The 2019 Women’s World Cup: America, As Expected
Many apologies for the late delivery of this. As some of you may be aware, I am a de facto single parent at weekends, and whilst it was possible for me to get myself in front of a television set to watch the 2019 Women’s World Cup final, freeing up the space to write about it proved to be a little more of a challenge.
Respect is earned, and there can be little question that the USA team has earned the respect of everyone they’ve come across during this summer’s Women’s World Cup. They haven’t, however, been quite as overwhelmingly dominant throughout this World Cup as some of the commentary might have us believe, though. The eighteen goals that sent a wave of shock and awe around the tournament came against two of the weakest teams in the tournament, whilst their third group win was against, effectively, a second string Swedish eleven. They needed penalty kicks to edge their way through a second round match that they should have won more comfortably than they did, whilst their quarter-final win against France came against a team that had been more off-colour than seemed to have been noticed throughout its previous matches. They required the assistance of a couple of decisions in their semi-final match that might have gone another way under different interpretations of the laws of the game or without the video assistant. It hasn’t been entirely plain sailing for the USA, over this last few weeks.
On Sunday afternoon, the USA didn’t quite blow the Netherlands away as slowly and patiently wear them down. The obduracy of the Dutch defence, and in particular an outstanding performance from goalkeeper Sari Van Veenendaal, who pulled off a string of outstanding saves to keep the Dutch team in the match until well into the second half, saw to that. When the inevitable penalty kick was awarded, though, it was probably a correct call even with the interjection of VAR, and Megan Rapinoe’s apparently natural sangfroid was given yet another outing as she converted her fourth penalty kick of the tournament to blow a hole in a Dutch tactical formation which had been shifted for this match – a notable occurrence in itself, since the Netherlands team has built its reputation upon having a system which it sticks to with no exceptions – for the purposes of quietening the both the front three and the midfield.
This formation, however, wasn’t built to deal with chasing the game, and the opening goal proved to be all important. Stretched by a need to chase the game, the Netherlands lost most of their defensive shape, and the story of the last twenty minutes was largely one of how many more the USA team would score. The answer to this was familiar to those who have watched them throughout the tournament. They managed a second goal to kill the game off as a contest, a delightful run and shot from Rose Lavelle, but otherwise failed to properly take advantage of the acres of space around them.
Any criticism is, of course, nit-picking. Having eased themselves into a two goal advantage, the USA didn’t have to commit much forward over the closing stages of the match. That theme, however, that they weren’t quite killing games against stronger opposition to the extent that they might, remained apparent. This match might have ended up with a four or five goal winning margin, and that it didn’t was largely a combination of excellent goalkeeping and imperfect decision-making in attacking positions. The closing stages of the match were a masterclass in game management, the Netherlands’ outstanding attacking options being rendered broadly impotent by their opponents’ ability to simply close the game out.
With winning the title out of the way, the American team now has bigger fish to fry. By most reasonable metrics they are vastly underpaid, and the idea that their income reflects their financial value to the United States Soccer Federation, with their current shirt being the biggest-seller on the Nike store, has been busted as a red herring of the first order. Their circumstances are not like those of most professional footballers – their playing contracts are with their national team rather than their club sides – but if the argument over not paying them more has now reduced to little more than not doing so “because they can”, then there is surely now an inevitability that an amicable solution will be reached to their ongoing dispute with the USSF. Meanwhile, their imbecilic president has invited them to the White House and it remains to be seen whether any of them will bother to turn for a PR opportunity with someone that they already presumably know doesn’t care much for them and likely knows even less, with that feeling likely being almost completely mutual.
The USA women’s national football team has become something of a lightning rod in recent weeks, as matters other than the on-field issues relating to a football tournament have increasingly come to control the narrative of the 2019 Women’s World Cup. They have a captain who seems completely fearless in saying what she thinks and players full of the confidence that comes with knowing that they’re the best in the world. Their actions and words, however, haven’t always reflected particularly well upon the team. Repeatedly throughout the tournament, American players have come across as being, well, just a bit shitty, from comments that they have the second best team in the tournament as well as the best, Rapinoe’s “waah waah waah” comments after the England match, continuing to celebrate every goal against Thailand, and so on and so forth.
And to be clear, this criticism isn’t based in any way upon the gender of the players. If a men’s team – and especially a men’s team as dominant as the American women’s team is in within the global women’s game – behaved in exactly this way during a tournament as a pattern of behaviour, they would be globally slaughtered in the press and on social media. Perhaps, the USA team’s staunchest defenders should consider that perhaps this criticism isn’t because they’re women. Perhaps it’s because they’re American. A lot of us in Europe don’t have very much to do with the trash-talking culture of American sport, and this cognitive dissonance can come across as boorish and ugly. Whether it’s arrogant or not (still less whether they’ve “earned the right” to be arrogant or not), boorish behaviour isn’t a strong look, especially from a team representing the most dominant cultural and economic force on the planet. Being anti-Trump doesn’t negate the fact that they’re American, after all, and most of the rest of the planet already understands the contempt in which much of America holds anything that isn’t America.
Ultimately, they have an absolute right to not care what anybody thinks of them, but that works both ways. Respect is earned, but no-one can be forced to like or love someone. They were, however, also the best, though how for how much longer that can last is open to question. European teams are catching up in terms of technique, and America’s dominance is increasingly based upon physical strength and fitness. This is a gap that will take time to close, but it’s a gap that can be closed, and it would be unsurprising to see commercial revenues increase sharply in Europe in the afterglow of this tournament. Indeed, it is already being suggested that the financial might of the Premier League could be set to fall behind women’s club football in England. There’s much to be said about this – far from all of it positive – but it’s likely that it would lead to a further closing of the gap in resources in the women’s game between the old world and the new. They might not have seen the back of those tea-sippers just yet.
These, however, are questions for another day. For now the United States of America are the best in the world. Congratulations are due to the entire team for having the steel and grit to be able to sail through the tournament with a 100%, to Megan Rapinoe for her performances and advocacy of equity for female players, and to coach Jill Ellis, who was criticised before the start of the tournament but now joins the great Vittorio Pozzo (coach of the Italian men’s team for the 1934 and 1938 World Cups) as one of only two coaches to successfully defend a World Cup. A remarkable achievement and thoroughly deserved, considering the last two Women’s World Cups. We don’t have to like them, but we should respect them and we should know beyond a shadow of doubt that they are the best. In the afterglow of a tournament such as this, that’s probably all that really matters.