I’ve never hidden my dislike for the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT), to give the 2015 Women’s World Cup winners their full title. And I’m not about to start now. The best team, if not necessarily the “right” team, won after coming good at the right time in an ultimately enjoyable tournament in Canada. But I couldn’t stomach their post-match celebration (or, for that matter, another minute of Jonathan bloody Pearce – see below). They had let it be known long ago that they believed they had a “score to settle” after losing 2011’s final to Japan on penalties. The idea, and inevitable twitter hashtag, was a rare ugly sentiment during the almost entirely cynicism-free month. It still says enough positive about the tournament that this was as ugly as it got. But the idea implicit in that phrase, that the US were somehow wronged by that defeat, was a preposterous manifestation of their arrogant sense of entitlement. If it powered them to their fabulous four-goal start to the 2015 final, then some footballing good came from it. Yet this team is talented and powerful enough not to require such dismally-aggressive motivation.
It was a mixed weekend for the overbearingly arrogant, however. Germany came a surely popular cropper against England, who finally set themselves apart from all their world stage predecessors. The German’s team selection suggested either an out-moded attitude to the “bronze medal match,” something which the BBC coverage could not entirely shake off even when England began to look likely winners late on, or… well… overbearing arrogance. You didn’t need a heart of stone to fail to be moved by the German’s post-match distress, which rather confirmed that they were fully-determined to win bronze and assumed that they could beat England with an under-strength line-up. “Ha!” was the top-and-tail of my reaction to their collective despair as England celebrated with what, alas, can only be described as collective “mum dancing.”
Jonathan Pearce proved a more effective defensive coach from his BBC commentary position than Japan’s real one in the dug-out. People listening to the final on the radio seemed more aware of Carli Lloyd’s late runs at set-pieces than Japan’s defence, especially Azusa Iwashimizu, who caught a particularly virulent strain of stage-fright and was hauled off in tears after thirty-three minutes. And with Pearce in full “Capital Gold” mode, it was a wonder the Japanese “defenders” (I use the inverted commas advisedly) didn’t hear him. If the USWNT’s first goal was a carefully-worked training ground move (albeit one nearly cut out by a Japanese defender), their second was the product of chaos theory, with attackers and defenders flying everywhere and Lloyd almost happening on the ball at random as she sped across the six-yard box.
The Japanese had actually tried the “late run” technique themselves from a number of setpieces, with the “late runner” almost tiptoeing into the penalty area while looking as if she was peeking at matters from behind a wall. Like their other tactic, forming a bus queue in line with the penalty spot, it failed. Like everything else the US touched in the first fifteen and minutes five seconds, their set pieces worked. Two-nil after five minutes, four-nil after fifteen and competitive match over. So disorientated was BBC co-commentator Sue Smith that she lost count of the score, suggesting that Japan had started to get back into the match between the third and fourth goal, between which there were precisely eighty-six seconds. Iwashimizu’s ludicrous clearance for the third goal was the sort of header I used to make in Leatherhead and District Sunday League Division Seven, which takes nothing away from Lauren Holiday’s sublime volleyed finish. And if Iwashimizu wasn’t at fault for goal number four, goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori was ready to assume the position, getting legs and feet entangled like a tranquilised, if tiny, giraffe trying to regain its balance when she scrambled back to goal as Lloyd’s shot flew over her.
This, again, takes nothing away from Lloyd’s finish from a distance described by studio pundit Rachel Brown-Finnis as “Forty… No… Fifty… Fifty-five… SIXTY yards,” while a distance-tracker got to work on the replay screen. Japan’s recovery to 4-2 was almost entirely predicated on USA taking their collective feet off the proverbial gas. Pearce again played the technophobe for their second goal, suggesting that the referee “checked with her assistant” before ruling that Julie Johnston’s header crossed the line into her own net. Someone really must sit Pearce through the concept and mechanics of goal-line technology. Momentarily, it felt like Japan had a chance if they weathered the storm, as the USWNT immediately sought to resettle the score. Instead, USA simply confirmed that they’d been resting since the sixteenth minute and made it 5-2 almost at will, assisted again by Laihori, whose tears amid her team-mates’ generally dignified immediate post-match reaction showed how aware she was of how uncharacteristically bad a game she’d had.
USA’s control of the match situation facilitated the late appearance of “talismanic” striker Abby Wambach. On the evidence of her fifteen-minute cameo and her displays in Canada generally, Wambach is far past her most effective and might advisedly retire now…she didn’t even kick or punch anyone throughout the tournament. That said, she has done more than enough within the laws of football over the years to earn a celebratory swansong. And the US might miss her if the recently-injured Alex Morgan doesn’t rediscover the top form which eluded her in Canada. Especially if third-choice striker Amy Rodriguez isn’t urgently appraised of the offside law. A number of the USWNT may also have “kicked their last World Cup ball,” as Pearce was so fond of saying. However, the displays of a number of the younger squad players suggest they will be favourites for next year’s Olympics. Pearce’s opening commentary gambit was: “It’s such a shame England aren’t here because I feel absolutely sure they would have won today and lifted the World Cup.” It was a feeling that seemed more like a medical condition as the game developed.
Of course, it wasn’t quite as preposterous as it may have sounded even twenty-eight hours earlier, before Mark Sampson’s team played Germany for a pile of bronze medals. Until Saturday, the hype surrounding this campaign ignored the fact that semi-final places may have been theirs in 2007 and 2011 if “only” Canada had stood in their way. Co-commentator Lucy Ward’s early suggestion that “this England side has set the world alight” was hyperbole to dictionary-definition standard. But beating Germany and, eventually, deserving so to do, justified both the hype and hopes of a watershed moment for women’s and girls’ football in England. Tactically, it was almost business as usual, with England conceding most possession and chances until second-half substitutions introduced a more expansive attitude. But gone was the fear which particularly gripped first hours against France and Norway. Indeed captain Steph Houghton had arguably the best chance of the first half, finishing like a true centre-back when eight yards from goal.
Fortunately, Houghton’s touch was firmer and more spectacularly athletic when third centre-back Jill Potter’s header looped goalwards. And equally fortunately, many of Germany’s best chances fell to tournament top scorer Celia Sasic, who made a hames of the lot, demonstrating that her golden boot award was the product of penalty-taking and Cote D’Ivoire defending more than her performances. Karen “much-maligned” Bardsley made a thirty-seventh-second save from Lena Petermann and kept it scoreless until “the change” with another fine stop from Sara Daebritz. And England could/should have won in normal time. But the otherwise terrific Jill Scott hesitated… well… decisively when substitute Eniola Aluko sent her clear on seventy-six minutes. In a tournament which radically redefined German national football teams’ relationships with penalty kicks, it was highly probable that the game would hinge on one. “She was holding onto Leanne Sanderson,” observed Ward over an image of Sanderson “holding onto” her (Tabea Kemme). But once the dance partners were in the penalty area, the roles were reversed and the angry German protests were misplaced.
Germany’s Nadine Angerer has been one of the best keepers in the world for ages… and was probably more deserving of the keeper of the tournament award than the barely-troubled Hope Solo. But she’s been hopeless at penalties, throwing herself yards in entirely the wrong direction in what has now entered “trademark fashion” territory. Faye Williams, so decisive from the spot in the semi-final, had no bother sending Angerer to the wrong postal code once again. And a first England win over Germany awaited. Germany should have snatched an undeserved leveller, Bianca Schmidt producing her best defensive header of the tournament at just the wrong time. And Houghton nearly plonked one in her own net with the 120 minutes up, which would have been labelled ironic by those who don’t have an idea what irony is…and would have broken Pearce’s heart had he been on-mic (Steve Bower, BTW, showed just how to do biased-but-professional commentary). No denying England, though. And only the harshest anyone-but-Englander could begrudge them either.
The BBC now has a vital part to play in shaping the future of domestic women’s football at the highest club and international level. With their roster of sports broadcast rights continually diminishing (losing the Olympics after their sensational 2012 coverage demonstrates how money defeats quality), the national broadcaster should take full advantage of the game’s new and established audience. Their coverage of this tournament was solid and at times excellent. Fault could be found with Pearce (and, of course, it was). The daily highlights programme was a bit too snazzy for many tastes – not just old fogies like myself either. And cringe-worthy items such as the soap-operatic, violin-strewn Hope Solo piece before the final would hardly be missed. However, the punditry from a hugely inexperienced team never strayed into Robbie Savage territory. Trevor Sinclair was especially good. And the list of current and recently-retired players, from Faye White to Natalie Dowie and most points in-between, frequently provided relevant, valuable insight. The latter’s admission that she hadn’t watched Japan before their semi-final was an error which was as rare as it was glaring.
The debate will rage about sexist attitudes exposed by this World Cup’s high profile, especially if the FA themselves (“our Lionesses go back to being mothers, partners and daughters”) continue to be clumsy culprits in a manner which would almost embarrass FIFA. Almost. I’m sure my singling out of Sinclair for punditry praise will be filed in that column by some. But the important conclusion to be drawn from a mostly entertaining, refreshingly sporting and attack-minded month of football is that… it was a mostly entertaining, refreshingly sporting and attack-minded month of football. A success for football fans and headline writers alike. The best team, if not necessarily the “right” team, won. And (Lucy) Bronze won a bronze.
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