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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    In the comedy Airplane II, actor William Shatner gets to deliver one of the great lines in movie history: “Irony can be…pretty ironic sometimes.” Yep, it sure can. And irony was never more ironic than in Germany’s 3:0 victory over the USA in the semifinals of the Women’s World Cup.

    Where to start? Well, the first irony was that the USA might have played their best game of the tournament. Against a top-class opponent, they dominated midfield, had a clear majority of possession, and were rarely threatened at the back. Germany never got into their passing game; Shannon Boxx did an excellent job on Maren Meinert, and for the most part the Germans had to rely on long balls, the American strength. Although Abby Wambach was held in check, Cindy Parlow was outstanding, winning balls and creating opportunities; it was a surprise when she was lifted for Aly Wagner, who started strongly but faded. Kristine Lilly played well, too, setting up one great scoring opportunity and almost getting the equalizer herself. True, by the final 15 minutes, they had run out of ideas, but up until then, the USA was dominant.

    A second irony lay in the way Germany won the game. All tournament, the USA had been magnificent at set pieces--but the winning goal came from a German corner kick. And in the second half, Briana Scurry had to make two great saves in a row to deny them a second. The USA, in contrast, never got close from the dead ball, and in the end that was the difference.

    And then there’s the irony of Mia Hamm. If you’re unfamiliar with women’s football in the USA, you don’t know what a huge part Hamm plays in the public image of the sport. Americans are celebrity-obsessed, and we promote sports here by identifying the teams with their stars. When your see ads for a big baseball game, it’s “Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants go against Sammy Sosa and the Chicago Cubs.” Women’s soccer is even more dependent on the stars, because the average fan doesn’t know much about the team. So the media latches on to an individual player to promote the game. Mia Hamm is THE poster girl for women’s soccer in the USA. She’s a great player, and she’s physically attractive. So everyplace, everywhere, women’s soccer is Mia Hamm. In fact, she’s the single best-known footballer in the country, male or female. She was rested against North Korea, and midway through the second half, chants of “Mia! Mia!” came up from the crowd, from fans who wanted to see her play. It didn’t matter that she needed the rest; she was the star, and that’s who the fans came to see. Well, they saw Mia against Germany, and it was Mia who missed the chance of the night. In the 34th minute Lilly sent her in alone on goal, and she should have put the shot away--but she hesitated, and Silke Rottenberg, having a remarkable game, took it off her shoes. Hamm can by no means be blamed for the loss, but the symbol of the game, the icon of women’s football, missed her chance.

    Another irony lay in the refereeing. As noted in prior columns, the USA has received a number of doubtful calls in this tournament. But this time, the officiating went the other way. To begin with, lineswoman Lynda Bramble called Cindy Parlow incorrectly offside twice in the first half, where both situations might have led to good shots at goal. Then in the second half, the Americans had not one but two penalty appeals turned down by referee Sonia Denoncourt. The second, where Rottenberg and Tiffany Milbrett collided near the top of the area, looked like the right call--although the USA had received calls like that earlier in the tournament. But the first, where Stefanie Gottschlich handled the ball in the area, should have been a penalty: although her hand was moving away from the ball on impact, she had extended her arm as the ball was struck. Who knows? Maybe Denoncourt, knowing the USA had received so many bad calls, unconsciously judged this one the other way.

    And that leads to one more irony, just a little one. There was this other tournament, see, a football tournament, not so long ago. And in that tournament the USA had also reached the knockout rounds, and was also playing Germany, and outplaying Germany. But they were also trailing 0:1 in the second half because of a set-piece goal. And then a German player also handled the ball in the box (on the line, in fact), and no penalty was called, and Germany went on to win the game and eliminate the USA from the tournament. You may remember it. Americans sure do.

    As for Sweden-Canada, I’d like to say there was plenty of irony, but there wasn’t. In fact, the game played out exactly as expected. Canada had the long ball and set pieces; Sweden dominated the midfield but had trouble finishing. Kara Lang had a fine outing for Canada, wreaking havoc on the right side of attack, hitting the crossbar once and striking the free kick that got through Caroline Jönsson’s hands for the goal. But the Canadians had little else. The midfield rarely saw the ball, and Christine Latham was largely invisible up front. Meanwhile, Sweden zipped around the pitch, taking possession, beating defenders for pace, combining on short and long passes, sending through balls and crosses--and coming up empty. In the first half, Hanna Ljungberg, free in the box, headed right at the keeper; in the second, Malin Moström missed two free shots in about 5 minutes. When Lang scored, it looked like a rerun of the China game: Canada would go into the bunker and pull out the win.

    But Sweden had the one, the only, the wondrous Victoria Svensson. A dervish of a striker, she goes 90 minutes nonstop, sideline to sideline, fast, elusive, intelligent, at times breathtakingly skilled. She has only one weakness, a big one: she’s not a reliable finisher. And she too had missed plenty of good chances in the game, failing on the last touch, shooting wide at a gaping net. But in the 79th minute, with Sweden on the ropes, she found another way to produce. With a foul called on Canada about 35 yards from goal, she pounced on the ball for the quick restart and sent a perfect through ball for Moström before the Canadians could react. Moström made no mistake (finally!), and Sweden were level. Then seven minutes later Svensson made the play of the game. Canada had received a bad break in the 55th minute when their left back, Silvia Burtini, had to leave due to injury. Burtini was only playing because regular starter Isabelle Morneau was injured, and so Sharolta Nonen, normally a centerback, had to shift out to the left. In the 86th minute, Svensson, with a dazzling move, beat Nonen (and two of her teammates) and sent a low cross into the box. Hanna Ljungberg missed the ball entirely, but (and maybe here’s a small irony) her miss functioned as a perfect dummy for Josefine Öqvist, who banged the ball in off the near post. Full time Sweden 2:1. Svensson’s name doesn’t appear on the scoresheet, but she was most definitely the matchwinner.

    Germany-Sweden will make for a most attractive final, with the elegant precision of the Germans against the whirlpool inventiveness of the Swedes. Germany is the natural favorite, but I’m not so sure. Against the USA, they were on their back foot most of the game, and if we’re talking run of play, Sweden certainly did no worse. Still, with Germany you get the feeling that they’ll get the key strike when necessary. With Sweden it’s more of a struggle. Plus, Germany has the more reliable keeper. Up front, Meinert and Prinz should get a bit more freedom to work than they did against the USA; on the other hand, Germany hasn’t faced a team with a strike force like Svensson and Ljungberg. They’ve shown they can hold off the big and powerful forwards: can they do the same with the fast and tricky ones? In the midfield, a key matchup will be Malin Moström of Sweden and Bettina Wiegmann of Germany.

    Wiegmann often gets the play started; she’s the chief outlet to Meinert. Moström is the attacking midfielder who will most likely be pressuring her when she gets the ball. If Wiegmann can maintain control and release the attack, Sweden will be in trouble, but if Moström can shut her off and start the counter, the forwards will be that much more dangerous. A prediction? Well, I’ve stuck my neck out so many times that I might as well do it again: Germany 2:0.

    But I’ll be happy no matter who wins. From the beginning Germany and Sweden have been my two favorite teams in the tournament. Sure, I’m a USA supporter, and was disappointed that they lost, but to be honest, Germany is more fun to watch. The USA long-ball-and-muscle approach wears thin pretty quickly, whereas the varied play of the Germans is a constant pleasure. There’s the speed and abandon of Kerstin Stegemann, the leaping strides of Kerstin Garefrekes, the simple poise of Wiegmann, the stunning creativity of Meinert, the stylish strikes of Birgit Prinz. As for Sweden, they’re exciting in a different way: the constant motion, with Svensson and Ljungberg a whirlpool up front, plus the full-blooded pressing of Moström and her midfield mates. And remember they too beat a dry long-ball-and-muscle team to get to the Final.

    In fact, for me that’s the story of the tournament. This will be the first time in the history of the women’s game that a major competition (World Cup or Olympics) will not be won by the USA or Norway. They’re both traditional long-ball teams, who use pure speed and power to get the job done. It’s the kind of football that wins when the game is at an early stage of development. A number of players at the tournament have commented that while the USA has the stronger physical conditioning, teams like Germany and Sweden have better technique. As the game grows, and it’s growing now, technique starts to take over. For the first time, the champion will be a strong technical team, and the odds are that technique will assume greater importance in the years to come.

    And wouldn’t you know it, a vital factor in the development of that technique was the WUSA. It may have folded just before the tournament began, but while it lasted, it provided an unprecedented arena for top women players to hone their skills against each other. Almost half the German starting team--including Wiegmann, Meinert, and Prinz--played in the WUSA. So it looks as if a league that was created to advance the sport in the USA may have been the first step in reducing American dominance. And that would be the greatest irony of them all.



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