The 2019 Women’s World Cup, Group A: France & Norway Too Strong
France 4-0 South Korea
La Marseillaise is a piece of music that does things to you. Regardless of political orientation, it has the power to sound like a hairdryer being held in your face and switched to full power. On Friday night in Paris, the world was treated to a full-throated rendition which, as ever, made the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end. Should an international tournament have to start with a national anthem, then let be this, with its allusions to forming battalions and blood running in the River Seine. Welcome to the 2019 Women’s World Cup. The day of glory has arrived.
France kicked off the tournament as joint favourites to win it, and nothing that the watching audience witnessed at the Parc des Princes on Friday evening disavowed us of that motion. The host nation, featuring seven players from the all-conquering Oliympique Lyonnaise team – six times champions of Europe, seventeen times champions of France – were too strong in every department for their opponents, were three goals up by half-time and through coasted the second half with a degree of comfort which hinted that they will almost certainly have even more held back in the locker for when they have to face stronger opposition later in the competition.
A crowd of more than 45,000 people didn’t have to wait very long for cracks to start appearing in the South Korean defence, either. It took just nine minutes for Amandine Henry to find herself in acres of space on the right hand side before feeding a low pass into the penalty area for Eugénie Le Sommer to place the ball into the roof of the goal after a diagonal sprint of such such subtlety that the extent to which it took a couple of defenders out of the play wasn’t even really visible until a second viewing. The pressure was overwhelming, and South Korea took twenty minutes even to force the ball to the other end of the pitch, although this resulted in a corner kick wastefully dropped into the side-netting.
Of course, women’s football seeks parity with the men’s game, and one way in which this can be achieved is the gender-neutral ruining of the game as a spectacle by the VAR. Midway through the half, the outstanding Wendie Renard crossed for Mbock Bathy to volley the ball in, but after a five minute delay whilst the move was watched and rewatched from every angle, including super slow motion and back and forth in the manner of Hitler doing the Lambeth Walk in that propaganda film from the war, Bathy’s foot was found to be a few inches offside and the goal was disallowed. Exactly what those who come up with these interpretations of the laws of the game think the offside rule in its current iteration is supposed to achieve remains a mystery.
France didn’t have to wait long to put the result beyond any reasonable doubt, though. With ten minutes to play, Renard overcame some underwhelming marking to powerfully head a second goal, and three minutes into stoppage-time at the end of the half, Renard added to a show-stopping performance by adding a third for France. With the result decided, France took their foot off le gaz, even allowing the Koreans a couple of half-chances as the match began to wind down. With five minutes to play, however, came the moment which may well prove to be the spark that truly lit their involvement. Henry pushed forward through a tiring defence, curling a sumptuous low, curling shot around the goalkeeper and into the bottom corner of the goal.
France will have tougher tests than this and their lack of second half goals might be considered a little bit of a problem, but their place at the top of the favourites list was justified by a controlled, disciplined performance. Players such as Le Sommer, Henry and (in particular) Renard – for whom “La Renarde dans La Boite” would appear to be an appropriate nickname, even if it doesn’t quite the alliterative qualities of its English counterpart – were too strong, too skilful, and too imaginitive for this particular opposition. It’s hardly imaginative to say it, but they will surely go a long way in this tournament.
Nigeria 0-3 Norway
There is, of course, an Ada Hegerberg-shaped hole in the Norwegian team this summer, but you wouldn’t have really guessed it from the comfort with which they blew Nigeria away in Reims last night, with a crowd of just over 11,000 seeing another three-goal first half blitz ending a match that hadn’t even really had the chance to get going. Norway’s days amongst the absolute elite of international women’s football may well be in the past, but they can still turn it on against more moderate opposition, and their first half blitz was every bit as comprehensive as France’s was against South Korea a day earlier, even if the goals required a little more serendipity than France’s had.
It took seventeen minutes for the opening goal, Guro Reiten’s shot deflecting off Onome Ebi to wrong-foot the goalkeeper Tochukwu Oluehi, whilst Oluehi might be a little disappointed at the ease with which she allowed Lisa-Marie Utland to squeeze a shot through her hands and in off othe underside of the crossbar for a second goal with eleven minutes of the half still to play. Three minutes later, the match formally passed from “contest” to “damage limitation exercise” when Isabell Herlovson’s cross from the right was, with a striker behind her, breathing down her neck, Osinachi Ohale seemed to get stuck in three minds over whether to try to belt the ball clear, get it under some sort of control, or attempt some sort of touch back to the goalkeeper. The result flew into the goal past a static Oluehi.
It wasn’t that Nigeria were completely outclassed in this game – they had one outstanding second half chance, when a break on the right led to Asisat Oshoala rounding the Norwegian goalkeeper Ingrid Hjelmseth, but Oshoala found the angles against her and could only shoot tamely into the side-netting. A bad night for Nigeria was only compounded when Faith Michael was carried off on a stretcher following a collision with her goalkeeper. They’re making their fifth appearance in the finals this summer, a record for an African nation, but the gulf between the European teams and the African teams seems as wide as ever.
This match wasn’t as one-sided as the France vs South Korea match, but it seems unlikely that either Nigeria or South Korea will be able to do much to prevent France and Norway from progressing to the next round. The question now becomes whether either of them can do enough to secure one of the third-place qualification places. France’s place in the latter stages of the competition is a given, but Norway looked impressive yesterday and Wednesday night’s match against France now looks like one of the most fascinating of the group stages, with the winners almost certain to top the group. Still, though, the hosts were awesome in their opening match. The bloody standard has been raised.