It started slowly, before rising to a beautiful tumult and ended with a penalty shoot-out which ended in a victory for the team of the aesthetes. And then, on top of that, the crowd had the good sense to roundly boo Sepp Blatter. To that extent, this evening’s Women’s World Cup final was, in other words, a series of small victories for football and the end of a tournament that has been a credit to its host nation, Germany, and to the womens game in a more general sense. This was a tournament that could have fallen flat after the surprise exit of the hosts at the quarter-final stage, but instead it picked a different momentum with Japan, playing sometimes beautiful and occasionally vulnerable football and containing a team featuring some players with back-stories that would break the stoniest of hearts, giving it a new narrative which sustained it through two thrilling semi-finals as well as this evening’s high drama.
All of this is to perform a disservice to an American team that played a full part in this evening’s match to the extent that each Japanese goal came as a bolt from the blue. Ultimately, however, the United States of America were too one-dimensional and over-reliant on their greater strength and other physical attirbutes. They were, ultimately, unable to work their way through a Japanese game-plan that seemed to have seen through this, sitting their defence deep and swallowing up the balls aimed towards Abby Wambach. Wambach did to contrive to hit the crossbar after twenty-eight minutes had been played, and it was this frustration which summed up America’s first half. Too many poor chances with that critical final ball and a blanket Japan defence mean a goalless score at half-time. In such a situation, nerves can start to fray, and the exertions of the Americans in trying to get forward might, the Japanese may well have reckoned, might provide gaps at the back to exploit.
The chances kept coming, to Morgan, who hit the post, to Lloyd, who shot into the side-netting, and to Wambach, who saw her header tipped just over by the Japanese goalkeeper Kaihori. As the game progressed, however, those gaps did start to appear behind the American defence as well, with full-back Kinga driving a shot over the crossbar that a player with more experience in that position might have scored. With just over twenty minutes left to play, however, a goal came, and when it did it came from route one. Rapinoe’s long ball was met by Alex Morgan, who drove a low shot wide of Kaihori and in. This might have been the end of the match as a contest, but the American decision to sit back proved to be something of a misjudgement – with nine minutes to go, Japan were level. The American defence had been reasonably immaculate up until this point, but a right-wing cross saw Buehler hit an attempted clearance at Krieger seven yards from goal, and Miyama, who could presumably scarcely believe her luck, poked the ball in.
Harsh upon the Americans this may have been, but extra-time brought tiredness and scrapiness. The United States pushed and pushed, though, and a minute before the break they retook the lead. It was a goal of almost surprising simplicity, Morgan crossing and Wambach heading in from close range. This time, surely, America could hold on. Well, no. Twice their defence was involved in chaotic attempts to clear the ball from their own penalty area. It was a sign of the fragility of their lead, and with three minutes left to play Japan brought themselves level when Sawa turned the ball past Solo. There was still time for Wambach to blaze the ball over the crossbar from six yards out and Iwashimuizu to be sent off for a last ditch foul on Morgan. The Womens World Cup would be settled on penalty kicks.
After twenty-six attempts at beating the United States of America, Japan turned out victorious from the penalty shoot-out. The kicks were disastrous for the USA, with Boxx, Lloyd and Heath all missing for the USA – two of those kicks were saved by Kaihori – while Hope Solo could only save one kick for the American team, from Nagasato. Wambach pulled one back but Kumagai converted to take the Womens World Cup back to Japan. It was tough on the American team, but there had been a force of will in this Japanese team which had been evident in their quarter-final win against Germany and in coming from behind to beat Sweden in the semi-finals. To this extent, they deserved their tournament win. The USA, meanwhile, arguably outstripped many people’s expectations in getting as far as they did and can look back on a tournament which may have seen the recent apparent decline of the American team arrested. They will, presuming that they qualify, go to Canada in four years time amongst the favourites to win.
Most tellingly of all, the 2011 Women’s World Cup has been a huge success. There was a capacity crowd of over 48,000 in Frankfurt for this match, and crowds have been consistently high throughout the tournament. The world has seen that women’s football can hold its own on its own merits and produce attacking, entertaining football. Moreover, the gap between the haves and have nots of the game were not in evidence this year – there was to be no repeat of some of the thrashings handed out in previous tournaments. It has, in the likes of Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Homare Sawa and Marta, provided its own stars and will continue to flourish. We can only hope that, in four years time, the BBC raises its game in terms of the coverage of the competition that it can offer; the quality of football seen this summer in Germany merits far greater coverage than it currently receives. On many levels, the 2011 Womens World Cup has been exactly the success that the development of womens football needed.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.