So, having toyed with resembling England’s men in 2006 and 2010, Hope Powell’s England finally plumped for Bobby Robson’s 1986-vintage, coming (very) good in their last group game after early stutters. Of course, they also resembled England’s women from 2007 which, against Japan, was just the right example to follow. And this time they picked up the win they’d deserved in China four years ago, winning the group and possibly avoiding the fate of Robson’s and Powell’s previous sides – plucky quarter-final defeat to a tournament favourite. Ellen White’s stunning opening goal was so stunning that commentators couldn’t make up their minds whether her exquisite lob was from 30 yards (Eurosport) or 20 yards (BBC), even though a handily-placed ‘D’ on the edge of the penalty area suggested you could split the difference. White’s brilliance overshadowed Rachel Yankey’s fine second goal, which was a shame for the veteran, who had struggled in this competition. But England were good and strong all-round, if not quite up with the top favourites, as Martin Keown was in danger of suggesting. That said, there have been more surprising winners of international tournaments than England would be this time.
USA still have the look of champions, although their collective, ahem, ‘self-belief’ gives them that look all the time. They will face Brazil in the stand-out looking quarter-final with revenge for 2007 in mind. Then, States’ coach Greg Ryan made the barmpot decision to drop goalkeeper Hope Solo. This was sort of funny, as Hope’s ‘ahem, self-belief’ was more pronounced than most (still is). But replacement Briana Scurry played like her name and that, combined with Shannon Boxx’s dismissal, contributed to a 4-0 defeat. It shouldn’t be 4-0 this time because (a) it wouldn’t have been 4-0 last time in “normal” circumstances and (b) Brazil haven’t been much cop yet – even Marta has only looked very good indeed which, believe me, is below her best.
But America’s defeat to Sweden in the Group D decider was still a jolt, particularly for Eurosport co-commentators Tim Caple and the frighteningly well-informed Emma Hayes, who seemed to clean forget Sweden were playing as the Americans strove to fightback from an attention-grabbing 2-0 half-time deficit. For half-an-hour, it was all Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe (or was it Christie Rampoe?), Shannon Boxx and Hope bloody Solo. And Caple noted the prospective quarter-final line-up if Sweden won – USA/Brazil, Sweden/Australia – adding: “that will change if one more goal is scored.” Not if Sweden scored it, of course. But Caple wasn’t countenancing this, correcting himself just too late with a hurried “for the USA, that is.” Hayes eventually gave Sweden their due, in instalments. After 86 minutes, she conceded that they had “caused America problems,” which is as understated a way to describe beating the world’s number one ranked team as I could have brought to mind in the time. And her closing argument was “I think they deserve to win this game,” which was about right.
I’m finding it impossible to warm to the Americans. While others (mostly, but not exclusively, male) have their own dreams of Solo, she irritates me. Never more so than her pathetic gameswomanship prior to Sweden’s penalty; she probably hasn’t taken that long to put on a pair of gloves since she was two. So her fierce expression after Nilla Fischer’s free-kick deflected outrageously past her was a joy to behold; especially as Caple had just asked when Solo had last conceded twice in an international, expecting the answer to be “never…and never again.” The deflection came off Amy LePeilbert, who should have been defending the free-kick from the dug-out, having conceded the penalty. Indeed, she was striding purposefully off the pitch when she took a cursory glance at the referee and discovered the card was yellow. So even when Sweden’s luck was out, it was soon back in again. And you sense that the Americans would win the match if it was played all over again… and again. Wambach may have showed her heading prowess by scoring with her… erm… upper arm. But the comparison between her and form-less German legend Birgit Printz was hugely unfair on the combative American. And the States have, in general, been that bit better than the hosts and pre-tournament favourites. “We’ll just take a different road,” was the perspective of America’s Swedish coach Pia Sundhage immediately after the match. And you suspect she may be right.
Germany’s inability to defend at corners was another jolt. They must have defended some in 2007 when they went through the tournament with defence unbreached. But thus far only Nigeria have failed to score against them. And the way even an off-form Marta has been whipping in the set-pieces suggests Brazil could exact revenge for their 2007 final defeat, should they get past the USA and create the opportunity. This also assumes that Germany will beat Japan in another mouth-watering quarter. And despite Japan’s insipid display against England, this is not an assumption which can be made with any conviction. Germany, Japan, USA and Brazil was the semi-final line-up predicted by experts… and me. So teams such as the Swedes, Australia and France will, as they say, ‘fancy their chances.’
Australia’s elimination of Norway in Group D’s runner-up decider – the only game of its kind in this round of matches – was only a shock from the perspective of history. Norway’s world title was sixteen years ago, and it showed. Coach Eli Landsem may have looked as ultra-fierce at the final whistle as you would when your side has lost one nicknamed the ‘Matildas.’ But she looked like that all the time. And although her team were unlucky to lose against the Matildas, they and misfortune were co-authors of their downfall. The game was two-thirds of a thriller. It was interesting but nervy until Norway’s keeper Ingrid Hjelmseth got injured late in the first half. And it was almost as shot-a-minute thereafter. Norway thought they had taken the lead when Elis Thorsnes slammed Australian keeper Melissa Barbieri into the turf and the ball into the empty net in quick succession. It was the sort of goal Nat Lofthouse might have been given in the 1950s but here it was…oh…hang on…the ref’s given it. Blimey. But I barely had time to note that thought before Australia were level. Norway’s Trine Ronning was the width of the underside of the crossbar from giving her side the lead just two minutes before Kyah Simon gave her side the lead. Yet the sense was that the Australians were well aware of the truth potential in clichés, especially, “they wanted it more.” Because the ‘Matildas’ did.
England’s quarter-final opponents, France (it was going to be an ‘old enemy’ whoever won Group A) were unlucky to run into Kirsi Heikkinen, the first illiberal referee of the tournament. And it was no surprise that the tournament’s first penalty and red card came in their 4-2 defeat to the hosts. Germany were better with the extra player they selected for the game (i.e. dropping Printz) but French defenders were consistently punished and occasionally cautioned for some fine tackling – robust rather than ‘robust’ (Heikkinen would probably have booked Bobby Moore for his iconic dispossession of Pele in 1970). And while the actual penalty and red card decisions were right (when Hayes exclaimed “what a hack” she meant goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz’s tackle, not Heikkinen), the French were understandably a more inhibited as the game wore on, for fear of incurring Heikkinen’s wrath with another well-timed tackle. This, in turn, allowed German striker Inka Grings enough room to shine and almost certainly keep her place for the rest of the tournament. Printz may have been delighted by this. But she was clearly too professional to let her emotions show. Possibly.
The most delighted team of the round, though, were the ‘Football Ferns’ of New Zealand (what is it with the Antipodean teams and excruciating nicknames?). Commentator Dan O’Hagan clearly had only about eight New Zealand facts to last 90 minutes, as he gave each of them about eight outings (I will take to my grave the fact that they beat the Cook Islands 14-0 in qualifying). So he too was delighted when, the Ferns, 2-0 down with NO minutes to go against Mexico, got the goal Eurosport analyst Bryan Hamilton was almost begging for throughout the second half. And before they could be patronised as plucky, they got another, reducing Mexico’s 16-year-old keeper Cecilia Santiago and her maturer colleagues to tears and possibly Hamilton too, for different reasons. The Ferns celebrated like they’d won the competition, rather than a point, as it was their first-ever in World Cup finals. Cook Islands, watch out.
Having failed to predict the largely predictable quarter-final line-up, I’m venturing no opinions about the semis. Suffice to say the tournament is building up nicely, as 16-team events usually do, unlike the slightly drawn-out 24-team World Under-17s Men’s competition which has outlasted entire weather seasons in Mexico. The 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada will have… 24 teams. Good grief.
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