“It’s off the bar and it’s away…and the referee has given it,” screamed BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce, almost begging for goal-line technology to save the day. Pearce, along with the vast majority of the TV audience watching England’s Women’s World Cup semi-final with Japan, clung onto the hope that Laura Bassett’s savagely goalbound intervention in Japan’s last attack of the game had bounced clear of the goal because it bounced in front of the line. But those with more of a clue than Pearce about goal-line technology (i.e. all of us – remember Brazil last year) quickly realised the worst. And suddenly England’s place in the final, which would surely have been sealed in extra-time, was gone… unlike the thought that the lack of such technology which denied Frank Lampard in 2010 might have saved England here.
Others have had a more general say on what England’s fine campaign in Canada has meant and will mean for English women’s football. Suffice to say, England should be in the final. After (despite?) the usual tactical strait-jacket of a cagey first hour, the game was England’s for the taking from the 35th second, when Jodie Taylor’s effort bounced over Japanese keeper Ayumi Kiahori’s gloves but inches wide.
Japan were atrocious, which was even obvious to studio pundit Natasha Dowie, whose admission that she hadn’t yet seen Japan in the tournament was a startlingly unwise one to make on-camera, to millions of licence fee payers, with talks underway between the Beeb and a hostile Conservative government on charter renewal.
England had three great opportunities within, eeek, six minutes of flicking the “attack” switch. While Japan offered absolutely nothing whatsoever bar a lively first ten minutes from late substitute Mana Iwabuchi. She had replaced Shinobu Ohno, who appeared to have retired from international football after the quarter-finals, so little did she feature in this match. The first-half penalties were not controversial. They just weren’t penalties. Claire Rafferty’s push on Saori Anyoshi was some feet outside the box. And however hard the studio pundits, with super slo-mo technology, tried to detect the touch that sent Steph Houghton into a dramatic penalty box tailspin, they were convincing no-one, not even the lovestruck Pearce.
Indeed, the only thing more contorted than these efforts was Trevor Sinclair’s “explanation” of what even he admitted “didn’t “look like a realistic fall” because “you’ll go down unusually or else they’ll snap your tibia.” His first on-camera reaction was a sarcastic “stonewall.” He should have stuck to that. Bassett’s game-changing intervention was so necessary that it didn’t really count as a mistake, which she will realise…eventually. Had she missed Nahomi Kawasumi’s cross, Yuki Ogimi would have had Japan’s best chance of the match, if not quite the “tap-in” suggested by studio pundit Rachel Yankey. Mind you, the way Japan played, she’d as likely have tripped over the ball. The United States probably fancy themselves more than ever to win the final. And that is saying a lot. As I strongly suspect someone has joked before, “if only the Germans had a word for schadenfreude.”
My emotions at the demise of Silvia Neid’s team in the first semi-final were a complex cocktail. After they fluked past France in a terrific quarter-final with the aid of a dismal penalty decision, it was a pleasure to see them fall in similar circumstances. Especially in that ghastly red kit. Yet it was hard to ignore the injustices which befell them against the US. After all, it was against the US, to whom I cannot warm, despite their undoubted ability and the overdue nature of any tournament victory they might eke out on Sunday. And don’t get me started on a fan base which brings even arrogant exhibitionism into disrepute. The second-half penalty incidents were, naturally, pivotal. Not only Celia Sasic’s failure (“I knew she was going to miss it, I honestly did” claimed Dowie in a disapproving rant about Sasic high-fiving colleagues before plonking her kick wide) and Carli Lloyd’s success.
But also the three decisions which scuppered Germany along the way. First, the decision not to dismiss Julie Johnston after she grounded Alexandra Popp as Popp set herself for a clear goal-scoring opportunity. Second, and perhaps the only debatable decision, Lloyd’s studs-up challenge in the centre-circle, at the start of the move which produced the penalty. And third, the actual penalty award for Annike Krahn’s obstruction of Alex Morgan which was not only outside the box but was specifically designed to be so. USA were the better side, especially in a fantastic first half, and by more than a bit. Morgan could have enhanced a fair few sponsorship deals with a hat-trick. And three times in three minutes after the final whistle we were reminded of the real key to their success. Coach Jill Ellis was “born in England, remember, from Portsmouth.” Yes, we remember. How could we not? As I’ve said before, England are winning this goddam World Cup one way or another.
The watching world knew Germany would win their quarter-final after only 47 seconds, when France’s Louisa Necib fired wide of a semi-gaping goal from not very far out. In all the games I’ve seen France play in recent years, Necib has never demonstrated quite what all the fuss is about her. Against Germany, we at least got an outline. Yet that miss may linger longer in the memories. It wasn’t, of course, the miss of the match, as substitute and previously prolific striker Gaetane Thiney avoided the target from appallingly close-range. It ought to overshadow Claire Lavogez’s penalty shoot-out miss. And it was the real reason France did not win a terrific match that would have graced the final, will almost certainly be better than the actual final yet couldn’t BE the final thanks to Fifa fixing the draw for “promotional reasons.”
The tournament draw “difficulty” was England’s opportunity more than any other team outside the generally-acknowledged “big four.” The narrative already seems to be that their record-breaking run to the semi-final was a huge improvement on the quarter-final exits in 2007 and 2011. However, in both tournaments, England gave a fine account of themselves before succumbing to USA and France respectively in the quarter-finals. And in 2007 in particular, they played a pleasing brand of football which was only properly countered by US, ahem, “physicality.” 2015 was essentially more of the same, though largely (if not entirely) without the expansive style of 2007. But, of course, this time they WON their quarter-final.
Unimpressive though Canada were until the quarter-finals, they gave it a rattling good go after Taylor and Lucy Bronze took scoreboard advantage of the Canadians’ circus act of a first 15 minutes. They were strongly aided by a biased referee, as they have been all tournament in the crazy world of Jonathan Pearce. Melissa Tancredi should have scored before England did. And Lauren Sesselmann simply picked the worst of times to showcase her giraffe impressions. Yet for all Canada’s second-half pressure, any English nerves came more from the occasion than the actual match, which they semi-controlled. It was instructive that Pearce described one save by substitute goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain as one to “settle her down.” It came on 87 minutes, after Chamberlain had been on the pitch for 35.
Pearce was a sour note, all-but-calling the almost-perfectly named Uruguayan referee Claudia Umpierrez a cheat when she took no action after Tancredi was shoved out over the sideline by Bronze. “No foul” Pearce declared sniffily before Tancredi had even hit the deck. Tancredi’s tug at Bronze, as she took the throw-in before the Canadian was back on the pitch, was “a yellow card offence straight away.” But Pearce added that “she won’t get booked, she won’t get booked,” in a knowing tone which implied dark refereeing deeds. “Count them up from now on,” Pearce suggested after Canada were awarded a free-kick on 38 minutes. But these things are done for us. And Canada were “given” 21 free-kicks to England’s 15, which exactly matched their 58% possession, as you’d expect, given that fouls are almost invariably committed by the team without the ball. It was unprofessional from Pearce, who is experienced enough to know better, although I suspect it hardly dampened any England supporters’ celebrations.
The match had all the competitive fervour that the USA’s one-nil win over China lacked. The game could have been settled with the “Star Spangled Banner” echoing in the Ottawan air had striker Amy Rodriguez not lost her bearings completely when through on goal in the first attack. Her awareness of the offside rule proved equally skew-whiff but that didn’t matter as it seemed to match China’s awareness of the importance of the occasion and their inability to offer an attacking threat. At one stage, Wang Shuang took up a fine crossing position from a short corner and looked up to see…one striker accompanied by eight defenders in the penalty box. From a corner. The Chinese defence was eventually unscrewed by one crossfield pass changing the angle of a long ball into the box. While the defenders were adjusting their body shape to deal with this stunning tactical innovation, Lloyd leapt skywards and nodded the ball home.
Veteran striker Abby Wambach’s sweary exhortation to her colleagues’ pre-second half huddle showed “the determination of this United States team” according to BBC commentator Martin Fisher (it showed Wambach’s potty mouth to everyone else). While Morgan’s pre-match dance routine with substitute Sydney Le Roux…is perhaps best not analysed. However, if the US hadn’t brought their “A-Game” to Ottawa (or a fair chunk of their “A-team”, with Wambach on the bench and Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe suspended), it was because they hadn’t needed to. And they probably won’t need to now that they’ve disposed of Germany.
Japan were better against Australia in their quarter-final than they were to be against England – they could hardly not have been. And the searing heat of two o’clock on a sunny Edmonton afternoon put paid to the hard-running Aussies, who were probably alone in missing the wind-and-rain swept majesty of a bad-weather day in Monckton. Yet Australia didn’t tire, as predicted, in the face of Japan’s pass-and-on-this-occasion-barely-move style. And had Iwabuchi not grabbed the 86th-minute winner, there’s no guarantee that the Matildas would have been ground down by an extra thirty minutes. The TV audience might have been a different matter. So Japan are finalists after six (count ‘em) one-goal victories, alternating between one-nil and two-one wins throughout, which made Laura Bassett’s goal a statistical inevitability… which won’t console her, I’m sure. The odds on the final being one-nil are long, though, and longer still on being one-nil to Japan. The World Cup is the USA’s to lose. Oh…and third place for England. After all, how can “Bronze for Bronze” not be a headline?
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