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
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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
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
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