The 2019 Women’s World Cup, Group F: Hearts & Minds
Sweden 5-1 Thailand
Good news stories come in all manner of shapes and sizes, and they don’t always involve the teams who will feature in the latter stages of a tournament such as this. It seems unlikely that either Thailand or Chile will be gracing the next round the 2019 Women’s World Cup, but it was they who provided the lasting impression of a fairly low key round of fixtures. Sweden and the United States of America will have their moments in the sun at later stages in this tournament. On this particular day, though, they were briefly outshone by a stalwart from a developing nation and by an established player who happened to be born in a country that has only just seen the women’s game rise to the prominence that the men’s game has enjoyed for decades.
Following last week’s defeat against the United States of America, Thailand again found themselves three goals down by half-time thanks to an early header by Linda Sembrant, a second from Kosovare Asllani third from Fridolina Rolfo, a shot from the edge of the penalty area which likely would have beaten any goalkeeper in the tournament. This was, of course, the same margin by which Thailand trailed the USA in their previous match, so the question of whether they might fold in the same manner as they did before was a very real one. Thailand fought tooth and nail to keep the score down and were successful until, with nine minutes to play, Lina Hurtig headed in to extend Sweden’s lead still further.
This match, however, did have a small sting in its tale. The match was already a minute into stoppage-time when Kanjana Sungngoen broke through and scored a goal which meant little in terms of turning the tide of this particular match but which meant a considerable amount to a team which had flown halfway around the world to take part in this tournament in the first place. Television cameras lingered on Nualphan Lamsamthe, the woman whose munificence has paid for the stirrings of developed women’s football in this particular country and whose family sponsors the domestic game in Thailand to a considerable degree. It’s easy to say in the ninety-second minute when you’re already four goals behind, but this was a goal that meant as much in that minute to the Thai team as the winning goal in the final will mean to its scorer. As though to emphasise that reality does bite, Sweden still had time to win a penalty kick, which was converted by Elin Rubensson following a VAR-assisted handball decision. Normal order was restored with that goal, but those couple of minutes of celebration sure were fun.
The United States of America 3-0 Chile
Resting seven of the players who started last weeks hammering of Thailand, there was a sense that the USA were taking their foot off the pedal a little for their second match against Chile, but they still cruised to a comfortable win that might have been considerably bigger had it not been for their finishing being a little off cue – they hit the woodwork three times during the first half – and a heroic performance from the Chile goalkeeper Christiane Endler, who pulled one of the great individual performances of this tournament to keep the score respectable, a display that seemed to underwrite her one woman determination to keep the score respectable. Endler is no plucky amateur. She keeps goal for Paris St Germain. But her performance yesterday afternoon spoke volumes of the extent to which national pride can push someone to form a barrier which can look close to impenetrable at times.
Carli Lloyd gave the USA the lead after eleven minutes, and two goals in two minutes, a second for Lloyd and one for Julie Ertz (both headers from corner kicks, which in itself demonstrates the organisational differences between the haves and have nots of international women’s football) tied the result up with ten minutes of the first half still to play. The pressure during the second half was pretty much relentless, but Endler pulled off a string of superb saves, including the single handed palming away of a close range header that would surely have beaten just about any other goalkeeper on the planet at that moment. And even when she was beaten, the Chilean goal led a charmed life at times. When the USA were given a penalty kick (for a foul that seemed to start outside the penalty area and may have ended there too), Carli Lloyd placed her kick wide of the goal.
Sweden will play the USA and Thailand will play Chile, then, in the final round of matches and there’s something to play for in both, even though the automatic qualification places were effectively sewn up within minutes of the start of the second round of matches in this group. The USA need a draw from their match with Sweden to win the group, and it seems almost extraordinary to know that they could yet fail to do so when they’ve been so dominant in their two matches so far. They’ll start as favourites against Sweden, but this is the first time that we’ll really get to see them being tested by a team that is also capable of getting to the latter stages of the tournament. Chile, meanwhile, will be hoping that they can still claim one of the third place spots for the next round, and one of the advantages of being in Group F is that they’ll know exactly what they need to do by the time they start their match. Thailand may be playing for pride alone – even if it remains mathematically possible for them to qualify until the final whistle blows in their final match, but at this stage the likelihood of that still being the case by the time they play their final match is slim – but, as the scenes when they scored their first goal of the tournament demonstrated, sometimes pride is enough.