spurts, but it is the US Women who have perfected it.  They showed it even before the World Cup when they fought back after a demoralizing loss to Mexico to claim the last spot.

Perhaps more than any other US sports representative, the USWNT are the quintessential American team.  Perhaps now Americans will finally and permanently appreciate them.

Japan v. Sweden

Let me just say upfront, I am so glad I will not have to see Sweden’s stupid little goal dance anymore (okay, so maybe the 3rd place match, but really who cares about that one?)  I wanted them out even if I picked them to win.  It may well be even more irritating than Norway’s train from 1995.  Good bye, Sweden; take your goal celebration to Let’s Dance, and leave the football to more interesting teams.

Homare Sawa is my hero.  Granted, I have had a few of them this tournament, Christine Sinclair and Marta to name two, but Sawa, a veteran of five World Cups led Japan to a place it has never been before.  She is a rock, and an inspiration  All this unexpected success just four months after natural and man-made disasters have brought devastating havoc and misery to her country.  Listening to Adrian Healey and Kate Markgraf talk about how little Japan could prepare for the tournament because of what happened was so sad, and this team and their absolute graciousness have been so heartwarming.  Their banner, which the entire team carries around the pitch, always brings a tear to my eye.  If you want a team to adopt, you could do far worse than Japan.

You could do far worse because their style is so different from anything that has ever existed before in the women’s game.  Markgraf (correctly) noted today that the Barcelona comparisons need to stop, but those comparisons diminish what Japan has done in its own right.  Despite not having the physicality of other teams, despite not having an effective goal scorer, and of course despite all the hardships of the past few months, Japan beat Germany and Sweden in succession, two teams that were heavily favored contenders to win–especially Germany.  Japan never beat European opposition before at the World Cup and this week it beat the top European teams in succession.

In both matches, Japan, led by Sawa, played calm and collected.  They kept their heads and possession, constantly probing for the opening that would give a goal (or three).  They kept their defensive shape.  Nothing Germany did could break them.  Even after Sweden got the first goal, Japan remained calm and simply struck back.  Like the US, Japan never lost the belief that they were going to win, and eventually Sweden fell apart under the Japanese pressure.

In the process, Homare Sawa scored her fourth goal of the tournament, which ties her with Marta for the lead in the Golden Boot chase.  Wambach, who is now tied with Akers on 12 World Cup goals, is just a goal behind.  Sawa’s four are one more than she scored in her other four World Cups combined (the other three coming in 2003.)  Granted three of her goals this year came in her match against Mexico, but it speaks to how good Sawa is that 16 years after her first appearance, she is the player of the tournament.

Final Thoughts:

Pia Sundhage and her coaching/training staff have their work cut out for them.  Somehow they are going to have to limit Japan’s possession game because unlike France, Japan is most definitely not shaky at the back.

The Golden Boot tally is really low this year.  The previous low was six in 1995.  Michelle Akers holds the record with ten in 1991.  Every other year the Golden Boot winner(s) netted seven.  The closing of the gap has also lowered the Golden Boot tally, just as it has in the men’s game.  No doubt this has something to do with how close all the games have been.  There have been two 4-0 routs, and that is it.  Even the men’s World Cup last year had one 7-0 blowout–Portugal over North Korea

As an American, I am thrilled to see the US back to where they belong, and hopefully they can win it all.  Nevertheless, this does bring up another point: how the hell are you supposed to root for Japan to lose?