2015 Women’s World Cup — Win? Lose? The Draw!

On December 6, the drawing for the group stage of the 2015 Women’s World Cup (or as I like to call it, the World Cup) took place.  I’ll spare the suspense, although if you are reading this, you probably already know.  Here are the groups:

GROUP A: Canada, China, New Zealand, Netherlands
GROUP B: Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway, Thailand
GROUP C: Japan, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador
GROUP D: United States, Australia, Sweden, Nigeria
GROUP E: Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Costa Rica
GROUP F: France, England, Colombia, Mexico

Two topics have dominated the conversation and no doubt will continue to do so.  The first is that SPECTRE and The Legion of Doom FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association have decided to use artificial turf pitches, despite the fact that they would never allow that for the Men’s World Cup.  The players are trying to fight it, but time is running out.  If there is an increase in injuries during the World Cup, watch FIFA try to dodge this debacle too.  Is FIFA the most loathsome organization in the world or merely just one of a select few?

The other issue that you will hear about until you are sick of it is the lack of depth in the field.  FIFA expanded next year’s tournament from 16 teams to 24.  But there is a perceived danger that the depth of quality has been watered down, and we will go back to the days of 6-0, 7,-0, 10-0 scorelines.  (This is also a complaint about the expanded 2016 European Championship.)  Certainly everyone thought newby Equatorial Guinea would be the recipient of such drubbings during the last World Cup, but that turned out not to be the case.  The Equatoguineans’ performance was (admittedly aided by some dubious calls) quite respectable, better than Canada’s even.

Eight nations are making their World Cup debut: Netherlands, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador, Spain and Costa Rica.  Thailand has never qualified for a men’s or women’s World Cup before, so this is truly uncharted territory for them.  Most likely they would not have qualified at all had the AFC not been given an additional two slots this year and (more germane) had North Korea not been banned from qualification due to the doping scandal at the last World Cup.  The AFC is (unlike in the men’s game) a very strong division in the women’s game with Japan the reigning world champion, China a-once-dangerous-but-now-faded power, Australia and North Korea as perennial dark horses and South Korea as a potential future player.  It is hard to see where Thailand will fit into this scheme in the future.

Speaking of North Korea, this is the first competition in God knows how long in which neither Colombia nor North Korea will play the United States in the group stage.  In divine retribution, the US will play in Group D, unarguably the toughest group in 2015 World Cup.  The US, Sweden, Australia, and Nigeria.  The US is the strongest team in this group and should make it through to the next round, but it is not a given.  Australia, as I mentioned above, is a perennial dark horse, and probably the second best team in the AFC.  Nigeria has never missed a World Cup, is almost always the African champion, and gets better and better every tournament.  And then there is Sweden.  Last time around Sweden beat the US in the group stage, which to my recollection, is the first group stage loss the US ever suffered.  This year the US and Sweden have an even stronger link than mere revenge.  Pia Sundhage, the Singing Swede who coached the US to two Olympic golds and World Cup runners-up in 2011, is now coach of Sweden.  Sundhage knows all about the US.  The US players and staff know all about Sundhage.  And of course, it is a grudge match for the US, which no doubt is still angry about four years ago.

If there is a second difficult group in this tournament, it is Group F: France, England, Colombia, and Mexico.  What both Group D and Group F have in common is that all eight teams in those two groups have played in World Cups before.  (Contrast that to Group C which is Japan and three debutant nations.)

As a US fan, I am hoping that the 2015ers can finally bring the trophy back to the US, but of course the other two major forces of the women’s game, Germany and Japan, stand in the way.  Brazil is always a contender, but as Marta gets older and her magic wanes one wonders if Brazil is able to supplement her individual brilliance.  France and host Canada are also top seeds hoping to make that breakthrough that has thus far eluded them.  Norway will continue its sad, slow decline.  For my part, I am really interested in how Spain will do.  It their first World Cup and they are led by the magnificent Vero Boquete.

Because the World Cup is still over half a year away, I’m going to gather and save my thoughts for a future dates.  But the draw is out, and the excitement has already begun.

 

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Hooray For American Samoa!

I don’t know how I missed this (damn work!) but the American Samoa national football team finally won its first match.  I mean its first match ever–at least in terms of matches sanctioned by FIFA.  This is after almost two decades and over 30 attempts.  In fact, I don’t think they ever even drew a match before.

I love rooting for the football minnows, and they don’t get smaller than American Samoa, whom the BBC so delicately referred as the world’s worst team.  (Rankings-wise this is accurate, but it’s still mean.)  Finally the team beat Tonga 2-1.  Match reports say that the team celebrated as though they had won the World Cup, which is understandable given the team’s history of futility.  Yesterday they drew the Cook Islands 1-1, so thus far in this World Cup qualification campaign they are undefeated.

The last time American Samoa was in the news was in 2001 for the infamous 31-0 loss to Australia’s second string team.  It is to date the worst drubbing in international football history (breaking the previous record of 22-0 which Australia had set against Tonga two days prior).  American Samoa instantly because the butt of all jokes, which is actually rather unfair because it ignores the full story of the match.  The American Samoa team was ridiculously understrength because of passport issues and high school exams, and for a territory which (a) is tiny and (b) cares far less for football that for American football, basketball, and baseball, that was a fatal death knell.  A few of the fielded players were as young as 15, and some had never played a 90 minute match before.  Truth be told, 31-0 probably flattered the American Samoan team almost as much as it did the Australians.

The other part of the story is that Australia deliberately ran up the score, and not because the Socceroos were jealous of how many points the Wallabies score in a typical rugby union match.  At the time Australia were in the OFC, which is by far the weakest conference in FIFA.  Not surprisingly, Australia had only appeared once at the World Cup–in 1974.  Despite the 31-0, Australia still missed out on the World Cup (Uruguay beat them over two legs in a playoff).  Australia knew that staying in the OFC would only hinder its development, and like with American Samoa, football was competing for attention and resources with far more popular sports.  Changes were made for the next cycle, but finally Australia left the OFC for the AFC, a conference far more suited to a developing football nation with legitimate World Cup qualification hopes. This was only fair.

Unfairly, American Samoa became a worldwide laughingstock, forever associated with the 31-0.  There is a very moving essay by the writer Ben Rice in the book The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup in which that match play.  Following the loss, the-then American Samoa coach Tony Langkilde said of the match and his team:

It is a learning curve.  We are a member of FIFA and we have a right to play.  We are very happy to be here and to build from here.  I do not think we are downhearted.  The only way is forward.

(p. 63)

As soon as I read that quote, I developed a deep affection for American Samoa.  I hoped that one day the world would see them move forward.  Finally it has.

Super Club Revolution

Over the past few decades, FIFA has made itself an implacable enemy, a sleeping giant finally starting to stir.  No, it is not any law enforcement authority.  Nor is it the purveyors of good taste.  It is not even those of use who loathe corruption.

No, FIFA is facing something more dangerous, the European Club Association (ECA).  The ECA is exactly what it sounds like, an organization of the European clubs dedicated to protecting their interests.  Specifically, it is an organization dedicated to protecting the interest of the largest European clubs.  These clubs in particular hate UEFA, FIFA, and especially Sepp Blatter.

The clubs’ major concern is the ever-growing list of international fixtures.  The clubs are compelled to follow FIFA’s international calendar.  Whenever the FIFA calendar calls for international fixtures, the clubs must release those players called up to their national team, which the clubs deeply resent (more international fixtures means more potential for player injury.)  FIFA has taken full advantage of this power over the clubs by increasing the number of international fixtures.

It can be argued that international coaches have limited time with their players, and increasing the fixtures makes for a better international game.  The evidence however, does not bear this out.  If anything the standard of international play has gotten worse over the past few decades, and international men’s tournaments really are dull, especially compared to the Champions League.

The real reason that FIFA increases the international calendar (and the other reason the clubs are furious) is that national federations make huge amounts of money from the gate receipts of these fixtures.  Unlike cricket or rugby, in football, one-off international matches (“friendlies” in football-speak) are not all that important.  FIFA uses them for its rankings, but no one takes those rankings very seriously.  It’s a money-making scheme, and the clubs get no benefits but all the potential for loss.  And then there are the international tournaments.  FIFA and co. keep all the money from advertisement, licensing, and television rights, and no one else benefits.  On top of that, the greedy pigs at CAF make the African Cup of Nations every two years, which means every two years the clubs must surrender their top African players.  For a month.  In the middle of the European season.  (The fact that CAF holds a tournament during World Cup years is actually illegal according to FIFA rules, but FIFA will not do anything about it.)

The ECA is currently being driven by the demands of nine clubs: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Bayern Munich.  (Bayern in particular is at the forefront of this, and Franz Beckenbauer, who was until just recently a member of the FIFA ExCo has been remarkably quiet in the face of Bayern’s noise.)  If these club name look familiar, well they should.  With the exception of Real Madrid, who won the tournament a record nine times, these are the only clubs to have reached a Champions League final since 2005.  In other words, these are the biggest money clubs in the world.  And they are angry.

For now, the clubs have an agreement with UEFA that they will play in the Champions League and follow FIFA and UEFA rules.  That agreement expires after the 2014 World Cup, and the clubs are aching for a fight.  That fight has to come now, because FIFA is weak due to scandals of their own making.  The European public sees FIFA probably worse than it ever has before, and FIFA’s internal factions are divided.  Now is the time to strike.

What does the ECA envision?  The super clubs will form their own breakaway league instead of playing in the Champions League.  No doubt the nine clubs at the forefront will invite other historically successful (like Juventus and Ajax) and monied clubs (like Manchester City and maybe Shakhtar Donetsk.)  What UEFA will learn, and what the clubs know, is that the Champions League brand is nothing compared to the brands of its competitors.  Around the world, most people would rather see the top European clubs play one another than watch their own leagues, which is why leagues around the world are suffering from low attendance.

But the major blow will be aimed at FIFA.  If they are no longer bound by FIFA rules, then the clubs will not have to release their players for international play, i.e. the World Cup.  The clubs would instead make their own international competition in place of the World Cup.  Which one would you prefer to watch?  The one with the best players in the world or the one with history but with poor teams and a recent poor track record?

FIFA clearly does not take this threat seriously.  Hence Blatter continues to visit (other) corrupt dictators like Robert Mugabe and the Burmese junta.  The truth is that FIFA no longer has the cachet it used to or thinks it still does.  What FIFA does not understand is that while national teams are a matter of pride, clubs are matter of love.  Fans will not abandon their clubs because of the fight with FIFA, especially if the clubs offer a more attractive alternative.  FIFA also does not seem to understand that they are perceived as a shadowy, mafioso-led kleptocracy.  Blatter and his ilk should have seen the writing on the wall after the Russia/Qatar votes, but they didn’t.  The long-overdue exiles of Jack Warner, Mohammed bin Hammam, and the soon-to-occur cleansing of Caribbean Football Union is not enough.

It would be a loss if the World Cup were to fade away, but I blame FIFA for its destruction, not the clubs.  What I do worry about is if FIFA is neutered, will it still hold tournaments like the Women’s World Cup?  If the clubs only care about their own collective interests (which they do), then the women’s game could fade, as it is not a priority for the clubs.  (On the other hand, if that is all FIFA has left, maybe it will do a better job with it?  Not likely, but one can dream.)

I don’t blame the clubs.  They are businesses not charities.  A lot of money went into these clubs and the players, and the people who invested that money should be able to protect their investments.  The way clubs were run before (and in many places continue to be run) is a disgrace.  In American, we see our sports teams as organizations owned and operated by a person/group as a vehicle for making money rather than community property.  Sure they are part of the community, but they don’t belong to us.  If a club folded due to mismanagement, it’s sad, but that’s the way of life.  In Europe, the view is different.  Clubs are community property regardless of who sits behind the owner/president chair.  But, that is an outdated view.  Clubs are businesses first.

Right now this revolution is in the nascent stages, but it is very real.  I suspect that the clubs will either get what they really want or they will breakaway.  It’s for the better.  The old way has failed, FIFA is resistant to change, and the sludge needs to be cleared.

51 Bad Ideas Before Breakfast

Once of the best descriptions of Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s President and all-around football villain, was made by a German journalist who said of Sepp, “He has 50 new ideas before breakfast and 51 of them are bad.”  That basically sums up Blatter, but I want to turn my attention to one of his recent presidential challengers who has shown that he too is not immune from bad ideas.

That challenger is Grant Wahl, whose symbolic run can to nothing, as pretty much everyone knew it would.  I am ambivalent about Wahl* because on one hand he is one of the most prominent supporters of the game (men’s and women’s), but on the other, when he is not writing magazine articles, he comes up with amazingly ridiculous ideas that no doubt he believes are brilliant.  Because his blog is on SI.com as opposed to say, tracingthetree.wordpress.com, his bad ideas are given far more credit than others’ bad ideas.

The specific bad idea that I am referring to today is in this bullet point wish list (calling it journalism or a blog entry is too generous.)  He calls for the Women’s World Cup to be held every two years instead of every four.  Now at first blush that seems brilliant.  Yay!  More women’s football!  But if you scratch the surface, this is a deeply flawed and even dangerous idea.

Discounting the logistics of holding qualifiers so frequently (clubs in America and Europe do want their players to play for the club from time to time), holding the World Cup ever two years would be detrimental for another reason.  The World Cup (and the Olympics) gets so much publicity precisely because it is once every four years.  It’s a simple ration: the more international competitions there are, the less people are willing to watch.  This is particularly true of niche sports.  Swimming and track and field have major meets every two years (odd years so as not to conflict with the Olympics).  Who really pays attention to that, other than perhaps the occasional Michael Phelps reference?  Men’s and women’s basketball, so popular at the Olympics, has much less attention for its own World Championships (non-Olympic even years).  Even in football the biennial African Cup of Nations is more of a nuisance than an event, especially for the European clubs and their fans.  If it were four years rather than two, like every other confederation’s cup (CAF greed), it would be far more exciting.

What makes a World Cup or an Olympics so special is that is so rare.  If the World Cup were to move to every two years, it would become background noise.  However one builds off the success of this World Cup to maintain a viable and sustainable women’s professional football league (and I have no solutions), holding the World Cup more frequently is not the way.  That would only cheapen the competition.

Way to go, Grant!  Now all you need is 50 more bad ideas, and you can really challenge for FIFA presidency.

Footnotes:

* While I am ambivalent about Wahl, one must marvel in amazement at the quality of football writers who write columns for SI.com, many of whom also write for English publications, in particular The Guardian.  Whatever you feel about The Guardian, their football coverage is top-notch.  Jonathan Wilson, Sid Lowe, Tim Vickery, Georgina Turner, Raphael Honigstein, Marcela Moro y Araujo, Gabriele Marcotti.  The list goes on and on.  Which reminds me.  Whatever happened to Gregory Sica?  Between SI and ESPN (again excluding Soccernet), there is no question which one I go to first.

Lessons Learned From The Women’s World Cup

One final post about the 2011 World Cup to sum up a few of the lessons that we learned from this tournament.

The gap is not closing; it has closed.  Japan, whose only prior decent World Cup result was the 1995 quarterfinals, won.  France, for so long a non-contender, came in 4th.  Only three teams scored four goals in a single match, and there were no humiliating 7-0. 8-0, 11-0 blowouts like in previous years.  The traditional minnows did themselves proud–New Zealand got its first point ever, and Nigeria beat Canada while holding France and Germany to merely one goal apiece.  Equatorial Guinea played extremely well, scored two goals, and introduced the world to unique defending techniques.  Even the two worst teams of the tournament, North Korea and Colombia, each managed a draw (against each other.)  In contrast, Norway, one of the greats of the early game, have fallen into mediocrity and will probably never recover their former glory.

Teams from Asia can dominate this competition for some time to come.  Japan won, a young Australia side reached its second consecutive quarterfinal, and South Korea is knocking at the door (no doubt fueled by a desire to beat Japan.)  Maybe China will want to support their own once-great program (again, no doubt fueled by a desire to beat Japan.)  Asia has arrived.

Lightning strikes twice.  Apparently the lightning that was responsible for the North Korean loss to the United States was also responsible for their positive doping result.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Brazil is the team of the future… and always will be.  Brazil is far and away the most talented squad and boasts the best player in the world, but the CBF, Brazil’s football association, does not care about them.  Therefore the team does not get together until just before major tournaments, gets incompetent coaches, and does not even have their own kits.  Every other team in the tournament was wary of Brazil and scared of Marta, but in the end Brazil were undone as much by the CBF as by the US.  On a related note, I got my answer to why Spain do not have a good women’s side, and it is even more deflating than what is going on with Brazil. When a manager who wins nothing keeps a job for nearly three decades, that reveals an apathy bordering on malice.

Defense cannot win tournaments, but it can lose them.  I have said this before but it bears some repeating.  A defender is really in a no-win situation.  When they do well they are generally ignored, and when they are noticed, it is usually because they are being scapegoated.  A striker can miss 99 of 100 chances, but that one chance could win the match, and all is forgiven.  A defender can brilliantly prevent 99 out of 100 chances, yet that one missed opportunity can lose the match, and then the knives come out.  Thus it was yesterday with the US.  The match never should have gotten to penalties.  The US had the match won twice and lost it twice because the defense failed twice.  Even though the US offense blew chance after chance in the first half hour, the defense still bears the lion’s share of the blame.

I know more about this World Cup than FIFA does.  Have you seen FIFA’s All Star Team?  Maybe someone can explain the logic to me, because to my eyes there are some ridiculous selections there, particularly in defense.  Shannon Boxx?  Saskia Bartusiak?  Laura Georges?  Érika?  Elise Kellond-Knight?  Admittedly, I put Faye White on my team, but I recanted and apologized yesterday.  My team of the tournament looks far more like Jeff Kassouf’s than FIFA’s, and since I trust Kassouf for insight into the women’s game far more than I do FIFA, I feel redeemed.

Homare Sawa belongs on the Greatest Ever list.  If the last World Cup was the real beginning of Marta’s legacy, this World Cup ended Sawa’s in a fairy tale finish.  Women’s football has had it’s fair share of great leaders, but Sawa is second to none.  She was her team’s engine and their inspiration.  Whenever Japan were in trouble, she worked some of her magic, and led them to victory.  Every award that she won and will win are completely deserved.  Now if only I can fit her on my Greatest Ever team.

North American teams need a rethink.  As I write this, I am listening to Canadian goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc on World Football Daily.  She had a fascinating take on the World Cup and on Canada’s plight, but something needs to change after Canada’s woeful tournament.  The US had a far better tournament than Canada, but the signs are ominous.  Although they outplayed Japan, against Sweden, Brazil, and France the US were the technically deficient side.  In both the US and Canada there are problems from the ground up, and as Canada showed, without major corrections there will be humiliations in World Cups to come.  As for Mexico, without Maribel Domínguez that team’s future is in limbo.  Mexico have players with great technique, but one wonders if they can pull it together without their leader.

In football, no one is invulnerable.*  In retrospect, perhaps Japan’s upset of Germany is not quite as momentous as it seemed at the time.  Nevertheless, Germany were the heavy favorites, especially at home.  They looked awful in the group stages, and their result can be described only as a major failure.  Silvia Neid has, for the first time, come under pressure although I believe she is keeping her post.  The legacy of Birgit Prinz is in tatters, and for the first time in a while, the reputation of Germany’s women’s team has come into question.

The 2015 World Cup will be fantastic.  Or it won’t be.  This World Cup was the most competitive ever.  The top teams of each continent are much closer in quality than they ever have been.  If 2015 were another 16-team tournament, one would expect the quality level to stay the same.  However, the tournament is increasing to 24 teams, and one wonders if lower-ranked teams from South America, Africa, and Asia will be able to continue the trend.**

Enjoy the players we have.  Americans cannot live in the past, Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck, Briana Scurry, and Brandi Chastain are long gone.  Now we have Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Lauren Cheney, Megan Rapinoe, Ali Krieger, and Heather O’Reilly.  They too are great players, and deserve our admiration.

The women’s game is worth watching.  The proof is in the pudding.  The tournament was fantastic, the quality of football was excellent.  Support your local club; the players will love you back.

Footnotes:

* For further emphasis about how no one is invulnerable in football check out the Copa America results from this weekend.  Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile all lost in the quarterfinals to Paraguay, Uruguay, Peru, and Venezuela respectively. The gap among the South American men has also closed.

**  In particular I am thinking of Argentina, Chile, Ghana, Cameroon, and South Africa, all of whom have a terrific chance for qualifying for 2015, but whose international record is spotty at best.  To a lesser extent, I also wonder about Asian teams outside of East Asia/Australia, although I suspect none will qualify for 2015.

Women’s World Cup Day 15: Rising Sun

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

Japan v. United States

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

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

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

On to the actual match.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Awards: 

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

Golden Glove: Hope Solo

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

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

Fair Play Trophy: Japan

Best Young Player: Cailtlin Foord

Women’s World Cup Final: A Preview

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

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

2.  I am depressed.