Back in 1950, Harry Keough perhaps summarised best the general attitude toward the quality of the American game that might still hold true in some quarters of the international football community. After the postal worker and semi-professional defender considered England’s now legendary 1-0 loss to the US in Belo Horizonte, he quipped, “Boy, I feel sorry for these bastards. How are they ever going to live down the fact we beat them?” The sentiment has remained somewhat applicable historically, as the US failed to qualify for another World Cup for another four decades, seemingly comfortable to allow the world’s game to pass it by while busy playing baseball, basketball, and its own variety of football. Of course, this strictly pertains to the national men’s team, as the women’s program has been one of the most dominant in the history of international women’s football. Currently ranked the top nation by FIFA and with two World Cups on their mantle, we have come to expect the US women to be successful at an international event much as we anticipate the Spanish men’s program to win everything in sight.
Considering the Americans have more World Cups than England overall, perhaps those bastards are still sorry they lost back in 1950.
For in this 2011 Women’s World Cup, the Lionesses were unable to chance adding to England’s 1966 men’s trophy after they lost to France in a thoroughly English way via penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. That surprising Les Bleues squad now face the United States in what marks the first encounter between the two nations in any World Cup, either half of the sexual divide. While superficially that appears an oddity, considering France’s general status as top football nation and American efforts to raise its profile over the past two decades would have naturally found the countries competing at some point in either the men’s or women’s game, the fates have never aligned until now. Not having truly returned to the international game until hosting the 1994 World Cup, the US men did not have the opportunity to be drawn against their former friends during the American Revolution, as Les Bleus failed to qualify. As France hosted the event four years later, the Americans mounted a rather catastrophic challenge, finishing last in the entire tournament and likely already back across the pond watching France hold aloft the trophy from their television sets. On the women’s side, as the US has been leading the pack since winning the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, the French have largely been absent on the world stage, with this summer’s edition seeing them make a finals appearance for only their second time.
What is perhaps more surprising than this being the first high-stakes meeting between the two nations on a football pitch is how long it took the French to get here as opposed to the rapidity with which the Americans took to the game. As if shot out of a cannon, the US women played its first match in 1985 and six years later were hoisting the cup of world champions. When FIFA released its somewhat questionable compilation of the 100 greatest football players, the only two females on the list and the only two Americans were Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers. At around this same time, France’s program was enjoying the fruits of its first successful qualification to the finals by bedding in at a new female wing of the famed French training academy at Clairefontaine. The move to Clairefontaine afforded the French ladies nearly equal access to the same quality of training the men had been receiving, but the program was unable to see immediate benefits from this until quite recently. A principal reason for this might have been that, despite having restarted women’s programs over a decade before the Americans, the French Football Federation largely neglected funding its women’s program sufficiently to give Les Bleues a proper head start. Having finally reached a stage in the World Cup the US is accustomed to occupy, we should see if the French have finally caught up.
Coming into this match, there are likely several French veterans hoping this squad might be able to finally put to rest some of the demons that have tortured them from previous encounters with the United States in friendlies or smaller tournaments. While there are no players on the roster who experienced France’s worst ever loss–handed to them by the US in 1996–there remains French captain Sandrine Soubeyrand and Sonia Bompastor on hand to seek revenge from their 5-1 defeat to the Americans during the 2004 Algarve Cup. And while the French will have to find some way to overcome the physical style in which the US usually overwhelms its opponents, the Americans will have to combat a French attack looking to confuse a slightly shaky defensive back line for the Americans which will be absent Rachel Buehler. One of the keys to France’s success thus far has been their ability to switch the point of attack, and their chances in this match depend on this, as GK Hope Solo presents a stiff challenge to any direct assault on her goal.
Regardless of the outcome, though, the French should be overjoyed with their performance in the 2011 World Cup. After stumping their toes for a bit, it looks as if women’s football in France is reaching a point where results should begin eclipsing hopeful optimism. Considering that before this tournament, many observers of European football spoke positively of the attractive play French club Olympique Lyonnais employed in their Women’s Champions League victory along with the national team’s semifinal appearance in Germany, it looks as if the time is approaching for France to join the elite of women’s international football. Considering that Lyon side is largely represented in Les Bleues roster, one does not need to consult the astrological signs to divine this optimism.
And just maybe, after this World Cup, other nations won’t look like sorry bastards for having lost to France.
Follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter here.
Follow Jason on Twitter here.