Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 4: Changing Of The Guard

With the first knockout round of the Olympics women’s football tournament upon us, the time has come to say good-bye to some of the greatest players in the world.  Among those we will no longer see in London: Marta, Kelly Smith, Lotta Schelin, and Ali Riley.

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There is no deserve in football.  I cannot say this enough.  One of the great things about the game, and conversely one of the terrible things about the game, is that on any given day a minnow can take down a whale.  Or a team that everyone loves for their outrageous skill and aesthetic abilities can lose to a team that is less talented and awful to watch but organized.  In 2010, New Zealand (the men) were mediocre to put it kindly, yet they were the only side not to be defeated in the course of the World Cup.  No result in written in the stars.

The Olympic quarterfinals were always going to be difficult.  Six of the seven top-ranked teams in the world competed today, and no victory was assured.  Even the US could not count on success.   New Zealand have improved by leaps and bounds, and at this rate it will not be long before they claim their first major scalp at either the Olympics or the World Cup.  The US however, were not to be that first scalp.  The score was 2-0, on goals from Abby Wambach (of course) and Sydney Leroux.  It is important to recognize two things about the match: (1) the US were the far superior team; and (2) the US squandered multiple opportunities, which has become a concerning trend of late.  Since the match with France, the US seems to have taken the foot off the gas a bit.  Perhaps that was necessary to make it this far, but the next two game are clutch, and opportunities cannot be wasted.  Wasting opportunities is how a team ends up placing second at the World Cup.

All credit to New Zealand.  The win against Cameroon was their first at a major international tournament, and it was great to see them in the elimination rounds.  I’m not kidding when I say they are everyone’s second or third team.  The 10,000 people at St. James’ Park (a very low number for that venue) adopted the Football Ferns.  Hopefully next time the USWNT will make it a little less difficult to root against by not wearing the colors of Sunderland into Newcastle United’s home stadium.

The match that did get a good turnout was Great Britain v. Canada.  Canada have had a really rough time lately in international tournaments.  At the World Cup, they were shambolic in a group with Germany, France, and Nigeria.  No wins, one goal.  In this tournament too, the draw was stacked against them, but Big Red persevered, which is a reassuring sign that the next World Cup (in Canada) will not be a humiliation.

The 2-0 defeat of Great Britain will be a tough one to take for the host nation.  Following GB’s (heavily attended) defeat of Brazil, it looked like women’s football was finally about to make inroads into Great Britain.  A GB v. USA semifinal at Old Trafford would have sold out.  Now who knows if it will be well attended.  At last year’s World Cup in Germany, attendances remained strong even after the host nation was eliminated, but I don’t think that will be the case at these Olympics.

Canada earned the win, and the result was fair.  One might suggest that this was an upset, but despite the fact that GB were undefeated and had not let in a goal all tournament, Canada are the higher ranked side.  It is easy to forget that there is immense talent in the Canadian side, because of the recent group stage woes and because Canada are constantly overshadowed by the US.  But they are not a team to be trifled with, and they still have Christine Sinclair.

On the other side of the draw, the question about whether Brazil’s 5-0 defeat of Cameroon was an omen or a fluke has been definitively answered, and it was the latter.  Once again, tactical ineptitude and lack of preparation caught out Brazil.  This may have been the Samba Queens’ last best hope for a title as the current generation ages out, and the new one does not look particularly strong.  Brazil may have dominated large swaths of today’s game, but that was because Japan tried a counterattacking strategy rather than a possession-based one.  Brazil may have been the more talented side, but when Brazil go down a goal, the players lose their collective heads–exactly what happened to the men’s team two years ago in South Africa.  One gets the sense that Brazil feel that they are due the win simply because they are Brazil.  (Repeat after me: There is deserve in football.)  But it doesn’t work like that.  Brazil’s overarching problems are not the team’s fault, but at this point we in the rest of the world are close to throwing up our hands and saying, “Too bad; they could have been great.”

I cannot say I am particularly thrilled with the conduct of Japan either–not so much for throwing the match against South Africa, but rather by talking about it and cheating the South African players out of any post-match pride.  Fan don’t forget things like that, and we will see if the British public (they ones who show up) will hold that against the Japanese players who had built up such good will following their response to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.  Bad show, Nadeshiko, bad show.

The only team that stands between Japan and the final is France, who beat Sweden.  Like the US, Canada, and Japan, France scored two goals.  Unlike the other three, France allowed in a goal (scored by Nilla Fischer).  Also unlike the other three, this was an upset both in rankings and in actuality.  Sweden once again proved to be the bridesmaid, and I cannot see that ending any time soon.  France meanwhile have set up a semifinal against Japan for the title of “Which side can be meaninglessly compared to Barcelona more.”  France won a friendly against Japan just prior to the Olympics, but Japan have shown that they are remarkably crafty, first with the draw against South Africa and then with the strategy change against unsuspecting Brazil.  Also, friendlies are horrible determinations of future performance.

Nevertheless, I am holding to my original prediction of US v. France in the final.  My quarterfinal track record was 3/4, and my group stage predictions were nearly spot on.  We’ll see how well I do, from hereon in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 2: Ho Hum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In one match the US did just that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes:

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

Women’s World Cup Day 14: How Swede It Is

The third place match saw a brutal, artless match between France and Sweden.  Sweden won it, but the real surprise was my own reaction to Sonia Bompastor’s blatant and unpunished cheating: I wanted Sweden to win.  And dance.

Sweden v. France

The match that no one wants to see lived down to the anti-hype.  This was a snoozer.  If you ever plan on watching the 2011 World Cup matches at a later date, skip this one.  It wasn’t the worst match of the tournament (surely nothing could beat Colombia v. North Korea), but it was anticlimactic, rather than an interesting Germany v. Uruguay type match from last year.  Unless you hate the French team in general and Sonia Bompastor specifically, just watch the highlights.  Sweden won 2-1.

Despite the fact that France was the revelation of the World Cup, since elimination the French side has been doing their best since to erase that good will.  Louisa Necib told every reporter who would listen that France were the better side and deserved to win (there’s that “d” word again), and coach Bruno Bini had the audacity to say that he would rather his team lose beautifully than win ugly–a direct attack on the US.  No doubt this insult was also a way to avoid responsibility for being outcoached by Pia Sundhage and for his horrible substitutions in that match, which swung the momentum decisively in the US’s favor.*  Any team that falls back on that beautiful loser nonsense is just kidding itself.  All those great teams that never won the World Cup (Hungary ’54, Holland ’74, Brazil ’82) would have gladly given up their beautiful style for the win–even if Johan Cruyff will not admit it.  France went into the US match positive that they were going to win.  They cheered when the US beat Brazil because they feared Marta and Brazil and not the US.  That disrespect cost them.

France bought into its own hype.  Yes, they have style, but whenever they faced a team who could out-muscle them, they folded.  First was Germany, when France, thanks to Bini, did not even try to win.  In the semifinal, France fell apart when the US did not fold under their pressure.  Today, Sweden too was not overawed by France’s style, and used their superior strength to beat them.  As well as France did in getting to the semifinals, one should also remember that Les Bleues are, along with Canada and Equatorial Guinea, one of only three teams to have lost three matches at this tournament.

Another problem with Bini’s decision-making was highlighted today.  Throughout the entire tournament, France’s biggest weak spot was the goalkeeper.  Bérangère Sapowicz is not a national team goalkeeper, her decision-making is questionable, and she is particularly poor in the air (that she publicly announced that is shocking but accurate.)  She was not France’s first choice keeper; that is Lyon’s Sarah Bouhaddi.  Since the beginning of the tournament the ESPN commentators have been vaguely hinting about personality conflicts that kept Bouhaddi out of the squad, but never actually said what they were.  Today, Kate Markgraf finally stopped beating around the bush.  Bouhaddi and French captain Sandrine Soubeyrand hate each other, and Bini left the keeper out.  As a result France played the tournament with two sub-par goalkeepers (Sapowicz and Céline Deville who filled in after Sapowicz’s red card against Germany and her injury today.)**

The French need to get off their high horse.  They are not above some unethical or rough play, particularly when Sonia Bompastor is on the pitch.  Bompastor is the best left back in the tournament, but she is also a dirty, dirty player.  In the quarterfinals Kelly White almost punched her.  Today, Bompastor tackled Josefine Öqvist, kicked her, and then put on a show of pain when Öqvist retaliated.  Öqvist was entirely wrong, that is without question.  You never, ever retaliate when you are being goaded like that; your antagonist knows that she will get away with it and you won’t.  That is exactly what happened to Öqvist.  Sort of.  Öqvist was red-carded in the 68th minute for losing her head.  Bompastor was not disciplined, but I think Bompastor did not reckon with the crowd reaction.  She got the Marta treatment only unlike Marta, she actually deserved it.  The crowd was brutal, and I don’t think Bompastor was prepared to be the villain.  She was almost invisible afterwards and furious after the match.

It is important to remember though that France did not lose this match, Sweden won it.  Despite going down to 10 players, they never lost their head and regained the lead in the 82nd minute thanks to a beautiful strike from Swedish defender Marie Hammarström.  Now Sweden have a bronze medal to go along with their bronze from 1991 and the silver from 2003.  Lotta Schelin (who, being the lone Swedish Lyon player, imported Lyon’s stupid goal celebration to her Swedish side) scored the opener, continued her general attacking excellence, if not prolific scoring.  Schelin has been Sweden’s best player this tournament, and probably will be on the FIFA Team of the Tournament (she was an alternate for my team.)

Sweden had an excellent tournament.  Regardless of who wins, Sweden will have a better tournament record than the team that loses the final.  If the US wins, then they can (and will) claim that they beat the best side, with the inference that they were better.  Sweden have not been the most thrilling of sides, but they have been one of the most effective.  For that alone, their bronze medal is richly deserved.  Now please just make the goal dance go away.

Footnotes:

* What is it with French coaches?  They become so philosophical that they border on crazy.  Bini is merely the latest example.  Raymond Domenech (who used astrology charts to choose his lineups) should never have been let near a football pitch.  The only reason his 2006 France team did as well as it did is because Zidane took control of the team and dragged them to the finals.  Without Zidane the team fell apart.  Arsene Wenger, one of France’s best coaches, has also in recent years been afflicted by the beautiful loser syndrome which is why Arsenal is no longer a title contenders.

** Also according to Markgraf, another reason Bouhaddi was kept out was because of her abilities to inflict horrific injuries such as the one she inflicted on Swedish legend Hanna Ljungberg, an injury that helped end Ljungberg’s career (something the Swedes have not forgotten.)

Women’s World Cup: Final Predictions (I’m Almost Afraid To Say Anything)

I have now been wrong on three of four quarterfinals and both semifinals.  I have to be right sometime, right?

Sweden v. France

The match that no one cares about.  The irony is that the third place match is often of higher quality than the final (see last year’s World Cup) because there is so much less on the line.  As  a result both sides can play their game without really worrying about losing anything other than pride.  By virtue of being the two highest placed European sides at the tournament, Sweden and France will both go to the London along with the team from Great Britain (England).

This match will be interesting because it is a study in contrasts, both on and off the pitch.  Sweden are a team full of physically imposing women who play a muscular and effective game but with little artistry.  France are a team of smaller women but who play an aesthetically pleasing game but sometimes lack a killer instinct.  Sweden are better in the back, and France are better in the front.  I am not sure that France are the better side right now, but I am sure that France are a team of the future who will only get better while Sweden have hit their peak.  Perhaps the decline of Sweden will not be as dramatic as those of Norway and Denmark (whose decline started before the first Women’s World Cup), but Sweden are being passed by and will continue to be passed by as women’s football grows in popularity around the world.  Sweden however, have what the French (and almost every other team in the tournament) want–a stable league with regular support and attendance.

This will be France’s last chance to make a statement in this tournament, and more importantly, a statement to their countrymen back home who couldn’t both to show up to support them.  (At the match against the US, the stadium looked very empty.  It turned out that while the US had tremendous support, French fans just did not show up despite the nude photos.)  It’s a shame because the embarrassment the French men caused at last year’s World Cup would never happen with Les Bleues.  They did their country proud, and their country showed it does not deserve the team.

Nevertheless, I think France will pull it out.  I hope so, because I do not want to watch the return of Sweden’s goal dance.

United States v. Japan

Fun fact: This will be the first time the winner will have lost a match in the group stage.  It sometimes happens at the men’s World Cup (last year for example) but had never happened with the women.  Once again, this is proof the gap is closing, and the fact that either the US (who lost to Sweden) or Japan (who lost to England) will win is a good thing.

This is the match I am afraid to call for so many reasons.  Japan were not expected to do this well given the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown; they thought this tournament would be a warm-up for the Olympics.  Getting to the finals, for the first time even (let alone out of the group stage for the first time since 1995 when Nadeshiko Japan made the quarterfinals), is a tremendous triumph in and of itself.

To my mind, Japan have been the team of the tournament.  They play as one, and their style is amazingly fluid.  For the first time they have shown an aggression that most didn’t think they had.  (This was also true of China in 1999.)  Japan are extremely dangerous on set pieces.  In the past two matches, their defense has been almost rock solid, especially when they withstood the German barrage.  In Homare Sawa they have a true leader and a legend of the game.  When Japan lose possession, they work hard to get it back; their pressing game is top-notch.

The US lack such good collective skills but more than make up for that with tremendous individual talent and a strong team bond, especially with Hope Solo at the back and Abby Wambach at the front.  I do not envy Pia Sundhage.  She has to decide whether to stay with the group that brought the US to the final or juggle around some of the parts that have not been working (Amy Rodriguez, for example, has had a tournament to forget.)  The US are not going to have the majority of possession, but the US, when everything is working as it should, also play an effective game.  With the exception of left back Amy LePeilbet, the defense has been quite solid although LePeilbet has steadily improved since the debacle against Sweden (she is one of the best center backs in the WPS.)  The US have a never-say-die attitude, but I wonder if in this instance that will be negated by a Japanese team that has come so far and for whom a victory would be so meaningful.  It is true that the US has a ridiculously good record against Japan (including two wins against in World Cup warm ups), but history is not destiny, especially when facing a team on a mission.  The US had a ridiculously good record against Brazil in 2007, but that didn’t stop Marta and company from handing the US its worst loss ever.

While the Japanese are on a mission, it is important to forget that the US are too.  First, this team has lived in the shadow of 1999.  Despite the Nike “Pressure Makes Us” ads, it cannot feel good to know that until the World Cup is won, this US side will always be considered second-rate no matter how many Olympic gold medals they win.  The fact that Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, and Brandi Chastain are in Germany (not to mention Kate Markgraf and Kristine Lilly who do not loom quite as large) only makes the ghosts of 1999 more haunting. A World Cup victory will make them legends, and future teams will have to live up to the 2011 side.

Furthermore, the US players know that the fate of the WPS lies in the balance.  It’s not so much that a World Cup win will assure the success of the WPS (although ticket sales did go up for the Boston Breakers following the success in the knockout rounds), but a loss will certainly not help.  The US women are very aware of that.  Japan too have a league that needs support, but it is not to the same dire extent that the WPS faces, in part because it is not professional.

So who will win?  Gosh, I have no idea.  If the ball stays on the ground, Japan.  If the US can play an effective aerial game, the US.  I think it will come down to who wants it more, and that is probably the US.  What the hell.  I can’t always be wrong.  Right?

 

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?