British Eurosport’s ubiquitous football commentator Tim Caple was doing his level best not to say there were “no easy games in international football these days.” Some clichés are oft-repeated because of the element of truth therein, but there were certainly no “easy games” in the first round of matches at this year’s Women’s World Cup in Germany. Nothing suggested that the semi-final line-up in this year’s tournament will be anything other than Germany, Brazil, the United States and A.N. Other. However, the performances of ‘lesser’ teams such as Canada, Colombia and New Zealand contributed to an absorbing first round of matches, which were all competitive and largely free of the fear of losing which so often besmirches early games in international tournament finals. And Equatorial Guinea’s display in defeat against Norway produced a near-classic.
The matches were also largely free of the confusing side-effects of FIFA’s habit of introducing rule changes at the start of such tournaments, although an audibly irritated Caple detected the introduction of the “push-in”, which appeared to replace the “throw-in” during the United States’ match with Korea DPR. The competitive nature of all the teams might have a slightly debilitating effect on the goals-per-game ratio, with little sign of the occasional multi-goal thrashing which usually boosts that statistic – think Germany’s 11-0 hockeying of Argentina in 2007’s opening match.
Equally significant has been the quality of goalkeeping. From Nigeria’s Precious (Dede) to America’s Hope (Solo), the keeping has steered well clear of previous tournaments’ efforts – the Argentine example above being far from isolated down the years, even though the long-unbeatable German keeper Nadine Angerer was at last beaten by a well-struck but only averagely-directed free-kick by Canada’s Christine Sinclair. England’s Karen Bardsley took some stick for her ungainly-looking efforts at stopping Monica Ocampo’s piledriver of an equaliser for Mexico, with manager Hope Powell giving out some of that stick, unfortunately for Bardsley. But the fact that she was hurtling towards her right-hand post at much the same speed as Ocampo’s shot was a genuine mitigating circumstance. (BTW: a name like Ocampo makes it hard to resist a comment about the Irish diaspora stretching into Mexico… but I’ll try).
Ocampo’s goal was remarkable both in the sense that all 35-yard piledrivers are and in the debilitating affect it had on what had until then been an impressive England effort. Efficient and dominant before the goal, England became ragged and cowed after it, although having a centre-forward who’d forgotten how to shoot would have hampered most teams. Eniola Aluko has, on the dozen or so occasions I’ve seen her, looked the part right up until the key part of a striker’s job. After half-time against Mexico, she crumbled three times with the goal twice in her sights and once at her mercy. England’s draw with Mexico, the only share of spoils in the first round, is a better result than has been suggested by most observers, with the Mexicans looking a better side than their five-month old FIFA ranking of 22. But as a quarter-final against Germany awaits the group runners-up, England’s final match against Japan will take on an oppressive importance, if Powell’s side can overcome New Zealand.
“If New Zealand can get to half-time at 0-0, it will be a considerable achievement,” noted Caple, half-an-hour into the Japan/New Zealand encounter. It would have been more than considerable, given that the score was 1-1 at the time, but you knew what he meant. Japan had started out as if double figures were on their mind. Yet they only truly took control of the game when the brilliant Mana Iwabuchi came on as a second-half substitute to torment a tiring New Zealand defence. Until then, the occasional cries of “Ohno” had been as much a comment on Japan’s disjointed passing as simple identification of midfielder Shinobu Ohno. And it would be no surprise to see New Zealand play a decisive part in this group’s outcome, even if they don’t make the top two themselves, especially if England replicate their second-half against Mexico, rather than their first.
Powell is probably now wishing she’d thought of the old “struck by lightning” excuse which came from Korea DPR supremo Kim Kwang Min after their similar deterioration in performance against the US, who themselves appeared to have received a bolt of something at half-time, as their second-half improvement was at least as significant in the changing complexion of a fascinating encounter. The Americans probably looked the most impressive team of the round, although they won’t need telling that. Their experience” (translation: age) might be less of a help as the tournament goes on, especially if the warm weather of its first week does. But it certainly helped against Korea, who probably haven’t fielded such an internationally-inexperienced side since their first one. And with their uniformly short haircuts, Korea could have lined-up in the concurrently-running male under-17 World Cup in Mexico and not be noticed for a bit. Fair play to them, then, for being as attack-orientated as the other finalists, taking a mere eight minutes and thirty-two seconds to produce more attacking football than their mens’ team in three games at this year’s Asia Cup.
Colombian goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda was a busy girl against Sweden, and will be busier still after Colombia’s second-choice custodian Yineth Varon failed an anti-doping test, though nothing would have tested her more than being asked to keep a straight face as Sweden’s Jessica Landstrom sought and found imaginative ways of missing a sitter. There’s been a lot of that about, with Landstrom, Germany’s Kerstin Garefrekes, Canada’s Sinclair and Brazil’s Rosana all providing head-in-hands moments for themselves and their colleagues (and a ball-boy behind one of the open goals missed by yards). But all four made amends by eventually scoring, Landstrom and Rosana grabbing their games’ only goals. England’s Aluko did not. And nor, emphatically, did Norway’s Isabell Herlovsen and Equatorial Guinea’s German-based striker and captain Anonman. Herlovsen contrived to hit the post from six, four and two yards…all in the same goalmouth scramble, having already sent one sitter skywards.
Meanwhile, Anonman combined a series of superbly-timed runs in behind Norway’s defence with a series of horribly-hooked shots across goal and two self-constructed efforts which brought fine saves from Norway keeper Ingrid Hjelmseth. Thus did the game of the round fall only six minutes short of being the only 0-0 of the round. This was much to the dismay of the Equatorial Guinea fan whose upper-body tantrums increased in exact proportion to the room he was afforded in “his” part of the stadium. And we know this because the host broadcaster insisted on returning to him after every miss. Sadly, we were left to wonder what he would have done had his team scored. Happily, though, we weren’t treated to his mimed analysis of Norway’s winner. “He’s getting on my nerves, now,” noted Eurosport analyst Jen O’Neill, possibly echoing the thoughts of a nation.
As welcome as the football has been British Eurosport’s coverage of it. Caple has been particularly busy, combining a stint in front of the pictures from Germany with a late shift “at” the Under-17 men’s World Cup, having also recently covered the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the busy satellite channel. His co-commentator Wayne Boyce has been unfussily informative (and equally double-booked in Mexico). And he has dropped tournament names into his conversations with all the expertise Caple has shown in this area down the years. Boyce’s only ‘blip’ has been his comment “if anyone can organise a defence it’s him,” about Equatorial Guinea’s Italian-descended coach Marcello Frigerio, which suggested Boyce hadn’t watched Juve in Europe in recent seasons.
And former Sunderland player O’Neill knows the game (and many of the players) well and shows it, displaying more insight in one visit to the microphone than Alan Shearer has managed in two World Cups and a Euro. “It’s neat and tidy, and it’s simple and it’s working,” noted O’Neill. She was summing up Brazil’s improved second-half display in their 1-0 victory over Australia, but her words could easily have served as a review of Eurosport’s tournament, to date. My quarter-final predictions are, well, predictable: Germany v (ulp!) England, France v Japan, USA v Norway and Brazil v Sweden. But safe though they sound, I also predict that there’ll continue to be some entertaining football on the way there. A good start.
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