In covering football tournaments on 200%, I have found it easy to see the good in them. Too easy for some tastes, I admit. But, honestly, the 2011 Women’s World Cup was a belter, wasn’t it? I was glad to be wrong about the winners. BBC analyst Lucy Ward’s suggestion during the final that current coach Pia Sundhage had rid the USA squad of much of its former arrogance was an eyebrow-raiser, although it was more possible to feel sorry for Abby Wambach after her largely-inspirational 2011 displays than it had been in 2007. Sundehage broke into song at one tournament press conference (Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Feeling Groovy’ if you MUST know) and reportedly reduces squad tensions by picking up a guitar and belting out some country-and-western classics. Oh for the arrogant days?
Japan’s installation as the tournament’s ‘Barcelona’ now has a trophy alongside it. And for all the Catalan-based hype, Norio Sasaki’s side were worthy winners. They certainly learned more from defeat to England than Hope Powell’s team took from victory over them. That result makes England moral World Champions, of course. But even the uber-patriotic Beeb fought shy of that suggestion. To paraphrase football magazine When Saturday Comes after Euro ‘92, you could say England beat the eventual winners, but you don’t. Amid his ill-informed tournament comments, the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel suggested women’s football should “be allowed to develop its own rhythms and identity,” as if it hadn’t already. The games were slower and less physical than the men’s equivalent…and the better for both. And Sunday’s final suggested all the ‘development’ work is done. Even if it wasn’t the thrill-a-minute, epoch-making classic some reports claimed.
From a delayed recording (before knowing who won on penalties), I found that the match didn’t match the hype. It was a little too one-sided, with the Americans dominating the chances sufficiently to win eight or nine times out of ten. So for the BBC’s Martin Keown to suggest that skill had won over power on the basis of this final was pushing it a bit. The Americans will probably have pondered at length over the width of the goalposts as they left Germany. That said, it was an encounter typical of all the good things in the tournament. A positive, attacking outlook was matched by the lack of cynicism – even American keeper Hope Solo’s pre-shoot-out kick routine wasn’t that annoying (or effective, as it turned out)…and the teams turned around straight away halfway through extra-time, a first, surely? They didn’t even allow time for an inane comment from Keown. While Sasaki despatched all the painful inscrutability stereotypes (laughing… laughing with his team immediately prior to the final penalty shoot-out), the battle for most miserable coach was a surprisingly well-fought one.
Canada’s Caroline Morace had least had the good grace to show good grace on occasion, before slinking back into the dugout at the end of her side’s loss to Nigeria like a recalcitrant 11 year-old who’d been refused a bag of sweets by her mother. Norway’s Eli Landsem has DNA nicknamed ‘ferocity’ and probably couldn’t help but look so scary as a default position. And thanks to her team’s ill-fortune against Australia, we never saw if she had a happy face. But both were outdone in the misery stakes by the unseen, indomitably grumpy British Eurosport analyst Emma Hayes. In the midst of her furious name-dropping, Hayes leapt on any playing indiscretion with the gusto of a 19th-century governess, lambasting Sweden and the USA for “giving the ball away quite a bit” in their game, after… one minute 37 seconds. Her day job as ‘technical director’ of Western New York Flash in ‘Women’s Professional Soccer’ (America’s grammatically-challenged club competition) and her recent history in the American club game gave the former Arsenal assistant coach an inside track on many of the tournament’s star players. And when she wasn’t in furious name-dropping mode – “A-Rod” this, “Abby” that – she used that information to inform us, an obvious part of her job which has proven beyond so many contemporaries.
Because of this, you could forgive her for the impression that she didn’t actually like football and that she was just using a coach’s (sorry, ‘technical director’s’) instinctive emphasis on errors. Had there been a truly stinking match, who knows what she’d have said. But, with the possible exception of Korea DPR against Colombia, there wasn’t one. Individual stinkers were plentiful, however. It looked like a tournament too far for some well-known veterans (i.e. I’d heard of them). Shannon Boxx…well, her contribution to USA’s semi-final victory over France could be overstated by three dots after her name, despite Hayes’ sterling efforts to talk up her “presence.” The “presence” line was also applied to the highest-profile flop, Germany’s Birgit Printz, who slept-walked through the hosts’ first two games before the previously unthinkable happened and she was dropped, to grimace her way through her replacement Inka Grings’ more lively performances up front.
Brazil, collectively, were ghastly, despite occasional flashes of Marta’s genius. And, sadly, Kelly Smith and Eniola Aluko will not be ordering the DVD of England’s tournament – Smith in particular an injured shadow of the player who so graced the 2007 competition. But a special mention must be made of Sweden’s Nilla Fischer, whose brief, explosive contributions to the competition earmarked her for some sort of special ‘Roy Keane’ merit award. In the quarter-final win over Australia her disappointment at a nearby colleague seeing yellow for the foul substitute Fischer was setting herself to commit with her first ‘touch’ was palpable. Only getting booked about ten minutes later might even have damaged her pride. In keeping with the general good nature, strops were rare, with Sonia Bompastor’s post-match rant after France’s third-placed play-off defeat conspicuous by its isolation. She had a right to be angry, though, having been the victim of an almost equally-isolated horror tackle; Sweden’s Josefine Oqvist dismissed for kicking Bompastor where the sun doesn’t shine.
Even the tournament’s overall lack of goals was a good sign, as we were bereft of embarrassingly one-sided games. Even the occasional four-nil allowed the vanquished some moments in plucky territory, with Mexico’s 4-0 against Japan being their only defeat. There were no bad sides in this tournament to live down to standards set by teams such as Argentina in 2007. Equatorial Guinea provided one of the more entertaining players in Bundesliga-based and ironic superhero-sounding Anonman. New Zealand gave us the most heart-warming lap of honour after picking up their only point, against the Mexicans; though most of us would be tempted to celebrate getting a 2-2 draw with two goals in injury-time. The “dog ate my homework” award for best/worst excuse for under-performance was Korea DPR’s Lim Kwang-Min from the moment he mentioned lightning striking some of his players in pre-tournament training. And the subsequent treatment caused two drug test failures (“adverse analytical findings” in FIFA-speak), thanks to the ‘accidental’ presence of “traditional musk deer gland medicine” in the antidote (as opposed, presumably, to the more acceptable modern musk deer gland medicine).
If this was the whole story, even this tournament’s drug scandal was less cynical than most, although the subsequent banning of three more Koreans after the whole team was mandatorily tested suggests possibly not. Eurosport couldn’t but win the TV plaudits, give the paucity of the competition provided by the BBC. Aside from the general punditry excellence, commentators Tim Caple, Warren Boyce and others now have so much international football tournament experience – albeit from a London studio – that they can’t help but let their knowledge slip out. The Beeb’s Guy Mowbray may still be a slightly better commentator on TV pictures, despite taking yonks to realise that Japan’s Azusa Iwashimizu had been sent-off late in the final. But the Eurosport team are now genuine experts and it shows.
The BBC still won one broadcast ‘award,’ in the unintended irony category, when Gabby Logan wondered aloud to no-one in particular (as good a description of Martin Keown as I can muster) whether the tournament’s style would succeed in “attracting young girls in this country to play the game.” It would, of course… if our national broadcaster had deigned to show any of that style beyond the final and England’s distinctly UN-stylish campaign. Mowbray did note, however, that while the 2007 tournament was good, this one was even better. And I think I’m right to agree. It was a belter.
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