Peter Goldstein

Peter Goldstein is a professor at Juniata College in Pennsylvania in the USA. He has been World Cup crazy since 1966. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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Cherchez les femmes!

    You have to give webmaster Jan Alsos credit: he opened Planet World Cup on the best possible day, September 20, the opening day of the World Cup. So it's a bit of an embarrassment that none of us chose to write about it. The qualifiers? Oh yes, lots about that. Past qualifiers? Sure. Past World Cups? Got it right here. But absolutely nothing about the World Cup taking place right under our noses. No, I'm not delusional, at least no more than usual - I'm talking about the Women's World Cup, which opened in the USA on September 20 and will run until October 12. All the best women footballers are there, playing for their countries with every last bit of talent and enthusiasm. And we didn't even think to write about it - I know I didn't, anyway. And that's particularly humiliating, since it's taking place in my home country, with my own home team as the favorite. I'm ashamed of myself.

    Women's football doesn't have a very large following, and it's hard to believe it'll ever be a commercial success. The WUSA, the strongest women's league in the world, was created to capitalize on the surge of interest in women's football after the USA victory in 1999. But it lasted only 3 years, and folded just before the tournament opened. European and South American leagues draw scant interest. No surprise, really: most football fans are male, and it's hard to deny that men play the game with more skill, speed, and power. In a sport like tennis, where it's one-on-one and the playing area is small, women can equal or even surpass men in entertainment value. But in a team sport, especially one played on a field as large as football, the women will never be able to provide the same spectacle as the men.

    But I'm still ashamed of myself. Because the women's game is very much worth watching. What it lacks in speed and power it makes up for in freshness. The lack of a top-class league may reduce the physical development of the women's game, but it enhances the mental side. The players are no jaded millionaires, no bored and overworked professionals; they're never too cautious, or too self-involved; they're 100% team athletes, who are just out there playing to win. Try to imagine football without diving, or endless time-wasting, or complaining to the referees. Can't? Then watch the women, who know what the game's supposed to be about. Yes, there's a bit of gamesmanship (gameswomanship?) here and there, but for the most part they make the men look like babies.

    That's not to say women's football is always free-flowing, or delicate. Far from it - some of the most physical play you'll see on a football pitch comes in the women's game. And some teams are decidedly more physical than others. But it's almost never dirty, and if yellow and red cards deservedly flash every once in a while, it's more for over-energetic play than for cynical destructiveness.

    As a tournament, too, the Women's World Cup has many virtues. For those reared on a 32-team system, where trying to keep track of it all can induce severe brain injuries (and in some cases complete breakdown), the women's tournament is a vacation. Sixteen teams in four groups, easily assimilated and easily followed. You can really get to know each of the teams. And just as in the men's game, you get a wide variety of styles and philosophies, plenty of variation in tactics. It's just like the old 16-team men's tournament: you have clear favorites and clear underdogs, and if that means upsets are relatively few, you're at least assured that the top teams will advance to the later stages of the competition.

    Speaking of the top teams, champs and hosts USA were largely uninspired in their opening 3-1 win over Sweden. The Americans have strong and skilled forwards: powerful Cindy Parlow, big and agile Abby Wambach, all-around scorer and creator Mia Hamm. But there's not much imagination in midfield, and two of the three goals came on headers from corners. Still, the opening goal was a beauty: Wambach beat her marker on the wing, and her low cross was neatly played out by Hamm for a crushing shot by Kristine Lilly. Sweden was fairly passive in the first half, and let the Americans come at them too much; down 0-2 at the break, they came out more aggressively, took advantage of their quickness, and were rewarded with a goal when a cross from deep by Hanna Ljungberg was met by a header from the superb Victoria Svensson. But the Americans were too big and too capable, and the Swedes had few chances afterward. The USA are tactically intelligent, solid on defense, and excellent in 50-50 situations. But they look one midfielder short of being a championship team.

    One team they'll have real trouble with is North Korea, who officially cemented their dark-horse status by pasting Nigeria 3-0. The Koreans unleashed a devastating quick pressure defense that repeatedly took the ball in midfield, and left the stronger but slower Nigerians in the dust. It was total football, with a bewildering variety of players popping up in the box for shots at goal. Unfortunately, most of them missed - the final score could easily have been 6-0, 9-0, or even 12-0. (The usual phrase is "hatful of chances," but the Koreans missed the whole store.) Forwards Ri Kun Suk and Jin Pyol Hui were the chief culprits, brilliant in approach but woeful at the finish, even though Jin eventually put two on the board. Nigeria, down early 0-1, responded with physical play, Cameroon circa 1990. They showed some speed on the wings with Stella Mbachu, and every time towering striker Mercy Akide got the ball, you expected something scary to happen. It took a fine save by Ri Jong Hui to keep her off the scoresheet near the end of the first half. But after a strong start to the second period, the Africans faded, and it was all North Korea. But they were still up only 1-0 until the 73rd minute, when Jin stole the ball and passed to Ri Un Gyong alone in the area, and the chance was finally too good to miss. On this form, North Korea looks like a sure second place to the USA in group A; in fact, their overall speed may be too much for the Americans, and if they can get their finishing sorted out they may even top the group. (Shades of 1966!)

    In group B, perennial power Norway is the big favorite, but they were unimpressive in a 2-0 win over France. Before the tournament, midfielder Lise Klaveness made a splash by accusing the Norwegian men of playing boring football - but the women are pretty much a carbon copy. Against France, it was Route One all the way, and after a rather ordinary first half, they got on the board in true Norwegian fashion, with Anita Rapp heading home a free kick after an oh-so-subtle push on her marker. Jostein Flo couldn't have done it any better. The second goal came on a long pass to striker Dagny Mellgren, who beat the offside trap and the keeper, then lofted a nifty chip from a severe angle. The Norwegian forwards are powerful, but like the USA, the team needs more possession in midfield. Moreover, most of their defenders play midfield at club level, and at times they looked loose at the back. France showed a lot of heart and no little skill, using mostly a short passing game, with the quick Marinette Pichon a constant threat in the area. Veteran keeper Bente Nordby was forced into several fine saves, and the 0-2 loss significantly understates the French potential. Right now they look like a real chance to pip Brazil for the second spot in the group.

    Speaking of Brazil, most of the talk in the run-up was about the controversial selection of Milene, who just happens to be Mrs. Ronaldo. Most of the players frankly say she's not good enough, and they accused the federation of including her just for the publicity (Federation shenanigans? In Brazil? Come now...). The Brazilians drew longshot South Korea for their first game, but even with Milene on the bench they made heavy weather of it. They were up 2-0 after an hour, but the goals came from a PK on a fortuitous handball and a quick restart where they caught the defense asleep. For the rest of the time they were held even in midfield by the scrappy Koreans. There was plenty of individual skill, in the true Brazilian manner, but not much cohesion. Marta, their new playmaker, may be the most technically adroit player in the tournament, but she drifted in and out of the game, and needs to lead more if she wants to be a real number 10. Katia, the scoring machine, marauded up and down the right side, but found herself caught offside no less than 5 times before finally beating the trap for the third and final goal. The South Koreans seemed a bit unlucky to lose by so much: they have an intriguing little-and-large combination in Lee Ji Eun and Park Eun Sun, and won't go down easy the rest of the way. Still, assuming Norway finds their form, France-Brazil on September 27 looks like the battle for the second spot in group B. If France can keep possession, they're a good bet for the upset.

    Topping Group C is Germany, who put on a show in a 4-1 win over Canada - and what a pleasure to see a German team that relies as much on finesse as muscle. They play an attractive game, with lots of passes through the middle of the field and adroit switching of play. The two stars are midfielder Bettina Wiegmann, the great veteran, small, not as quick as she used to be, but with superb playmaking vision, and midfielder/forward Maren Meinert, the new star, fast and technically brilliant. Canada got the first goal on a header by young sensation Christine Sinclair, but gradually the German midfield took over. A handball in the area saw Wiegmann equalize from the spot, and early in the second half an artful header from left-sided midfielder Stefanie Gottschlich put Germany on top to stay. Fifteen minutes from time came a stylish third: Wiegmann sent overlapping defender Linda Brisonik through on the left, and her perfect cross was headed home by centerforward Bettina Prinz. A beautiful move and strike from youngster Kerstin Garefrekes finished the scoring, and when it was all over Germany looked like a prime candidate to take the title. Canada isn't bad at all: they're strong, tactically astute, and good in the air, and they're a good bet for second place in the group. But despite stout resistance, they were no match for the rampant Germans.

    Japan needed a playoff with Mexico to qualify for the tournament, but a lucky draw makes them the other candidate to advance from Group C. Argentina was thought to be the one team at the tournament who might not belong, and so it proved, with the albiceleste going down 0-6. It's not a disgrace: the macho culture of Latin America makes football less attractive to women, and up to now only Brazil has been able to make any sort of mark on the world stage. Interest is growing - an incredible 100,000 fans filled the Azteca stadium for the first leg of the Mexico-Japan playoff - but the quality of play isn't there yet. Japan was faster, cleverer, and more skilled, and when Natalia Gatti was red-carded with the Argentines already down 0-2, it was a cakewalk. Japan has excellent speed down the wings and two acrobatic finishers in Homare Sawa and Mio Otani, but it's hard to know how good they really are. Certainly they'll be much more seriously tested by Germany and Canada. Argentina is in for a tough learning experience; the only suspense is whether the press will find a way to blame it on Marcelo Bielsa.

    Finally to Group D, the Group of Great Nicknames: China (Steel Roses); Ghana (Black Queens); Australia (Matildas); and Russia (no nickname yet - how about Tsarinas?). China was perhaps the best team in the world 4 years ago; led by brilliant forward Sun Wen, they lost on penalties to the USA in the Final. But they may have slipped a notch: they lost to North Korea in the Asian qualifying final, and on Sunday scored six fewer goals against Ghana than they had in 1999. They play a quick passing game, technically strong but perhaps a trifle too rigid tactically, and against a Ghana defending cleanly and well they had trouble creating opportunities. Ghana's best-known player is keeper Memunatu Sulemana, and she showed her class early with a marvellous save from Liu Ying after Sun sent her through. On the half-hour, though, she came out wrongly on a cross - Sun headed in, and it looked like an easy win for China. But it would be the only goal of the game. China dominated midfield, and Sun tried everything she knew, but there wasn't enough variety in the attack. Sulemana denied Bai Jie with another great save in the second half, but mostly the African back line, led by an outstanding Elizabeth Baidu, kept China out of the area. Ghana was never going to score, but the Chinese can't be happy with their performance. They should still win the group, but they won't be satisfied with anything less than the trophy, and they'll have to show a lot more to get it.

    Australia-Russia was the high-pressure match of the round: with China as favorite, and Ghana a heavy underdog, the game figured to decide second spot in group D. Perhaps for that reason, neither team was at their best. Although Australia is bigger and Russia quicker, they play a similar style, with short balls on the ground and lots of rotation. But both teams came out tentative, and for most of the first half not much happened. Then out of nowhere came two big mistakes, and two goals. First, Gill Foster sent a cross from deep for a slanting Danielle Small, and when keeper Alla Volkova came off her line for no reason, Small's shot off the post was converted by Kelly Golebiowski into the open net. A minute later came an even worse blunder: Russian free-kick specialist Marina Saenko drove one low into the box, and Dianne Algarich steered it into her own net for the equalizer. The second half was intense but ragged, and a draw seemed certain when Elena Fomina clanged a penalty off the crossbar in the 72nd minute. But only one minute from time came the crusher: Fomina drove a hard shot from outside the area, and when it caromed off defender Cheryl Salisbury, keeper Cassandra Kell could only deflect it into the net. An appropriate winner for a largely disappointing game, but hard luck for the Matildas, who had had the majority of possession but were unambitious up front. Despite the uneven performance, Russia showed real strengths: Fomina is a technically gifted playmaker, Natalia Barbachina a quick and dangerous striker, and Marina Burakova, the woman of the match, a stout central defender. They should finish second in the group - but that means Germany in the quarterfinals.

    That's the state of play after one round of games; here's hoping it whets your interest in an enjoyable competition. I'll be back with an update after the group stage, and one or two more columns during the knockout rounds. If you can get the games on TV, tune in and take a look (hey, it's football, you can't go wrong), and let me know what you think. Tell me I'm totally wrong about Germany, or that I've vastly underrated Brazil. I'm already feeling guilty about neglecting the tournament - give me another reason to be ashamed!



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