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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Pedigree



    The Women's World Cup is down to the quarterfinals, and a look at the survivors shows that 7 of the 8 remaining teams were in the quarterfinals last time out as well. Whether this is good or bad depends on your point of view: if you like upsets, Cinderella teams, or new names, you're out of luck, but if you were disappointed to see top teams missing from the knockouts at Korea/Japan 2002, you should feel pretty good.

    Actually, at this point in the history of the women's game, there's not much alternative. Although gradually more countries are becoming competitive, most are simply not ready to challenge the top teams. In the last decade, the only team to grow into a major power was Brazil. USA, Norway, Germany, and China have been there from the start, and show no sign of bowing out. The men's game was like this too, say about 50 years ago, and we're a good decade away from seeing anything like a wide-open women's tournament.

    But the teams at the top get by on more than just talent: there's that extra something called pedigree. The teams that are used to being there, used to competing for the top spots, have that intangible edge that seems to get them through against talented but still inexperienced teams. In the men's game, this generally manifests itself in the Final; for example, for all the upsets at Korea/Japan, the two teams left standing were Brazil and Germany. There's a statistic I've written about before, but it's so telling I have to repeat it: in the history of the men's World Cup, there have been 15 semifinals matching a team that had played in a Final before and a team that had not. The experienced finalists have now won an incredible 13 out of 15. That's more than talent; it's pedigree.

    In the women's game, inevitably, pedigree manifests itself at a much earlier phase of the competition, namely the group stage. In Group A it was clearest in the matchup between Sweden and North Korea. With Nigeria badly off form, it was clear that this game would decide second place behind the USA. North Korea were the newcomers, a talented, exciting team that had stunned China a couple of months ago for the Asian championship. They had first qualified for the World Cup in 1999, finishing a respectable third in their group behind the USA and Nigeria, and four years later were ready to make their mark. Sweden, on the other hand, were a classic pedigree team, a solid but not outstanding side that had made the final 8 of every major women's championship since 1991.

    The Swedes began with an intelligent game plan, using quick one-touch passes and long balls to avoid the strong North Korean midfield pressure, and got an early goal on a fine strike by Victoria Svensson. But gradually North Korea began to take over midfield, and by the end of the half it seemed as if they were spending most of the time camped just outside the Swedish penalty area. But somehow the key touch always eluded them; somehow they couldn't finish their chances. At one point, Ri Kun Suk, who had missed several great opportunities against Nigeria, shot over an open net from about 12 yards. Sweden somehow got into the locker room still up 1:0. The second half was fairly even, with North Korea again pressuring effectively, and Sweden getting their counterchances. So many times the Koreans could have tied it up, but in their best chances, Ri hit the crossbar, and Jin Pyol Hui couldn't connect with the net open. The game wound up 1:0, the pedigree team on top. North Korea was left with the task of beating the USA if they wanted to qualify, and they didn't have enough to pull it off.

    The USA's play was itself a fine example of pedigree. They managed to win all three games, GF/GA 11-1, without once looking dominant. Amazingly, only 2 of their 11 goals came from open play (although it should have been 3: Abby Wambach's fine goal against North Korea was inexplicably nullified by a penalty against the Koreans, so Wambach scored from the spot instead). They played solid defense, used active midfield pressure, were outstanding on corner kicks, and somehow disposed of their opponents without you realizing that it was happening. They didn't even need home-advantage refereeing, although they got at least two doubtful penalties called in their favor. Certainly the group (this year's Group of Death) turned out to be a lot easier for them than anyone expected.

    In Group B, pedigree raised its head in the opening-round game between Norway and France. Norway have been one of the great teams in women's football, second only to the USA in honors: World Cup runners-up 1991, champions 1995, 4th place finishers 1999; Olympic bronze medalists 1996, gold medalists 2000. France were the neophytes, playing in a major competition for the very first time. They came out unafraid, though, with an attractive short-passing game that caught the Norwegian midfield flat. If you measured the game by chances, France could easily have won, but keeper Bente Nordby denied them several times, and goals on a free kick and a quick counter gave the Norwegians a 2:0 victory.

    Norway's pedigree showed up in a different way in the final game of the round, against South Korea. After playing poorly against France, and getting buried by Brazil, they woke up against the tail-enders. In two games, South Korea had allowed only 1 goal from open play, but Norway mowed them down, pressing all over midfield and getting the ball to forwards Marianne Pettersen, Dagny Mellgren, and Linda Ormen: swift, powerful, and deadly. The 7:1 final reflected their total domination, and reestablished them as one of the favorites in the tournament.

    But the big story of the group was the Brazil-Norway match. Brazil is a pedigree side too: 3rd place in the 1999 World Cup (beating Norway in the consolation match); 4th place in the 2000 Olympics. That they beat Norway was itself only a mild upset. But they way they did it was shocking: given space to operate in midfield, they dazzled the Europeans with marvelous Brazilian-style skill from Maicon, Formiga, Katia, again and again beating defenders with one-on-one moves, effortlessly controlling the entire pitch. After 37 minutes they were up 2-0, and seemed headed for a rout. Then the Norwegians woke up: Pettersen headed one in before halftime, and they came out dominant in the second half. But just when an equalizer seemed imminent, Brazil got the third. Playmaker Marta, inconsistent so far, emerged at her brilliant best, beating two defenders and passing to an open Maicon; her hard shot was parried by Norby, but Marta fought off a defender to get the rebound and poked it in. Norway was deflated, and a late fourth from Katia was no more than the Brazilians deserved.

    Group D was another spot where pedigree ruled. Russia is a relative newcomer to the top ranks; they made their first splash in 1999 with an impressive campaign that took them to the quarterfinals. But Australia and Ghana, their first two opponents, had no pedigree at all: although both teams had World Cup experience, neither had won a game. As it turned out, Russia was outplayed in both contests, mildly by Australia, significantly by Ghana - and yet somehow they won both. Against Australia, a last-minute deflected shot brought them home. Against Ghana, where the Africans completely dominated midfield, a first-half Marina Saenko free kick put Russia on top, and an early second-half rebound goal by Natalia Barbachina, coming off another Saenko free kick, applied the clincher. The eventual 3:0 final was about as misleading a score as you'll ever find in a World Cup, but the Ghanians, as talented as they were, didn't seem to know the way to goal just yet. (They broke through in their final game, though, with a 2:1 win over Australia. Look out for them in 2007.)

    The real pedigree in group D belonged to China, 4th place in 1995, defeated finalists in 1999, fielding one of the most experienced squads in the tournament. But from the beginning they seemed subpar. A bare 1:0 win over Ghana was followed by a surprise 1:1 draw with Australia, and they were faced with having to beat Russia in the final game to win the group. They responded with a superb first half, their speedy pressing midfield in complete control, with Sun Wen's perfect long pass to a streaking Bai Jie providing the go-ahead tally. And yet they couldn't put the Russians away - Liu Ying missed a penalty that would have doubled the score - and soon after the interval it became clear that the Europeans wouldn't go down easily. Russia began to get more possession in midfield, with Elena Fomina in the middle and Galina Komarova on the right providing the impetus. It was a struggle for China all the way. But their defense is their most reliable unit, and the chances for Russia never came. China finished on top, their second 1:0 victory of the tournament, not very good, but good enough for first place, exactly where their pedigree figured to place them.

    In Group C, the one pedigreed team, Germany, won the group, but it wasn't so much pedigree as talent. The Germans, in top form from the first day kickoff, easily disposed of a disappointing Canada, an overmatched Japan, and an out-of-their-depth Argentina. Germany sparkled in every facet of the game, getting particularly impressive midfield play from Bettina Wiegmann and Maren Meinart, and classic finishing from Brigit Prinz, currently co-top scorer with Katia, at 4 goals. But naming names is misleading; it was a true team effort. They look like a genuine contender for the title; the main question is whether injuries to Linda Bresonik and Steffi Jones leave them depleted in defense.

    With Argentina outclassed, the second spot in group C would inevitably be decided by the final-round game between Canada and Japan -- no real pedigree either way. Canada had taken the USA to extra time in the CONCACAF championship, and before the tournament had been tipped as one of the dark horses. But they hadn't found their stride, showing little else but the long ball and muscle up front. In an unusual move, coach Evan Pellerud (Norway's champion coach in 1995) had switched Charmaine Hooper, his best all-around player, from attack to central defense, providing the unusual spectacle of a uniform number 10 playing in the middle of the back line (not to mention a number 2, Christine Latham, as a striker). Hooper showed all her abilities in defense, but the attack was left dangerously low on ball skills. As for Japan, not much had been expected, but they had shown an exciting fast-paced short passing attack in a rout of Argentina, and had started brightly before going down to Germany.

    The game itself was entertaining, with the play largely even, a classic matchup between size and speed. Canada had the best of it early, using their strength to advantage against the much smaller Japanese, and getting enterprising play from Latham and Christine Sinclair in attack. But Japan took the lead with a characteristic counterattack, a perfect volley from Homare Sawa on a cross from Yasuyo Kobayashi. Japan appeared to be assuming command, but Latham equalized shortly before the end of the first half, powering through her marker to poke home a cross from Sinclair. Early in the second half it was Canadian power again, with Sinclair heading in a corner, and for a while the North Americans seemed in control. But Japan had shown remarkable spirit all tournament, and in the 57th minute Mio Otani appeared to equalize with a brilliant header -- but she had been a whisker offside. Kara Lang, only 16 years old, finished the scoring for Canada with a beautiful chip, and they held off the determined Japanese for a 3:1 victory. As noted, no real pedigree, but still the favorite won.

    So we go to the quarter finals with 7 teams from the quarters in 1999: USA, Brazil, Germany, China, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. The only interloper is Canada, the least impressive of the survivors - and in fact there had to be at least one interloper, because the draw put the 8th former quarterfinalist, Nigeria, in Group A with the USA and Sweden. And the pedigree factor has made the draw rather more important than you'd expect. When the groups came out, it was clear that groups A (USA, Sweden, North Korea) and B (Brazil and Norway) were significantly stronger than groups C (Germany and Canada) and D (China and Russia). With China and Canada both below top form, groups A and B were even more dominant. This wouldn't have mattered much if the draw hadn't also matched teams from groups A and B in the quarterfinals. As a result, among other things, the next round matches USA against Norway, more a Final than a quarterfinal. Brazil will also have their hands full with Sweden. On the other side, China-Canada and Germany-Russia look like decidedly second-class matchups. Here are previews and predictions, in chronological order:

USA-Norway

    The main event. With Norway seemingly back in form, this one should be dead even. The USA, at home, will be the favorite, but they don't match up particularly well against the Norwegians. The best way to beat Norway is to go at them with the ball, the way the Brazilians did, but that's not really in the American repertoire. Nor should the USA be able to rack up goals on set pieces the way they've done so far. Although the USA will likely be attacking, and Norway counterattacking, the teams have a similar style, relying on direct play and strength in the forward line. Star Mia Hamm has been excellent up front for the USA, and striker Abby Wambach is another great find. But the Americans will have difficulty controlling the ball in midfield, particularly against the expected Norwegian pressure. Watch Kristine Lilly, the experienced left-sided midfielder, who has had a fine tournament so far. If she can keep possession to pass and cross effectively, the USA will be in good shape. Norway should also have troubles in midfield; the USA closes very well to the ball, and Hege Riise, the veteran Norwegian playmaker, has been recovering from injury, and playing only as a substitute. Lise Klaveness is a good central midfielder, but she's inexperienced, and unlikely to be able to fend off the American pressure. Look instead for Unni Lehn and Solvig Gulbrandsen to provide the key passes. Norway's main weapons will be the speed and finishing of Pettersen and Mellgren; the latter in particular has looked very dangerous, with three fine goals to her credit. One more factor: the USA has had one fewer day's rest, and has to travel to Boston for the game; Norway gets to stay put. Prediction: Norway 1-0 in extra time, unless home refereeing does them in.

Brazil-Sweden

    It's hard to know what to make of Brazil. They were ordinary against South Korea, then brilliant against Norway, and took their foot off the pedal against France, needing only to draw to top the group. They play in classic Brazilian style, and their individual talent is sensational: Marta in the middle, Formiga on the right, and Maicon on the left provide more skills and vision than any trio in the tournament. And that doesn't even count Katia and her 4 goals. Renata Costa is a calming presence at defensive midfield, and Rosana an exciting surging fullback on the left. And yet they don't always make the most of what they have. They can also be vulnerable to pressure in midfield, as South Korea and Norway showed. That's the approach Sweden will take. Watch for Malin Moestrom (a Pippi Longstocking lookalike), Sweden's most advanced midfielder, to go after the ball and spearhead the counterattack. In theory, Sweden should match up well: they can use their superior quickness and intelligent forward play to disrupt Brazilian possession. But they don't quite have Norway's talent. Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson have been marvelous at times up front, but haven't yet shown they can put enough goals on the board. Plus, Sweden has real defensive weaknesses on the wings, and you can expect Brazil to take maximum advantage. Katia can drift out towards the right side and run right at the defense; Formiga, Maicon, and Rosana have already shown themselves to be excellent wide players. I think Sweden will play well, but Brazil has more weapons. Brazil 2-1.

Germany-Russia

    This one looks like a mismatch. Russia has done very well to win two games, but at no time have they looked worthy of the semifinals. Olga Letyushova and Natalia Barbachina are a competent pair up front, but the midfield is largely undistinguished, and took a major blow when playmaker Elena Fomina got a yellow card in the 89th minute against China, disqualifying her from the match. Fomina is the team's most technically accomplished player, and there's no one to replace her in the middle. Still, the back line should acquit itself well; Saenko on the left, Marina Burakova in the middle, Vera Strukova on the right, and Tatiana Zaitseva in a picket role in front are intelligent and react quickly. They were beaten for pace by the Chinese, but Germany isn't really that sort of team. How well they handle Birgit Prinz will be one of the big stories of the game. But even if Prinz is kept in check, Germany should control the midfield sideline to sideline, with Wiegmann, Meinert, Stefanie Gottschlich and Kerstin Garefrekes. Russia prefers to sit back and counterattack with quick passes, but it's hard to believe they'll get away with that for 90 minutes. Theoretically at least, Russia has a shot. First, Germany's weak opposition might have made them look better than they are - but Russia hasn't looked very good either. Second, Russia has Saenko, the one genuine free kick threat in the tournament - but even if she scores one, that probably won't be enough. Third, Germany has been hit by injuries in the back line - the most plausible chance. The big loss was Steffi Jones, a big and mobile centerback who would have neutralized centerforward-type Letyushova. If Russia goes with the long ball and gets lucky up front, they could sneak a couple of goals. And there's always Saenko. But it still looks like a mismatch. Germany 3-0.

China-Canada

    Two of the big disappointments in the tournament. China was one of the favorites, but they just can't score. They lack a consistent playmaker in the middle; Liu Ying, their best hope, has been uninspired, and Pan Lina went out injured against Ghana, and is out for the tournament. As a result, Sun Yen has to drop back and create, and that leaves her absent far too often up front, where she's needed to score. Bai Jie, the other regular striker, has the best ball skills on the team, and can be remarkable in possession, but sometimes has trouble hooking up with her teammates. There's some punch on the left of attack, with midfielder Zhao Lihong and overlapping fullback Liu Yali. But as yet it hasn't added up to much: 3 goals in 3 games. It's not that they've missed opportunities; they just haven't created many. Youngster Han Duan looked good off the bench against Ghana, and might come in handy if China needs a goal. But they probably won't have to worry; on current form Canada doesn't seem strong enough to take advantage. For one thing, unless Pellerud changes his mind and puts Hooper farther up front, their midfield should be overmatched. Diana Matheson is a good defensive midfielder, but China has way too much team pace. Canada can counterpunch with the long ball, and Latham, the pick of the forwards, may be able to make a play here and there. And then there's the overall height and weight advantage. But even a subpar China is a cut above Japan, and barring a great play on a set piece, should hold them off. China 2-0.

    So that's my quarterfinal preview -- bear in mind that I have a rotten record predicting results. But this is the women's game, after all, so if you have any doubts, just go with pedigree. USA-Norway can go either way, but a win for Canada, Russia, or even Sweden would be a shock. So run to your bookmaker (only where legal, of course) and bet. If you lose, well, you can just blame history.


 

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