France must wonder why they bothered winning their Women’s World Cup group. Had France finished second, they would have faced a quarter-final against the hosts and a semi-final against the reigning champions. But at this tournament, Canada and Japan are the “weaker half of the draw,” as England could demonstrate. As group winners, France face Germany in the quarters and… there probably IS no “and” given Germany’s current form. But even if there were, next up would be the United States, who were as unimpressive as Japan in the groups but will improve should they, as they would doubtlessly say, “bring their A-game” to the latter stages.
The competition seeding was designed for a strong quarter-final line-up. A (conveniently un-named) Fifa spoke said: “Similar to previous draws for FIFA Women’s World Cups… teams are seeded… and allocated into specific groups for ticketing and promotion reasons” (money trumps sporting merit for Fifa? Who knew?). In this skewed (rigged?) context, the seedings have delivered. France/Germany should be a semi-final, minimum. Australia continue to be annoyingly likeable. So too England, even to this card-carrying anyone-but-Englander. Japan are becoming compelling watches. So too Canada, if only for the atmosphere their games are starting to generate.
The major continuing disappointment is the officiating. And in China’s one-nil win over Cameroon, this incompetence mattered, as the Chinese scored almost directly from a corner which demonstrably wasn’t. Since the 2010 men’s finals, video technology has been available to over-rule such mistakes (there were more classics in England/Norway), with slow motion replays shown comfortably before corners were taken. This technology should be utilised. Cameroon might not otherwise have won, though. Gabrielle Onguene was better marshalled by China than by Switzerland. And battering-ram striker Gaelle Enganamouit had one of “those” days. Three successful penalty-takers in their drubbing of Ecuador suggests Cameroon might have won a shoot-out. But China are getting some powerful rubs of greens, having now directly benefited from two officialdom howlers.
Germany haven’t needed such help. But they got it anyway against Sweden when Anja Mittag was blown over by the wind after being vaguely near a penalty-box challenge by Amanda Illestedt. They were nearly one-up in fourteen seconds and were one-up on 23 minutes after Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl’s dived in slow motion towards Mittag’s shot as it rolled past at normal speed. The penalty, 12 minutes later, sucked the competition out of the contest. “Germany are just efficient,” BBC studio pundit Faye White noted at half-time, to the groans of the nation (she was suitably admonished by anchor Jacqui Oatley). But they were also too good, drawing cricket-ground applause from the admiring crowd. Celia Sasic’s fist-clenching, face-contorting celebrations of her two goals didn’t suit the occasion. But the genteel atmosphere did allow BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce to undertake a curious riff on Ottawan food prices (“£2.50 for a head of broccoli… outrageous!”). Sweden’s mini-comeback was a shock. Linda Sembrandt made it three-one on eighty-two minutes and Sofia Jakobsson was clean through moments later, only to be denied by Germany’s fearsome goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. Germany’s fourth followed soon enough, though.
France dismissed the stereotypically hard-running Korean Republic. As White noted, after a suspiciously quick trip from studio to “Canadian” commentary box, the Koreans could not cope with “the quick give-and-go” and were two-down in seven minutes. Indeed, they were largely awful, White making an unspellable noise as one set-piece crashed (“I haven’t got words”). Goalkeeper Kim Jung-Mi was competitive, getting whacks on each side of her face for her efforts. But by half-time, German manager Silvia Neid had twice appeared on the big screen semi-comatose and the Montreal crowd had twice run through the Marsellaise (Montreal, we were told, is the “second-largest French-speaking city in the world”). On forty-seven minutes, Korean Republic succumbed to another quick give-and-go and the game’s competitive nature gave up and went. Of more subsequent interest was a baby gorging on a banana on-camera, to the dismay of commentator Nigel Adderley (“a bit young to be eating a banana, give him a chance, mash it up”). France were not as impressive as Germany. But they hadn’t needed to be after their whirlwind start. “Allez Les Bleus rings around this decrepit stadium,” noted Adderley. France’s quarter-final, also in Montreal’s 1976 Olympic white elephant, will be like a home game for them.
Brazil are no loss to the last eight, with “taliswoman” Marta just another player at these finals. Their traditional “neutral” support probably dissolved after their unlovely progress through their group. And any remaining probably disappeared after 27 seconds against the “Matildas” (no, really) when striker Cristiane collapsed as the neatest defender looked on bewildered from some feet away. Two Aussies were particularly responsible for Brazil’s downfall. Marta’s marker (wasn’t that a song in the sixties?) Caitlin Foord had time to do that job and support the attack, such was her quarry’s ineptitude. And the commentary “look at the flying Da Vanna” summed up much of Australia’s energetic display. The only Brazilian equivalent was Formiga, of whom there appeared to be two, such was the ground she covered. Defences were “on top” for 80 minutes. But they had to be, which made the game genuinely intriguing. However, Luciana maintained a Brazilian goalkeeping tradition by spilling Lisa Da Vanna’s drive and allowing Kyah Simon to net the rebound, which avenged Australia’s 2011 quarter-finals defeat to Brazil and gave them their first World Cup knock-out stage victory (men or women).
This sort of history soon repeated itself, possibly to the delight of the BBC’s Jonathan Pearce more than anyone else on earth. Yet for fifty-four minutes against Norway, England were inhibited and sloppy, allowing Norway to dictate the game’s pace and pattern and create all the worthwhile chances. If it was manager Mark Sampson’s game plan, it was weird. Then Norway fatally erred. They scored. Solveig Gulbrandsen’s near-post header from Lene Mykjland’s corner was unstoppable, largely because England’s occasionally struggling goalkeeper Karen Bardsley was already in the net (at moments like these, we tend to be reminded of Bardsley’s American heritage). Yet, thereafter, England were unstoppable. Gulbrandsen’s near-post movement created Norway’s opener… and Steph Houghton’s equaliser seven minutes later, when she left her station as Houghton’s header flew in the opposite direction. And Lucy Bronze’s winner was worthy of winning any game at any tournament, and was met with equal delight by Pearce and headline-writers as “Bronze strikes Gold” hit newspaper and website pages before Norway restarted.
England kept this 2-1 lead far calmer than against Mexico or Colombia, although this may have been because Norway suddenly lost all energy and imagination, looking, as Pearce noted, like a team at the end of their domestic season while England were early in theirs. England now take on hosts Canada, many doubtless with revenge in mind as the then-unfancied Canadians ended Team GB’s campaign as hosts in the 2012 Olympics quarter-finals. A neat symmetry awaits. Though if the strangely subdued atmosphere on that Coventry evening is not repeated, it will undoubtedly be a strange atmosphere. The same nervy, reticent Canadians who edged through their group overcame Switzerland by their now-traditional one-nil scoreline. And the Vancouver crowd’s backing certainly helped. When Switzerland’s unmarked Ana Maria Crnogorcevic headed over, nine minutes after Josee Belanger fired Canada ahead, the crowd applauded, showing respect and disrespect simultaneously. And second-guessing the crowd reaction often proved more intriguing than the match.
Whether Vancouver’s curiously-constructed passion will help overcome England remains to be seen. Hopefully, for the sake of the domestic women’s game, it will be seen by a huge television audience. The BBC, though, have already set Plan B in motion, should England lose, with Oatley labelling Canadian boss, the never-knowingly-modest John Herdman, “our Geordie.” And with a further reminder that Jill Ellis manages the US, the Beeb seem determined that England will win this World Cup one way or another. At the moment, the US are not necessarily the favourites of the three English-coached teams (bookies’ or otherwise). They huffed-and-puffed past Colombia, who offered the tournament little bar countless bloody stepovers by the ironically-named Lady Andrade. And they needed a push-start from another officialdom howler, as Alex Morgan sprinted suspiciously clear of Colombia’s defence before being tripped on the 18-yard line by impressive keeper Catalina Perez.
Perez rightly saw red and studio debates about whether she was the “last man” were irrelevant and erroneously gender-specific in equal measure. Had Morgan rounded Perez and faced Colombia’s covering defender, it would still have been the “clear goal-scoring opportunity” to which the laws of the game actually refer. Perez’s dismissal had a greater, arguably decisive, impact than whether her foul was outside the box. America’s star striker Abby Wambach arrogantly and hilariously fired the penalty wide with her weaker left-foot. But Stefany Castano soon showed why she was second-choice keeper, all-but-throwing a Morgan shot into the net and diving yards away from Carli Lloyd’s penalty. It was hardly “badass American bitches take down Colombia,” as US comedian Amy Poehler jokingly (I hope) proclaimed while bemoaning US TV’s limited tournament coverage. And they’ll face China without key midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, both suspended for two tournament bookings.
Japan reached the quarter-finals in closer to their title-winning style than they’d managed previously. Yet the Netherlands still provoked panic among Japanese defenders as they chased the game late on. The Dutch nearly went one-up, only for Manon Nelis to produce an air-shot when through on goal, her non-kicking foot momentarily forgetting its job description. “We’ve all done it,” noted BBC co-commentator Lucy Ward. “But not in a World Cup,” she added, lest she sounded compassionate. Ward was over-fascinated with Japan’s (lack of) height, marvelling at how they won so many aerial challenges, which overlooked the lack of Dutch aerial challenges at the relevant times. Still, 40 years ago, co-commentators might have marvelled equally at how alike the Japanese were. So we should be grateful for the otherwise impressive and thus far underused Ward.
Japan should have sealed victory earlier than they did, even faffing around over-elaborately before Mizhuo Sakaguchi made it two-nil from the edge of the box on 78 minutes. And keeper Ayumi Kaihori’s 92nd-minute failure to stop Kirsten Van de Ven’s header set up an unnecessarily fraught closing 90 seconds. Kaihori should have made the save. But studio pundit Rachel Brown’s musings about the “magical spin” from “the headpiece Van de Ven was wearing” and her claim that the ball “went into her hands easy enough” ignored that fact that it did turn and bounced…onto Kaihori’s shoulder. Cynics might suggest that such comments explain some of Brown’s England goalkeeping displays. Not me, though. The football in round two was an improvement on the group stages. Even when it wasn’t great, the drama was. And the best eight teams in Canada are still in Canada. Things are shaping up nicely.
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