The 2019 Women’s World Cup, Group F: Storms A-Risin’
Chile 0-2 Sweden
There is a degree of irony to the fact that the Atacama Desert, parts of which haven’t seen a single drop of rain in five hundred years, should be situated in Chile, considering the events in Rennes late this afternoon. With about an hour of the Group F match between Chile and Sweden played and the score still goalless, the heavens opened. A bright, sunny afternoon suddenly forgotten. And the conditions deteriorated still further until, with eighteen minutes left to play and thunder and lightning in the air, the referee took the players from the pitch for a lengthy break. Indeed, during that break, it was even postulated that the players might not be able to return and that the match could have to be rescheduled.
Prior to the intermission, Chile could be reasonably happy with a job well done. Coming into this match, they had failed to win any of their previous nine matches including a 7-0 defeat against the Netherlands, two losses against Jamaica, and a loss against Catalonia on penalty kicks after having played out a goalless draw. Chile, who have never qualified for the Olympic Games and have only once even qualified for the more localised Pan American Games, are not widely expected to impress, this summer. For all that, though, Chile were being effective in shutting Sweden out, thanks in no small part to a brilliant display from their undisputed star player, goalkeeper Christiane Endler, who plays her club football for Paris St Germain.
And then the rains came.
It took eleven minutes from the restart – after a break of forty-five minutes – for Sweden to take the lead, a shot into the top corner from Kosovare Asllani. They a second added in stoppage-time by Madelen Janogy, but in spite of the fact that this was a result that Sweden thoroughly deserved, it was difficult not to have a degree of sympathy for Chile, who had been playing above themselves to hold the team that took the silver medal at the last Olympic Games level for more than three-quarters of the match. It’s difficult to argue that they weren’t the more affected of the two teams by the lengthy delay in proceedings, though the relative narrowness of their defeat does at least keep them in with a chance of claiming one of the third place spots.
United States of America 13-0 Thailand
Rennes wasn’t the only city in France to be buffeted by a storm today, though. Thailand made their Women’s World Cup debut in Canada four years ago and, although they were knocked out at the group stage, they did at least manage to grab themselves a win against Ivory Coast in one of those three matches. Already limited in financial resources, Thailand also arrived in France in terrible form, having lost eleven of their last twelve matches prior to the start of this tournament. They’re ranked thirty-fourth in the world. The USA have never been outside the top two in FIFA’s rankings since they began, and are currently number one. They are the current World Cup holders, whilst their quarter-final defeat the hands of Sweden at the 2016 Olympic Games makes that the only time that they have failed to win either the gold or silver medal since it was introduced at Atlanta in 1996. They are, quite literally, awesome.
So, this was obviously a complete mis-match. The USA players were taller, fitter, stronger, better-organised, and just generally more talented. There’s no argument to be had there. Indeed, it might also be considered that things might even have been worse. The USA had two clear penalty kicks waved away even after a VAR review, and a pretty clear backpass was treated as though it hadn’t happened, either. Perhaps this was a different approach towards refereeing, more humane. There certainly didn’t seem to be that much complaining from the American players. But there have to questions asked about Thailand here, too. There were points during the match when they were playing at walking pace, and others when the ball would be zipping around their penalty area like a pinball while defenders stood around watching.
But blame for this level of mis-match can hardly be laid at the door of the players, even if we may think that the USA team might have taken its foot off the gas once the result was beyond doubt. This is structural and can only be solved by a massive redistribution of FIFA money. And we should highlight this. We should criticise it. This doesn’t have to be “just what women’s football is like.” The growth of the women’s game will be dependent upon continued support and policies which close that gap. The United States of America will be fine. They’ve been at the top of this game since its growth and expansion really began in earnest during the 1990s. Countries such as Thailand matter, though. There are plenty who could forge themselves an entire national football identity through the women’s game but will never have the chance to, and that feels like a wasted opportunity.
Back here in 2019, though, this is how big the gap is between the richest and the rest. Having seen all twenty-four of the competing teams play once now, the USA and France stand head and shoulders above the rest, though this may be subject to change once the stronger nations all start playing each other. What can we learn about the USA from this evening’s exhibition? Very little. There was, after all, very little for them to be tested against. But that’s almost besides the point. American tactics this evening were surely aimed at the rest of the tournament. The shock and awe of intimidation. After a performance like that, we simultaneously learned nothing and everything about them tonight.