Good Bye Pia

Yesterday was Pia Sundhage’s last day as the manager of the United States Women’s National Team.   The USWNT sent her out in style with a 6-2 win over Australia.  There are many reasons to laud her tenure as coach, but this is what I believe to be the most important: a capacity crowd came to watch and to send Pia Sundhage off with gratitude, admiration, and love.

Thank you Pia, for giving us our team back.  We will miss you.

Assessing Pia Sundhage

Pia Sundhage, the coach of the US Women’s National Team, announced today that she is stepping down.  Then it was announced that she would take over as head coach of Sweden’s Women’s National Team where she was once a star player.  This is not exactly a surprise; it has long been known that Sundhage wanted to return to her native Sweden to coach.  That she waited until the end of her contract–that she was successful enough to be able to wait until the end of her contract–makes her departure nice and neat.  Sundhage was able to leave on her own terms, and as a winner with an 89-6-10 record, a World Cup silver medal, and two Olympics gold medals.  The US is firmly fixed atop the FIFA world rankings, and no one argues that this is a suspect position.  Sundhage has done a terrific job, and to my mind her success is at least equal to that of Anson Dorrance or Tony DiCicco, despite not having won the World Cup.  What must be recognized about Sundhage’s tenure is that the US was the most successful team of the last five years even though the world has caught up and in some respects surpassed the US.  We are a long way from the days in which only Norway could rival the US.

Coaching of the USWNT may not be not as stressful as coaching of the Brazil men’s team (with its 200 million critics), but the USWNT job comes with equally high expectations.  A victim of its own success, a USWNT that posts any result less than total victory is considered a failure; each team lives in the shadow of 1999.  And the coach is always the first to get blamed. Despite her success, Sundhage has not had the smoothest of tenures, and no doubt there were times that US Soccer was close to giving her the axe.  Had she not previously coached the USWNT to gold at the 2008 Olympics (beating Brazil), it is quite possible that she might have lost her job in 2010.  The US lost the Gold Cup that year for the first time (a shocking semifinal defeat to Mexico), and barely qualified for the World Cup as a result.

Sundhage’s tactical and personnel decisions were often called into question, really until after her team won its second consecutive Olympic gold.  In fairness, there is a truth to this second guessing.  While the rest of the world was inspired by the technical superiority of Spain and Barcelona, the US stubbornly clung to the same power game that it played two decades ago.  The US players do not lack technical ability or creativity (think Megan Rapinoe or Alex Morgan), but Sundhage, who was practically wedded to a 4-4-2 formation, clearly felt more akin to the English kick-and-run, bully style than the more aesthetically pleasing Spanish one.

Sundhage’s team selections were often times equally frustrating.  New talent was hard to break in; Sundhage stood by the same players throughout her tenure.  Now the old guard–Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone–are on the verge of retirement and whoever comes next has a lot to do.  We all have our favorites who were left out (Yael Averbuch is mine), and angry fans called for Sundhage’s head when certain players started.  Amy Rodriguez came in for particularly rough (and often unfair) criticism.

On the other hand, no one can fault the way Sundhage (wo)man-managed her players.  She was famously mellow and every more famously sung and played guitar.  Sundhage got the best out of players, sometimes by leaving them out of the starting lineup.  During the World Cup both Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan began as substitutes, and after amazing performances, both assured their starting places in the Olympics.  After the World Cup, Carli Lloyd lost her starting place (an injury to Boxx brought her back to the starting XI in the Olympics), and Lloyd scored both goals in the gold medal victory over Japan.   And most importantly, when Mount St. Solo inevitably erupted, Sundhage managed to keep the team intact.

There are two types of legacies, one is the deeds performed during one’s tenure, and the other, far rarer, is what has been set up for the future.  Very few coaches are future thinkers, especially at the international level–Rinus Michels certainly, Luis Aragones arguably, Pia Sundhage not at all.  Sundhage’s successor will need to majorly restructure the team lest the 2012 gold medal be the last hurrah.  The US is the last vestige of an Ancien Régime that has been otherwise supplanted.  Despite the fact that players like Morgan, Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, and Sydney Leroux have all become fixtures during Sundhage’s watch, one would hardly call her a visionary.

But for deeds performed, Sundhage’s wild success is undeniable.  Beyond her tournament victories though, Sundhage greatest legacy may be the one that she doesn’t get nearly enough credit for.  From 1999 until 2008, the USWNT program had been regressing, hit by one loss after another: (1) the retirement of Michelle Akers; (2) the loss of the Olympic gold in 2000; (3) 3rd place at the 2003 World Cup; (4) the end of the WUSA; (5) the retirement of Mia Hamm and the core of the 1999 team; (6) the controversial tenure of April Heinrichs; and finally (7) the humiliation to Brazil in the 2007 World Cup.  The only bright spot was the 2004 Olympic, and even then the US was lucky to have won.  Sundhage took a team on a nearly decade-long decline back to the top of the world.

Thank you, Pia Sundhage, and good luck to you and Sweden at next year’s Euro.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 6: Golden Girls

For the fourth time in five Olympics, the United States Women’s National Team won the Olympic gold medal, and there was much rejoicing throughout the land.  But the US defeat of Japan leaves one question unresolved.  Have Nadeshiko done enough to be bumped up to first class for the plane trip home or will their federation continue to treat them like second-class citizens?

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The Olympic semifinals, final, and bronze match were the best of all possible match-ups.  Each semifinal pitted two teams with similar styles against each other.  On one side of the bracket, the United States and Canada, two very physical team knocked the stuffing out of each other for 120 minutes.  On the other side, France and Japan fought an intense, technical battle that was akin to a footballing game of chicken–the side that blinked in their high stakes game of perfection lost.  Unsurprisingly, the US and Japan, the two top-ranked teams at the tournament came out victorious.

In contrast to the semifinals, the final and bronze medal match pitted teams of opposing styles against one another, and the results were no less enthralling.  Both matches were grudge matches of a sort.  At the World Cup, we all remember the incredible final between the US and Japan.  However, in the group stages of that tournament Canada played France and was beaten badly (4-0).  That match did three things–it (1) eliminated Canada from the tournament; (2) announced France to the world as a potential title challenger and future world power; and (3) effectively ended the reign of Canada’s coach Carolina Morace.  Morace had done wonders for Canada’s level of play, but her contentious relationship with the Canadian footballing authority had severe ramifications for the World Cup.  After the match against France, Morace was out and John Herdman was in.  Canada abandoned the more technical game it had been trying to play and returned to a more physical style.  The Olympics result seems to validate that change.

Canada desperately needed the bronze medal.  The loss to the US in the semifinals was heartbreaking because they were so close to both the final and to finally beating their bogie team.  Canada had never before been in the top three of either the World Cup or the Olympics (they were 4th in the 2003 World Cup, losing the final match to, shock surprise, the US).  And the World Cup in 2015 will be held in Canada, which means the expectations on the team will triple–at least.  The bronze medal was a way to redeem the tournament and to motivate for 2015.

France too had something to prove.  Les Bleus want to be seen as world beaters, but they have yet to beat any of the top teams when it counts.  They also have the loss of the 3rd place match in the World Cup hanging over their heads.  By all rights, the French should have beaten Sweden, not just because they are a more talented side, but because Sweden were a woman down.  That France beat Sweden in the Olympic quarterfinals last week is an indication that France are in fact better.  Did France choke at the World Cup?  I don’t think so, but they certainly were not at their best.  Maybe they were moping over their loss to the US (in their minds an inferior team) while Sweden really wanted a medal.

For the vast majority of the 90 minutes in Coventry, France were the better side.  They had better ball possession, they were better passers, they had more shots on goal.  Yet a goal from Diane Matheson just before the end of second half stoppage time (literally, there were about 10 seconds of the match left) made all the difference.  This is an example of why football is a game maddeningly resistant to statistics.  On paper, everything pointed to a French victory, but in the end the Canadians were draped in bronze.  This is apparently the first time since 1936 that a Canadian team won a medal in widely played team sport at the Summer Olympics.

For good measure, the awe-inspiring Christine Sinclair was the tournament’s top scorer.  One hopes that Sinclair will be seriously considered for player of the year at the FIFA Oscars in December.  This match was her much earned redemption.  But Sinclair as Player of the Year would require the voters and nominators to actually know something about women’s football, and I don’t have that much faith in them.

As for the French, I wonder where they go from here.  I also wonder if they keep their coach.  Bruno Bini has done an excellent job of pulling the French close to the ranks of the elite, but I have my doubts that he is the right person to take them to the next level.  What is Carolina Morace doing these days?

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Oh, Carli Lloyd, all is forgiven.  For the second Olympics in a row, Lloyd scored all the US goals in the final, therefore winning the gold medal both times for team and country.  In 2008, Lloyd scored the only goal in the match between the US and Brazil.  This year she scored both US goals in the 2-1 victory over Japan.  Carli Lloyd is not everyone’s favorite player, and probably unfairly maligned at times, but she comes through in a major way during the Olympics.

The final was a match of exceptionally high quality, as good an advertisement for the game as any.  The two best teams in the world (absent Germany is the third member of the triumvirate) play completely different styles, which makes their matches all the more interesting and intense.  This was a narrower 2-1 than the score suggested.  Japan could have had more goals had luck been with them.  The US could have had more goals had they been a little luckier.  There were some questionable calls (the Tobin Heath handball that apparently wasn’t), but that’s football.  But there was also moments of brilliance, especially Hope Solo’s incredible saves.  This was a match with two teams who deeply respect each other playing their absolute best.

The traditional rival of the United States had been Norway, the only team to beat the Americans in the Olympics.  Norway and the USA play a similar muscular style, but the history of animosity between the two national teams led to some intense clashes.  Now Norway’s time has passed, and they will continue to fade as the new challengers to the US rise.  Japan do not have as long a history with the US, but I believe they are the rivals of the future.  Norway’s decline is abetted by the rise of more women’s teams in Europe.  In contrast, the more teams that Asia develops, the strong it will make Japan on the world stage.  Unlike the US/Norway rivalry, which was made compelling by the mutual animosity that arose from the battle for early supremacy in the women’s game, the nascent rivalry between the US and Japan will be made compelling by the contrast in styles and the quality of the matches.

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 Over the past year, the US and Japan have battled back and forth for the title of best women’s team in the world.  I’m not sure that the Olympics settled the debate, but the gold medal does make a strong argument for the US.  As I have argued before, the USWNT are not chokers or big game bottlers.  They are arguably the best team in the world, and at this Olympics they proved it.

I am going to make a not-so-bold pronouncement.  There is no women’s football program in the world as successful as that of the United States.  Since the beginning in the 1991, the US has never come in less than third in the World Cup, and has never gotten less than silver in the Olympics.  Two World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals.  That is unmatched success, especially when compared with the other teams who have won any of those two titles: Germany (2003 and 2007 World Cup), Norway (1995 World Cup, 2000 Olympics), and Japan (2011 World Cup).  No women’s nation has repeatedly replenished its talent as successfully as the US has, from Michelle Akers to Alex Morgan.  Norway and China faded, Brazil does not seem interested in replacing Marta, Japan is a relatively new arrival at the top, and Germany suffers through dramatic peaks and valleys.  In all this time, the US has remained at the top of the game.

I know I say this a lot, but it is worth repeating over and over again.  The women’s international game is far more interesting than the men’s international game.  Spain aside, the men simply do not bring to the international game what they do to the club game.  In contrast, every elimination round match in the women’s Olympic tournament and many of the group stage matches were exceptional in their level of intensity and excitement.  I don’t care if O Fauxhawk and Brazil win their first gold medal, and I haven’t cared all tournament.  In contrast, I deeply cared about the entire women’s tournament, about how all the teams do, and about how they will be received by their countrymen and women.

As much as I trash English football, I must admit that the venues in Great Britain are unmatched in terms of history and tradition.  It was great to see women play at Hampden Park, Old Trafford, ans St. James’ Park.  And of course Wembly Stadium.  That over 80,000 spectators crammed into Wembly to watch a women’s football match is a great credit to the sport.  I cannot recall any Olympic women’s football tournament getting this kind of attention before.  Perhaps this is the moment when the world finally embraces the sport.

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Because I read the forums at BigScocer, I know there are a lot of people who dislike Pia Sundhage and her style of management.  When asked about whether he would renew her contract, Sunil Gulati, the head of the United States Soccer Federation, was evasive and somewhat cool to the idea.  It also, of course, depends of whether Sundhage wants to stay.

But it is unquestionable that Sundhage’s tenure has been a rousing success.  The facts speak for themselves.  Before she arrived, the USWNT were at the lowest point in the program’s history (at least since the start of tournament play).  Before Sundhage took over, the US were eliminated by Brazil in that match with that goal at the 2007 World Cup having suffered the program’s worst defeat ever (4-0).  In the three major tournaments Sundhage coached, the US finished first, second, and first.  For the majority of her tenure, the US have ranked first in the FIFA rankings.  She is the first coach in the women’s game to win two Olympic gold medals.  She took a broken team at war with itself and turned it into an irresistible force.

I hope that US fans recognize what Pia Sundhage has done with the team and appreciate that.  For my money, she is just as successful as Anson Dorrance or Tony DiCicco.

The US women have now won four of the five Olympic tournaments.  That’s quite a record, and only the US basketball teams can compete.  Each Olympic victory has had its own special feel.  The 1996 was about the team announcing itself to the nation.  2004 was the swan song of the Fab Five (Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Brandi Chastain, and Kristine Lilly). 2008 was the rebuilding year, moving on from the humiliation, turmoil, and disaster of the previous year’s World Cup.  2012 is something difference, and more complex.  This is the first major tournament since 1991 in which the US won all of its matches (penalty kicks are officially draws).  It may also be the turning point.  Japan and Canada pushed the US to the limit and although the US survived, this may be the sign that the time has come to adapt.  2012 should about closing the book on the past and looking at the best way to live in the future.

Astoundingly, there may be a future after all for women’s football in the United States.  A new professional league has been announced.   Maybe, just maybe, this time it will work?

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Anyway, this has been a lot of fun.  I love writing about women’s football, and hopefully I will not have to wait until 2015 before I can write again.  I hope you have enjoyed these posts too, and will continue to read this blog.  Thank you.

Women’s Olympic Football 2012 Day 5: OhMyGod!OhMyGod!OhMyGod!OhMyGod!OhMyGod!

The semifinals of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament reinforced a very simple message: if you have heart problems, don’t follow the US Women’s National Team.

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It’s not easy to think of titles for these posts, you know.  My goal is to capture the importance of the matches as well as adding a spark of cleverness.  I like to think that I have a 15.6% success rate (not that I’m counting).  So it should come as no surprise that I spent last night thinking about how to title this post.  My initial idea was to title this post “Rematch” because every single possible final combination had taken place already either in the groups stages of this tournament or last year’s World Cup–or in case of US v. France, both.  I was also thinking about a Canadian bacon joke, but it’s been done.  And if Canada won, I was thinking about “Blame Canada” or “(Don’t) Blame Canada.”  Nothing really clicked.

And then came the US v. Canada match at Old Trafford, one of football’s greatest locations.  Football, bloody hell.

Both semifinals were excellent.  The men’s international game can only dream of having something this good any more.  But it’s churlish to compare the men and women.  Today is about the women’s game, and what a day we got.

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On any other day, the match between Japan and France would have been the talk of the tournament.  Japan and France are the two most technical teams in the game.  Possession, short passing, artistry (so much as it can exist in football).  The teams last met in an Olympic warmup match that France won.  Perhaps this is the reason why some idiots predicted France to beat Japan.  To be fair, France are one of the top teams in the world.  However, they seem to be one rung on the ladder below the world’s Big Three–US, Germany, and Japan.

There are two important things one has to know about Japan, which France did not realize, and which would behoove the US to remember in the final: (1) Japan play much better in real competition than in friendlies; and (2) Japan, for all their technical skill, prefer winning to maintaining stylistic ideology.  That is how Japan were able to get to a 2-0 lead against France; Nadeshiko gave Les Bleus enough rope to hang themselves.  Which is not to say that France played badly, they most certainly did not, especially in the second half.  Certainly they gave Japan more than one moment of fright.  To say nothing of France’s 75th minute goal by Eugnie Le Sommer, which completely changed the attitude of the match.  And of course there was the penalty kick, the one that Elise Bussaglia missed.  Had she made it, it is entirely possible that France would have won.  But this is entirely in the realm of the theoretical.  Les Blues went toe-to-toe against the world champion, stared them down, but in the end the challengers blinked.  Japan were able to exploit France’s own mistakes (lousy set piece defending and sloppy goalkeeping by Sarah Bouhaddi), for goals from Yuki Ogimi and Mizuho Sakaguchi.

France took the loss with their usual bonhomie and good sportsmanship.  “Today was even more disappointing than the World Cup,” said coach Bruno Bini. “In the last 20 minutes we played very well and were even better than Japan. They barely reached our side of the pitch.”  This is why France lose against superior teams when it counts.  It’s the same reason why Arsenal again and again.  A moral victory is not a win.  This is the French mentality in a nutshell: we played better and we deserved to win, why doesn’t the official scoreline recognize our superiority?  Bini is clearly an acolyte of Arsene Wenger.  (And by the way, a football match is 90 minutes, so if you played better for only 20, then that is 350% longer that Japan were the better side.)

In contrast, Japan take nothing for granted.  If playing “better”does not work (and I am not convinced that France played better), then they change their game plan and play smarter.  That is why France lost in the last two major semifinals and why Japan will play for their second straight world title.

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Stop me if you heard this one before.  It’s a women’s soccer match.  The US is facing a team with one of the best players in the world.  Victory is by no means certain, and the specter of defeat is staring the US in the face.  Suddenly in the final minute of overtime stoppage time, a US star heads the ball into the back of the net (the latest goal the tournament had ever seen to that point), and saves the US chances.  The US win and move on.

Just over a year after Abby Wambach saved the US against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals sending the match to penalties (which the US won), Alex Morgan scored the winning goal in a 4-3 victory over Canada in a brilliant, wonderful, contentious, controversial match.  Already people are calling this the greatest women’s Olympic match of all time or even the greatest women’s match of all time.  I will go one farther, this is one of the greatest football matches, men’s or women’s, ever played, right up there with Italy/West Germany 1970 (also 4-3) and Italy/Brazil 1982.  It was non-stop action for 120+ minutes and was (mercifully) won without penalties.

If you are a fan of the US Women’s National Team, you have seen quite a few (perhaps too many) tight matches that were all terrific but exceedingly nerve-wracking.  There was the 1999 World Cup final of course, and then the two matches at last year’s World Cup that went to penalties–the quarterfinal against Brazil that I alluded to above and the final against Japan.  The last two Olympic finals were also very tight and tense.

I have mentioned my admiration of Canada’s Christine Sinclair many times, and today she was at her finest.  A hat trick against the US.  I cannot remember the last time when anyone did that; I think it was over a decade ago.  But Sinclair, she just took her team on her back and forced them to be great.  Canada’s play this tournament has mitigated (if not erased) the awfulness of the 2011 World Cup.  But today Canada were at a new level, one that I don’t think the world has ever seen from them before.  Their win over Great Britain was no fluke; Canada are in the upper echelon of women’s football, and woe be unto anyone who does not take them seriously (including their own federation.  Dear Canadian football authorities, treat the women like queens; your men’s team will never be that successful).

But no matter how good Canada were, they had a major obstacle in front of them, and that is the US.  The fact that the US and Canada are neighbors, and the fact that the US got a big head start in achieving football success has to gate the Canadians.  But more than that, what really bothers the Canadians is their pitiful record against the US.  Big Red have not beaten the US in 11 years and the USWNT’s record against Canada in that time is something like 22-0-4.  It gets even more pathetic when you include the Michelle Akers/Mia Hamm days (official FIFA head-to-head, the US leads with 42 wins, 4 draws, and 3 losses).  The Canadian players have been squeezed into the role of plain, younger sister to the USWNT’s superstar athlete/scholar/prom queen.  It’s like A League of Their Own but without Madonna or the bittersweet/uplifting/tearjerker ending.

Because Sinclair was so on today however, the US team had to work that much harder, and the first line of counterattack was my favoritestplayerofalltimeMarryMe! Megan Rapinoe.  Rapinoe scored the first two goals to counter Sinclair’s, the first of which was an amazing shot from a corner kick.  It was almost Roberto Carlos-like.  The second, well, my Rapinoe-love keeps on growing, so words cannot describe it.

The match went something like this Canada 1-0 US; Canada 1-1 US; Canada 2-1 US; Canada 2-2 US; Canada 3-2 US.  At this point the controversy happened.  The referee Christiana Pederson awarded an indirect free kick to the US for a call against Erin McLeod, the Canadian goalkeeper.  Apparently McLeod held the ball too long (over six seconds).  I have never seen that before, and it is a rare call that almost no referee makes, although Pederson was technically correct according to the Laws of the Game.  There is a question about whether Pederson warned McLeod ahead of time.  Rapinoe took the kick, and the ball hit Canadian player Marie-Eve Nault in the hand which resulted in a penalty.  Abby Wambach converted.  By this point the game was nearing the 80th minute, and without a doubt, it was the turning point of the game.  Canada did not score again, and Alex Morgan got her 123rd minute Header of Glory.  The Canadians, as you can imagine, are not happy about it.

I don’t want to devote too much time to the call, other than to say that I pretty much agree with everything Ray Curren wrote at AllWhiteKit.  In any football match there are at least 20 bad calls, some which have more of an effect than others.  But a football match is 90+ minutes, or in this case 120+.  The team of the receiving end of the questionable call has to take some responsibility for not doing enough in the rest of the match.  As Curren points out, although Canada had a heck of a game, the US were still the better side.  When refs make bad calls (such as the 2010 World Cup US goal against Slovakia that was taken away), it is natural for the angry fan to suspect them.  In my admittedly short time watching the game however, there are only two matches where the referee’s interference clearly made a difference and the referee was himself suspect–South Korea’s matches against Italy and Spain in the 2002 World Cup.  The only reason I still hold onto to the belief that those matches were fixed is because one of the referees was Byron Moreno.  Beyond that, calling a referee’s ethics into question is the worst thing that can happen for the game.  And besides which, Pederson is Norwegian.  As a Norwegian, one can imagine that the USWNT is the last team she would have tried to help.

What is most a shame about the controversy is that it takes away from the fact that this was by any standard an unbelievable match, possibly the best in the women’s game ever.  Old Trafford was lucky to host it.  One hopes that the match will be remembered for the exceptionally high quality of play and excitement rather than questionable officiating.

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So now it is on to the final (and the bronze medal match.  Go Canada!).  I have learned my lesson from the World Cup; no predictions.  I will say though that the US and Japan are the two teams at the top of the women’s game, and they have earned their places in the final.  As a US supporter, I am hoping for some redemption.  The US has beaten Japan in recent friendlies, but as I have said earlier in this post, you can never go by friendlies and Japan find a way to win.  No one knows that better than the US.

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.

Showing Some Love

As great as the US Women’s National Team from the 1999 World Cup was, I have always felt that they were propped up at the expense of the 1991 team, who have been largely forgotten despite (1) being the pioneers, and (2) having many of the same players as the 1999 team.  The 1991 team won the first Women’s World Cup (which at the time was not called a World Cup, and matches were only 80 minutes long), but that feels like a footnote now, especially in commemorations of the 1999 team.  Perhaps because video footage is rare or perhaps because very few media outlets covered it, the 1991 victory has largely faded.

It’s a shame too because the 1991 World Cup was where America’s greatest player was at her peak.  Michelle Akers was widely considered the best in the world at that point and was the top scorer at the tournament (although teammate Carin Jennings won the Golden Ball).  Time has not been kind to Akers’s legacy even though she was with the US Women’s National Team since the beginning, and there is a very strong case to be made that she is the greatest female player of all time.  In Jere Longman’s book The Girls of Summer, it is very clear that the US Team considered her their best player–as did the Chinese team who were somewhat intimidated by her.  There is also a story about Akers being asked to step on the bus of the German National Men’s Team (the defending world champions); when she got on their bus, they gave her a round of applause.

What Akers lacked was media exposure, which is probably why she is generally not mentioned in the debate of greatest ever, which is limited to Mia Hamm and Marta.*  By the time the women’s team came to national attention in 1996, Akers was no longer at the height of her powers both because of age and her struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome.  In the World Cup final, she played not as a striker but rather a holding midfielder, a less glamorous, but extremely important position. Akers shut down Sun Wen, China’s greatest attacking threat, and it was not until Akers left the field that China could really attack.  In the media however, she was overlooked in favor of Hamm, the world’s most prolific scorer.

In a way, Akers is a lot like Alfredo Di Stefano.  It is hard to say Di Stefano is underrated given (1) how many players consider him one of the greatest, (2) that he practically built football in Colombia, and (3) that the European Cup was successful in large part because of him.  But it is equally fair to say that the world never got to see his prime.  There is little if any available footage of his pre-European career in Argentina and Colombia.  He never played in a World Cup for a variety of reasons.  Although he led Real Madrid to five consecutive European Cup titles between 1956 and 1960, in 1958, the world found its first superstar in young Pele.  In 1962, Eusebio’s Benfica beat Di Stefano’s Madrid in the European Cup final.  The torch was passed; the new generation had taken over.

Michelle Akers’s story runs along parallel lines.  Although she was brilliant, the world never saw her in her prime.  How many people have even seen the 1991 final?  (I have.)  How much footage is there of her matches before 1996?  Hamm, like Pele, was a telegenic, prolific scorer whose image benefited tremendously from television.  Marta, like Maradona or Messi, is a wildly gifted player who does things with the ball that no one else can.  There are plenty of highlight reels and YouTube videos featuring Marta.

Michelle Akers never had that, and yet she was arguably the greatest of them all.  It is why I was very glad to see this post.  Hopefully there will be many more as people become more interested in the women’s game and its history.

 

 

Footnotes:

* Also left out of the discussion: Sun Wen, who along with Akers was named co-Player of the Century, and Heidi Mohr, who in 1999 was named Europe’s Footballer of the Century.  Others who are left out include Birgit Prinz and Homare Sawa, the only two players besides Marta and Hamm to win a FIFA Player of the Year award.  They are just the tip of the iceberg.  Someone really needs to write a history book about women’s football on the lines of The Ball is Round.

 

Euro Day 15: Sacre Bleu!

In eliminating France, Spain broke its streak of consecutive 1-0 victories in knock out rounds.  Sort of.

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1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0.  This is not binary code; it is the scores of Spain’s five previous knockout round matches in official tournaments (the Confederations Cup doesn’t count because it’s an exhibition with delusions of grandeur).  First came the Euro final of 2008, a 1-0 victory over Germany.  In the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup it was 1-0 over Portugal.  In the next round it was 1-0 over Paraguay.  Then it was 1-0 over Germany again.  And in the final round it was 1-0 over the Netherlands.

So when Spain went up 1-0 in the 19th minute of today’s Euro 2012 quarterfinal against France (a fabulous header from Xabi Alonso), it was lights out.  Spain would tiki and taka Les Bleus (who ironically wore an all white kit) to death without actually scoring another goal.  Ruthless but effective and who could blame them?  Perhaps if France were less lackluster they could have gathered themselves together to score a tying goal.  There were moments where France threatened, but in the end Spain’s possession game plan strangled them to death as it has done to so many others.  I think France managed exactly one shot on goal.

In second half stoppage time Pedro earned a penalty, which Xabi Alonso converted to make the final score  2-0.  Officially, Xabi Alonso’s penalty broke the 1-0 streak, but to anyone who watched the entire match it was effectively another 1-0 victory.  Coincidentally, this match was Xabi Alonso’s 100th cap.  Today’s goals were the only two he scored for Spain.  Ever.

Next up Portugal.

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In winning today, Spain put yet another demon behind them.  Although Spain have an edge in the official head-to-head statistics, before tonight, Spain never beat France in an official tournament.  The last time they played one another officially was the 2006 World Cup, where a Raul-led Spain fell 3-1 to a Zidane-led France (happy birthday, Zizou).  At the time the match had no symbolic significance, but in hindsight it marked a turning point in the fate of both national teams.

Following the 2006 World Cup, Spanish coach Luis Aragones dropped Raul and led his team to an impressive 2008 Euro victory–the first tournament victory since the 1964 Euro (a much different tournament back then).  That was the moment Spain stopped being a jinxed team, the sick man of Europe, and became everyone’s favorite world beaters.  Unlike almost everyone else, Spain actually played with a national style.  Moreover, that style was difficult to play, distinct (and lovely) to watch, and easy to recognize–a football wonk’s dream.  The 3-0 annihilation of Russia in the Euro 2008 semifinals was particularly eye-opening.

Aragones, sick of the politics of the Spanish football association and the Spanish sports media, kept a pre-tournament vow to quit following the tournament, and he was replaced by former Real Madrid boss Vicente del Bosque.  Del Bosque had the pedigree; he had coached Real Madrid to a Champions League victory.  There was fear he might bring back Raul, who generally considered a team cancer, but del Bosque decided to make only very minor tinkers (such as famously dropping Marco Senna and bringing in more Barcelona players).

Spain won every match in its 2010 World Cup qualification campaign, and (after ironically losing its first match to Switzerland 1-0), Spain 1-0′ed its way to victory.  En route however, Spain stopped being everyone’s darling and started to be perceived as a second Germany–ruthlessly efficient and dreadfully dull.  Or at least this is the perception of the British media (and the American media which parrots the British).  If anyone else out there speaks a different language, please let me know how Spain’s dominance is perceived in your country. What the media overlooked though is that Spain “ground out” 1-0 victories because all their opponents parked the bus.  We tremble with dread when we think of Greece’s 2004 victory at the Euro, but Spain essentially faced those same Greek tactics over and over again in each round.  That Spain kept winning is truly a credit to their talent and their patience.

It makes sense that the British would come to despise the Spanish game, because Spain are the opposite of England (and to a lesser extent Scotland, but really when we talk about Britain we mean England): technical rather than physical, patient rather than daring. strategic rather than foolhardy.  Spain like the short-passes and keeping play on the ground, England prefer the long kick and run and the cross and the header.  And most importantly, Spain have completely changed its image from losers to world beaters, whereas finding excuses for losing has become a national hobby in England.

Therefore it is no surprise to hear the English gripe about boring, boring Spain.  But if the English National Team won a Euro, and World Cup and was now in the semifinals of the next Euro using tiki taka, you can bet that no one would think it was boring at all.

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In contrast to Spain’s upward trajectory, France have gone from disgrace to disgrace.  The warning signs were all there in 2006; had it not been for Zidane effectively taking charge of the team and through sheer will dragging it to the finals, France would have exited in disgrace at the group stages rather than losing in the final round in penalty kicks–a loss that may have been prevented had Zidane not vicariously fulfilled the dreams of everyone else in the world by headbutting an Italian footballer.  Once Zidane was exiled to the dressing room, decisions were left solely to coach Raymond Domenech, a man who was completely unqualified to coach a high school team.  Hence the French lost on penalty kicks to a national team whose penalty kicks record ranks only slightly better than England’s.

Following the World Cup, the French football association kept Domenech on even though it was widely known that the team despised him.  (Granted, firing a coach who takes your team to second place makes no sense unless you are Brazil.)  The federation would however, have had every right to fire Domenech two years later after France’s miserable showing at Euro 2008.  Domenech was retained despite the poor showing and despite some very strange behavior that bordered on lunacy.  The federation put him on “probation” for the World Cup qualifiers.  Not to toot my own horn, but when the federation’s then-president stood by Domenech, I told anyone who would listen that this was a horrific mistake that would eventually cause said president to resign after the World Cup.  I was right, but I had no idea about how right I was.

By now everyone knows the story.  France did not win their World Cup qualification group, and only qualified for South Africa because of a Hand of Thierry goal against Ireland in the play-offs.  Almost everyone knows about the strike in South Africa, but if not, the story of the French team’s behavior is told briefly and succinctly here.  It was horrifying and hilarious at the same time.  Again, France failed to make it out of the group stage (they finished dead last and were quite possibly the worst team at the tournament with only North Korea for competition), but the team behavior overshadowed the miserable performance.  It cause un scandale at home.  The president resigned, Domenech was (finally) sacked, and the players were disciplined to varying degrees.  Nicolas Anelka was effectively banned for life.  Sarkozy  himself threatened to get involved, but recanted when FIFA threatened sanctions.

Bordeaux manager Laurent Blanc replaced Domenech and it looked like he finally started to get the team in order.  They went on a 23 match unbeaten streak and began to look like contenders (although Blanc had his doubters, and the early days of his reign were, to say the least, not smooth).  At the this year’s Euro, France was drawn into a fairly easy group, with only England as potential competition.  Despite a draw with England, France seemed on pace to win Group D and avoid Spain in the quarterfinals.  Then France lost badly to Sweden who lost its previous two matches, and again all hell broke loose.  The details are sketchy, but there was some sort of problem or problems in the French dressing room following the Sweden loss.  Given that and Blanc’s generally defeatist attitude about the match against Spain, it is a wonder that the score was only 2-0.

Since 2006, one could say that France have effectively turned into the Dutch in that their internal squabbles derail their ambitions.  On the hand, the Oranje have never humiliated themselves quite to the extent that Les Bleus have.  (The Dutch tendency to fight comes from a tradition of independent thinking inherent in the Dutch culture at large.  France do not that excuse.  Rather it appears without a strong leader like Platini or Zidane, the French team’s natural inclination is to hate each other.)  Given that both France and the Netherlands have had disastrous showings at this Euro, both on and off the pitch, one can say there is very little difference between the team of Holland and the team of Hollande.

It is probably fair to say that the dream of 1998 is effectively dead, killed by poor stewardship and team disharmony.  Perhaps France can turn their fortunes around for 2014 in Brazil, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.  Blanc’s tenure looks far less secure, but they did keep on Raymond Demenech….

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On a completely unrelated note, following today’s match, ESPN aired a special about Title IX and its impact on American women’s sports, particularly football, and with particularly emphasis on the 1999 Women’s World Cup (recycling much footage from the years-old documentary about that World Cup).

To my mind, this half hour encapsulates everything that is wrong with women’s football in America–as the world moves forward, Americans keep reflecting on a moment that has long since passed.  Last year the American women’s team repeated over and over again that they were sick of living in the shadow of the 1999 team, and who can blame them?  The 1999 victory has become so legendary that it will forever overshadow any future accomplishment of any other American women’s football team.  The fact that ESPN and the American football establishment continue to worship 1999 covers up some major problems: (1) the rest of the world has caught up to the US, but any serious conversation is swept aside for nostalgia; (2) the US is in danger of creative emptiness, and that needs to be corrected; and (3) the 1999 success cannot disguise the fact that now two women’s professional football leagues in this country have failed.  A successful tournament is one thing, sustained growth is something completely different.

And for all the good Title IX has done, the question must be asked: is the collegiate system really the best way going forward to sustain a successful national program?  It is not in the men’s game, and I suspect that one day it will be the same in the women’s game.  Perhaps it is time to move beyond Title IX as the fountainhead of all women’s football and to start thinking about alternatives.  Nostalgia has its place, but not at the cost of the future.

I have no objections to remembering and celebrating the good times, but I am really tired of the 1999 fetish, particularly the focus on Mia, Brandi, Kristine, and Julie (especially Mia).  The truth is that the greatest American football hero, woman or man, is consistently and completely overlooked: Michelle Akers.  She is our national legend, our Pele.  Perhaps it is time for ESPN to show her a little love rather than just retread the well-worn ground of the 1999 World Cup.