There was a bit more money about when the fifth Women’s World Cup took place. And the BBC was quite prepared to spend it on more extensive coverage of the tournament than the anglo-centric focus they are boasting about this time around. It probably wasn’t just the football that attracted the Beeb’s attention in 2007, although England’s improving squad were worthy of it anyway. The corporation almost certainly used the tournament, which was held in China, as preparation for the following year’s Olympics. And what better place to iron out the kinks than on the BBC’s red button from nine o’clock in the morning, GMT?
My experience of the women’s game was limited but occasionally intense. I’d heard of Rachel Yankey – it was the sort of name which stuck for the most puerile of reasons, and she was terrifically skilful. My Arsenal-supporting mate watched their team. And the only Kingstonian fan in Plumstead in South-East London (almost as standout as being the only gay in the village) watched Millwall, as much because of his Trotskyist pretensions towards equality of the sexes as anything else. And all these direct and indirect experiences collided when – to use a phrase only a select few can and that I will probably never be able to use again – I was the tannoy announcer at the FA Cup semi-final. I forget precisely how or why I got the role, or where the good public address people were. But I thoroughly enjoyed the occasion, with Arsenal beating the Millwall Lionesses at Kingsmeadow, in a game in no way as one-sided as the (5-1?) scoreline suggested. The only downside was a madly over-officious FA representative, who seemed to think that players’ names would prove too much for my South-West London brogue and that I thought ‘protocol’ was some sort of wart cream.
Having since watched as many women’s games as a lack of satellite television in our house would allow (FA Cup Finals and England’s European Championship fixtures in the tournament held here in 2005), I had no qualms about covering the 2007 World Cup on the website for which I wrote at the time. And it proved a joyous, consistently entertaining affair. A testosterone-free zone, and all-the-better for it. It was a partly predictable tournament. Like the Rugby World Cup which took place at the same time (and shrivelled as a spectacle by comparison), and the more recent cricket World Cup, it took a while-and-a-bit to produce semi-finalists which even my limited knowledge of the game allowed me to expect. And England lost in the quarter-finals.
But there was a plethora of ‘little things’ which made the tournament worthwhile. The renditions of ‘Jingle Bells’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ from the crowds in the western China city of Chengdu. A Ghana defence including a Gladys, a Mavis and a Doreen. The deafening silence every time China conceded a goal. And the almost total lack of on-field violence – the USA providing the exception to that rule. And although England lost in the quarter-finals to the ‘professional’ Americans (inside and outside inverted commas), after just one win – against a hapless, hopeless Argentina – they were way better than that. The Independent newspaper’s James Lawton didn’t see it that way. He had clearly received his subscription copy of Misogynists Weekly at the start of the tournament, to judge by his way off-beam summary of England’s performance: “(England) are demanding to represent Britain in next year’s Olympics (and) are convinced the nation should warm to their achievements. Where do they get such an idea? Perhaps in Frank Lampard’s autobiography.”
England played well throughout, bar twelve mad minutes in the USA game from previously sound goalkeeper Rachel Brown and an early second-half onslaught from the world’s number one ranking team in the same match – a trick the Americans repeated against Norway in the third-place play-off. England were denied a hugely entertaining win over Japan by a poor last-minute refereeing decision. They defended exceptionally well to be the only team to hold Germany scoreless, in an absorbing group encounter. They hammered Argentina in the manner good sides should. A quarter-final for the world’s number twelve ranked side represented a fulfilment of potential way beyond the men’s depressing equivalent in Germany the previous year (the source of Lawton’s Lampard reference above). And England finished among Europe’s top three sides, which was the qualifying standard for the Olympics. So their ‘demand’ for representation was both justified in playing terms and politically less fraught than current negotiations over a Great Britain team for 2012. I warmed to all of that, thank you Mr. Lawton.
The USA crashed in the semis, which worked on a number of different levels. “When the Yanks met a team that matched them physically but brought more skill, their deficiencies were glaring,” wrote Mike Woitalla after the 2003 tournament. All that changed in four years was the opposition. Germany in 2003, Brazil in 2007. They were graceless and arrogant. Goalkeeper Hope Solo’s nose was so high in the air that there was no sense of injustice about her omission from the semi-final line-up, despite being about the tournament’s safest keeper. And striker Abby Wambach was a bully, albeit a talented one. The Brazilians displayed many similar characteristics. But they crucially matched the “samba football” stereotype to the joyous letter, even (especially?) in final defeat. Having played together less than most – the US were virtually a club side after their Women’s League dissolved moments before the 2003 finals – Brazil looked clumsy for the opening half of their opening game against New Zealand.
But as the Kiwis tired – which they did in every game – Brazil flowed. Twenty-year-old Martha lived up to the billing that is Brazil’s number ten shirt as they dismantled the Kiwis and China before Pretinha’s 91st-minute goal ruined potentially the best 0-0 in international football history. Brazil’s rustiness failed to explain how they lost the South American title 2-0 to Argentina. They were “missing five players that day” but really ought to have won with the six who remained, to judge by Argentina’s performances in China. Jet-lag partly explained their 11-0 collapse in front of Germany in the tournament opener – a “traditionally low-scoring affair.” But not goalkeeper Vanina Correa’s penchant for throwing corners into her own net. Correa single-handedly, as it were, destroyed hopes from media analysts that the tournament would “change perceptions” of atrocious women’s goalkeeping.
Germany were worthy winners, despite riding their luck in the final, and despite striker Brigit Printz’s near-allergy to passing the ball… even from throw-ins (most of the tournament’s throw-ins looked like foul ones, Japan and Brazil consistently bouncing the ball off their foreheads). And Northern Europe remains strong, despite Sweden’s costly concentration lapses against Nigeria and the sense that Denmark’s players hated each other. The final was a fitting finale, even if the rock that was German centre-back Annike Krahn got rewarded rather than the expansive Brazilians. Whatever you say about flair being denied ultimate glory, “no goals against” in the entire tournament (Germany’s outstanding record) says it louder. Thanks to British Eurosport’s continuing expansive coverage of the less high-profile world football tournaments, the cutbacks in the BBC’s coverage shouldn’t impact too greatly. And if 2007 is a guide, the next three-and-a-bit weeks should be very worthwhile.
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