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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The Benchmark

    Sometime in the next few months you'll be talking football with friends, or over the Internet, and someone will pose the question: "What was the greatest World Cup Final of all time?" Sit back, let the others kick it around for a while without any result, and then announce confidently: “Germany-Sweden, USA 2003.” You'll get some blank stares (if over the Internet, a “WTF” or two); after a few minutes someone will figure out what you're talking about, and tell the others; and after a guarded discussion they’ll classify you as hopelessly weird, and probably shun you for life.

    But it won't matter, because you'll be right. Good fortune brought together the two most exciting teams at USA 2003 for the Women’s World Cup Final, and right on cue, they dispensed a game for the ages. And for the foreseeable future it should be the benchmark: just as we measure all players by Pele or Maradona, and all teams by Brazil 1970, we should--yes, I mean it!--measure all World Cup Finals by Germany-Sweden.

    What made this game such a classic? For one thing, there wasn’t a dull spot in 97+ minutes. In most football games, even the best, you’ll have a lull of 5-10 minutes somewhere, when the teams are regrouping, or winded, or just uninspired. But there was no lull in Germany-Sweden. The first 25 minutes or so, as you might expect, were mostly fencing, but it was fast and fascinating. The Swedish all-field pressing saw to that, with forwards and midfielders disrupting the German flow, and speedy counterattacks a constant threat. After that the chances started to come, and when Hanna Ljungberg scored the opener in the 41st minute, there wasn’t the slightest chance of a letdown. Maren Meinert equalized in the first minute of the second half, and for the rest of the contest it was furious, intense play on both sides, right up until Nia Kuenzer’s header in extra time.

    Then there was the ebb and flow. In the first half play was delicately balanced, with Sweden in fine form, but Germany having more chances. After Ljungberg’s’s goal the momentum was all with the Swedes. But after the interval Germany took over completely; for much of the second half it seemed only a matter of time before they would score the winning goal. Then with 15 minutes left Sweden unexpectedly revived, and it was the Germans barely hanging on, with chance after Swedish chance falling just short. And then in extra time it was Germany dominant again, and the winner, when it came, was a natural conclusion.

    A great game also needs some fine goals, and the players duly provided them. The best of the bunch was the first. Kerstin Garefrekes took a throw-in in the Swedish half, but Jane Törnqvist rushed up to get the ball, sending it to Anna Sjöström on the left side of the field. Sjöström quickly sent it ahead for Victoria Svensson, who with a characteristic quick turn sent a perfect through ball for Ljungberg racing into the left side of the penalty area. Silke Rottenberg came out to narrow the angle, but Ljungberg finished beautifully with a right-footed shot into the far corner. Germany’s equalizer had an equally fine buildup. After a bad clearance by Sara Larsson, Garefrekes moved neatly in from the right wing, and passed to Birgit Prinz with back to goal. She spun and sent a superb pass for Meinert coming through on the right side of the area. Had Meinert’s finish been as fine as Ljungberg’s, it would have been another excellent goal; as it turned out, she struck it too close to keeper Caroline Jönsson, and it deflected off the keeper’s leg into the net. A good goal, then, nothing special. But the game-winner was a classic set piece: Renate Lingor’s perfectly placed free kick and Nia Kuenzer’s high header put a clear exclamation point on the finish.

    Of course a great game needs some great goalkeeping as well. In this case the star was Jönsson, who made three absolutely world-class saves to deny German goals. In the first half, a fine passing combination from Bettina Wiegmann and Pia Wunderlich found Prinz on the left side of the area; she picked her spot and fired, but Jönsson somehow went high to tip it over the bar. Then in the second half Jönsson got her arms up to save a point-blank header from Arianne Hingst. Finally, in the 74th minute, a pass from Kerstin Stegemann was brilliantly flicked by Wiegmann to Meinert in the area, with back to goal; she turned quickly on her marker and sent a hard shot high, but again Jönsson somehow tipped over the bar. For good measure, in the 58th minute she dove to parry a shot from Wiegmann, and in extra time she stopped Kuenzer one on one with a quick leg save--but those were merely excellent. As for Silke Rottenberg, she didn’t have to be as spectacular, but came up big in the 83rd minute, when she positioned herself perfectly to deny Ljungberg’s hard shot.

    Then there are the near-misses, those chances that just don’t come through. Even without the great saves, there were plenty of those. In the first half, when Sweden was playing so well, Germany had two, almost identical. In the 26th minute Wiegmann made a brilliant move on the right side, and sent a low cross for Prinz, but it went centimeters past her foot. Then, just before halftime, it was Stegemann’s turn to provide the pass, but again it missed Prinz by the smallest of margins. In the second half, Stegemann fired just over the bar; after a beautiful combination between Meinert, Garefrekes, and Prinz, Wunderlich missed a sitter; after a beautiful combination between Malin Moström and Frieda Östberg, Ljungberg missed a sitter; Stegemann just blocked a killer pass after a dazzling Svensson move. From about the 30th minute on, it seemed that every few minutes someone was close to scoring.

    And whether scoring or not, much of a great game is just watching great players do what they do so well. There was Prinz, the best striker in the world, making dangerous slanting runs and intelligent, well-timed passes; Svensson, the incredible dynamo, covering the entire pitch, spinning, dribbling, pressing; Ljungberg, her partner, speeding down the wings, dancing past defenders; Garefrekes, striding elegantly down the right side; Moström, the midfield captain, tirelessly leading the pressing game; central defenders Törnqvist and Sandra Minnert, positioning themselves calmly, covering brilliantly when necessary; and perhaps most of all, Wiegmann, the great veteran midfielder, passing accurately and beautifully, surging into attack on both wings, creating, directing, just playing the game to the fullest and best. FIFA’s Technical Study Group named her Woman of the Match, and a great and deserved honor it was indeed.

    Of course, this is football, and the players won’t always be perfect--but even the inevitable missteps enlivened the match. This was clearest in the sitters for Wunderlich and Ljungberg (how could they possibly have missed?) but there were other instances. Germany had an amazing 24 corners (to only 2 for Sweden), but somehow, time after time, they couldn’t find anyone in the box to head on goal. After a while you were riveted--surely on this next corner they’d get a clear shot. Then there were the German giveaways under the Swedish pressing, particularly in the first half, when you first realized that this was going to be a tight, even match. And how about that moment in the second half when Garefrekes’ cross was just a little too high, and Prinz flew through the air in a vain attempt to meet it, sprawling on the ground in frustration, the heroic effort written in every line of her frame?

    There were even a few officiating controversies, and up until the very last kick, they were the best kind of controversies: interesting enough to be worth discussion, not crucial enough to spoil the result. Referee Floarea Cristina Ionescu missed a clear penalty for Germany when Törnqvist tripped Garefrekes early in the second half; but then she also missed a very likely penalty for Sweden when Minnert and Stefanie Gottschlich sandwiched Ljungberg near the end of regulation time. The only possible blot came on the foul that set up the winning free kick: Sweden argued vehemently that Svensson hadn’t fouled Stegemann, and the replay seemed to show that it was a legitimate shoulder charge. It also showed that Ionescu had been screened on the play. But a free kick from 30 yards isn’t anything near a decisive advantage: Lingor and Kuenzer still had to execute to perfection. No one could deny that it was a worthy finish for worthy winners. And let’s give the officials credit for their good calls, too, including the biggest one of all: in the 90th minute, Svensson appeared to have scored the winning goal, but the lineswoman’s flag was up, and the replay confirmed it: close, but definite.

    So that’s the anatomy of a benchmark: players, officials, goals, chances, etc., etc. But let’s face it: you can break down a great game into parts, but you can’t really replicate the experience. It’s something intangible, something that you can’t put into words, but you know when it’s happening. You know it when you’re afraid to turn away for a moment, when you don’t want the game to end, when you don’t want either team to lose, when all the thousands of hours of dull, hopeless play you’ve witnessed in your life just disappear, and all that’s left is the magic of the game you love. And so it was with Germany-Sweden, USA 2003.

    So let’s ask the obvious question: why the women rather than the men? Why should the women produce such greatness, when the men haven't had a really good Final in ages? Partly it’s just luck; every once in a while two teams put together a classic, and the number just came up this time. Another cause, I suspect, is the top-heaviness of the women’s game. The best women's teams are more dominant than the men’s, so they can afford to save themselves a bit (although only a bit) during the group stages, and rev it up for the knockout games. The two semifinals were excellent games themselves. But the main cause is almost certainly the organization of the tournament. Since 1974, the men have had to play 6 games before the Final, and by the end of the line everyone’s exhausted. The women need only play 5, so they’re fresher. And get this: at USA 2003, there was a full week of rest--that’s right, a full week--between the semifinals and the Final. Plenty of time for the players to recoup, shake off nagging injuries, and prepare themselves for the biggest game of their lives. When was the last time the men had a week break before the Final? Try 1934. And with the crowded club schedule, it's not likely to happen any time soon. My guess is we won’t see an outstanding men’s Final for many years.

    And so the 4th Women's World Cup ends in glory. What next for the women's game? Of course it’ll never become as big as the men's, or even close, and any gains will be slow. But there are some encouraging signs. Although the WUSA failed, there’s plenty of talk about another try at a women’s league in the United States. On the same side of the water, the game is making tremendous strides in Canada. The Canadians hosted the inaugural U-19 championship, and took the USA into extra time in the Final; at USA 2003 there was all sorts of loud support for the team in their run to a surprising fourth-place finish. In Europe, too, things are looking up. In Sweden they went absolutely crazy, with interest in women’s football at an all-time high. The press compared the team to the heroes of Sweden 1958, and one newspaper devoted no less than 11 pages to the quarterfinal against Brazil. In Germany, too, where they’re used to championship football, coverage was extensive and enthusiastic.

    And it's going to be Europe where the game will advance, if anywhere. In the USA and Canada we’ve got plenty of resources, but soccer will always be a secondary sport. In South America and Africa, although the game is growing, women just don't have the requisite social status, and are unlikely to gain the same acceptance as the men. In Europe, though, there’s plenty of financial potential, and the culture is right. The run-up to the World Cup, and the tournament itself, saw surprisingly high interest from traditional men’s football countries like England and France. Watch to see if more leagues like the WUSA begin to form; watch to see the news coverage as 2007 approaches. There’s a real chance now for growth, quiet and slow, but sure.

    Let’s hope for it. And if the women’s game grows, and gains a niche in the football world, it’s dead certain that something very much like the following scene will take place. It’s 2027, the 10th Women’s World Cup, and after a scintillating England-Italy Final, won by a beautiful goal in extra-time, young fans, marvelling at the action, will turn to you, the old-timer. And they’ll say: “what a great Final! What a great Final!--but tell us, what do you think? Was it as great as Germany-Sweden, USA 2003?” And you’ll pause dramatically, look very very wise, and say: “well…maybe, just maybe…”



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