So often in major international tournaments, the knock-out stages are where the rot starts to set in, even though they are supposed to be where the tournament ‘hots up.’ Thankfully, the 2011 Women’s World Cup quarter-finals were more hot than rot. In truth, although the group stages produced a lot of watchable football, they lacked a bit of bite and intensity at times. But there was bite and intensity about three of the quarters, an almighty shock in the fourth and quite probably the tournament’s ‘signature’ match, the impossibly dramatic USA/Brazil encounter. Sweden will be the freshest legs and faces in the semi-finals, with their 3-1 quarter-final victory bereft of extra-time and… well… bite and intensity. And they are the only semi-finalists yet to be beaten, which can’t have happened that often in sixteen-team tournaments. Pre-match talk from Australia centred on the “Matildas’” tactical and formational flexibility. But lining-up without a right full-back and a discernible central midfield proved a tactical innovation too far, the Swedes refusing to be blinded by science and driving through midfield and crossing from the left at every opportunity.
Their first goal was a neat move which met with the sort of round of applause from the Sunday lunchtime crowd in Augsburg that you’d normally associate with England cricket fans appreciating a well-run three by Jonathan Trott. There’s a clue in the words ‘Sunday lunchtime’, I’m thinking. Ellyse Perry’s strike gave the Aussies a glimmer of hope but Kim Carroll had already been having a stinker before threading a superb pass into Lotta Schelin’s path for Sweden’s third, clinching goal. And it wasn’t the first time Schelin had found the Aussie backline bearing gifts. As Eurosport’s Tim Caple so evocatively put it “they very nearly gave her one in the first half.”
For a split-second, Carroll’s ‘defensive’ colleague Servet Uzunlar berated her for her temporarily taking on the role of Swedish playmaker… until she remembered her part in Equatorial Guinea’s first and so far only-ever World Cup Finals goals and thought better of it. Sweden should have been awarded a fourth goal when Aussie keeper Melissa Barbieri almost got entangled with the back of the net as she caught a goalbound cross. But at 3-1, no-one seemed to care. And that sound you may have heard in the background was Sepp Blatter breathing another sigh of relief.
England… penalties… damn, not again. Overall, England did “OK.” But that doesn’t sell papers or attract website hits. So, somehow, England had to take it in the neck for something. And the contrast in their quarter-final between their more direct game and the fluid eye-catching performance from France was just the job. After an opening thirty seconds in which they nearly took the lead, Hope Powell’s charges were in admirably resilient mode and defended determinedly and often against the side coached by Bruno Bini, a cross between Johnny Cash and a gloomy Jim Broadbent. Much was made of the perceived nervousness of France’s second-choice keeper Celine Deville. And her opening dash out of her six-yard box to get that all-important ‘early feel of the ball’ registered closer to panic. However, after that, Deville wasn’t quite as much the ‘flapper’ as commentators were making out.
A later rush to the edge of her box to pick up another slightly over-hit English long ball was portrayed as “should I stay or should I go?” on Eurosport, although mic man Caple didn’t use those words and analyst Jen O’Neill “was going to say that but I thought you might start singing.” However, Deville’s stop/start run was more to do with the proximity of the edge of her penalty area, and was perfectly judged. And England’s Karen Bardsley proved the important custodian. Despite the constantly impressive Jill Scott’s goal, Bardsley took the game to penalties. It was such a shame then that she dived so late for Ellise Bussaglia’s’s 88th-minute equaliser it looked like she was stopping the shot that had been hit on Eurosport rather than the one Bussaglia struck on BBC2.
There’ll be a still somewhere of Bardsley’s full-length dive to her right with the ball already nestling in the other side of the goal having gone in off the post, and she will look silly. Despite pretty much walking past two of France’s penalties, she deserves to be better-remembered than that. Nevertheless, England’s preparation for penalties was woefully lacking. It wasn’t the disputed “cowardice” of which Hope Powell spoke but the fact that there wasn’t already a designated list of five, trained penalty-takers, with a couple for back-up in case any of the five were injured or substituted. Until this stage, England hadn’t quite matched their 2007 counterparts. But here the campaign to have their quarter-final on a ‘proper’ BBC channel rather than a bloody button didn’t backfire as it did when England were a little humiliated by a painfully superior USA.
And they deserve to be a little better remembered than the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel managed. “They were removed at the knock-out stage by the first good team they played,” he claimed, comments which will doubtless go down a storm in Japan. That England are ranked tenth in the world but still made the last eight was overlooked. Problem is “they did OK” won’t sell papers or attract website hits; so ill-researched nonsense will have to suffice. Speaking of ill-researched nonsense, I missed the Germany/Japan quarter-final. And I cannot pretend otherwise. It is difficult enough to write a good-natured, thoughtful analysis of a game you’ve seen – as the previous few paragraphs may have amply demonstrated. But impossible from two minutes and twenty-eight seconds of curiously edited ‘highlights’ from FIFA’s website (teams walking onto the pitch and shaking hands are not highlights of any match, even one involving a Sam Allardyce team). So, I have to limit my critique of Germany’s ‘shock’ defeat to Japan (the inverted commas are there because it wasn’t a huge shock – Japan are ranked fourth in the world by FIFA so must be a good side, because FIFA wouldn’t rank clod-hopping mediocrities so high…what? …oh…). All I can say about a German international defeat in the quarter-finals of a major tournament is: HAHHAHAHAHAH AHAHAHAHAHAHA… HA!!!
I’d have drawn the same conclusion about USA if they’d gone out to Brazil. If you couldn’t warm to this American side after what happened to them in Dresden on Sunday, you never will. So I never will. Injustice-upon-injustice was meted out to them by diminutive Aussie referee Jacqui Melksham, whose relationship with the laws of the game grew more distant in proportion to the importance of the decision. And it was partly this officialdom incompetence which drew a classic football match out of an ultra-niggly first-half. Daiane was criticized for slicing the second-minute opener for America so horribly into her own net. But goalkeeper Andreia was the problem… thereby setting the tone for her evening. For had Daiane taken the required full swipe at the ball, Andreia’s head may have gone out for a throw-in too.
After half-time, though, the long-awaited classic arrived. More and more of the tricks-obsessed Brazilians’ tricks began to work and they probably deserved to draw level by the time they did so. But not like…THAT. The penalty decision and Rachel Buehler’s sending-off for the tackle were both correct, despite Jen O’Neill’s spirited efforts to suggest it was “fine” to kick Marta up the backside as she was about to shoot from the edge of the six-yard box. But that was the highpoint of Melksham’s contribution. To judge by the way Melksham was facing as Cristiane took the penalty, she ordered the retake more for Hope Solo’s dance routine on the goal-line than any minimal encroachment. Yet some encroachments at penalty-kicks in the EPL season just gone were so blatant the players concerned could have been flagged offside. And although Solo’s goal-line moves and shakes took her three-parts of the way towards Cristiane’s shot, they were goal-line moves and, thus, perfectly legitimate (in fact, Solo took advantage of the ‘new’ law better than any other keeper I’ve seen).
Melksham wasn’t getting off the stage, though. And although Solo left her line long before Marta’s subsequent penalty hit the net, it was only to chase after the errant whistler. The US ought not to have been too indignant, given that Carli Lloyd should have received a second yellow card for a handball that would have been deemed over-carrying in Gaelic Football. However, with victory theirs for the taking, the Brazilians descended into cynicism. Nothing too untoward “compared to what some teams get up to,” as my watching father said, but sore thumb stuff in this largely cynicism-free tournament. If Marta hadn’t deserved the boos for her role in the penalty incident (which was, remember, simply to be kicked up the arse as she was about to score), she was earning them now for her mix of dives, ankle-taps and referee-baiting. And brilliant though her goal was – a geometrically unlikely lob which contrived to make even Solo look ungainly as she vainly chased the ball across goal – the Brazilian full-back who crossed the ball was offside. So. Boo.
Justice for all was only served when Andreia took centre stage again, not so much misjudging Megan Rapinoe’s hit-and-hope left-wing cross as watching it on telly as it sailed over her head and hit Abby Wambach’s very enormous head. Indeed, she got closer to most of USA’s shoot-out penalties than she did Rapinoe’s cross – before the kicks were taken, that is. She didn’t so much move before Shannon Boxx’s shoot-out opener as dive bravely at her feet. Even Melksham couldn’t let that one go. Given the contrasting quality of the keepers, it was a surprisingly close shoot-out. Solo put far more effort into her particularly ugly gameswomanship (which had worked sooo well against Sweden) than she did trying to stop all but one of Brazil’s kicks. But one was enough as Andreia, when confined to her six-yard box, was well-beaten by five terrific penalties.
With heart-sinking inevitability, the Eurosport commentary box became a seething cauldron of anti-Latino bias after Brazil’s equalizer. O’Neill was the particular culprit, blotting her previously pristine copybook. By her and Tim Caple’s count, the Americans should have had as many penalties in the match as they did in the shoot-out. “Now I can get back to being professional and dispassionate,” O’Neill noted, once she’d stopped screaming like a Beatles fan after America’s late equalizer. Fair play to her to apologise. But having to apologise at all was, as she admitted, unprofessional. A Brazil victory would genuinely have left this World Cup as the most open ever. But America’s win suggests we are about to witness a 180 minutes, plus stoppage time, coronation between now and Sunday. And if you think I’m desperately trying to tempt fate… you’re absolutely right.
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