This begins with a confession. I didn’t approach the Women’s World Cup the same way I approached the Men’s World Cup. In the lead up to the World Cup in 2014 I was like a kid awaiting Christmas, counting down the days. I’d even purposely booked off a week of work so I could guarantee watching the first week of games. The soccer websites I routinely browsed were chock full of predictions and analysis. Fast forward a year, and these same soccer websites (BBC, Guardian) hardly mention the World Cup. Sure, if you scroll down a bit you’ll see game reports, but it’s not the main event. And there’s hardly any analysis. So right away, the soccer community wasn’t necessarily engaged with the World Cup in the same way. Despite all this, here I am four days into the World Cup and I’ve watched just about every game. It’s been thrilling. It’s the World Cup after all. The best players in the world trying to be the best team in the world. The passion, the nationalism, the enthusiasm, the energy.
Some observations a few games in:
The Americans are like the playground bully. They are bigger and stronger than most of their opponents. Australia actually put up a really good fight, and were arguably the better team, but the Americans always find a way to win. Plus, they have one of the best players in the world. No, not Abby Wambach or Alex Morgan. It’s Megan Rapinoe. Small, strong, and incredibly skilful with a bag of tricks and a rocket of a shot. Two-footed. Bleach-blonde with short hair, very noticeable.
She was the only American player to really stand out in the game. Well, her and Hope Solo. Easily the best goalie in the world. She made three truly world class saves. The rest seemed to trundle along, trying really hard, but to little effect.
Canada will do well to go deep in this tournament. The Canadians struggle with possession soccer, which means, they rely heavily on Christine Sinclair to provide a moment of magic. Which will certainly work against lesser nations, but even a team like Australia, that passes the ball with purpose and zip would provide plenty of problems.
Take Sophie Schmidt for example, she’s passionate, strong and dedicated, but distinctly lacking in technical skill, yet she plays as a number 10. A position that requires technical ability, vision and execution. If Canada go deep, it will be a combination of luck and Sinclair.
The Swiss were actually quite good. They have this little number 10, Ramona Bachmann, and I think she’s the best player I’ve seen so far. She’s like a little wind up toy. Walks around lots, but then as soon as the ball is near her she’s off like a whippet.
I remember one play against Japan where she picked up the ball at half, ran past four Japanese defenders, took the ball around the goalie, then slipped. Low centre of gravity and such skilful intensity. She was a joy to watch.
The Japanese never really seemed to get out of first gear. They’re all very technically proficient, and have this wonderful high-pressing game, trying to force the opposition into mistakes, but they only turned on the pressing in moments, and generally let the Swiss play, which almost came back to haunt them. Incredibly, they have a player Homare Sawa, playing at her 6th World Cup. I think they’re saving their energy for a deep run again, as they are the defending champs after all.
Sweden were profoundly disappointing. In the lead-up they were billed as the team to challenge the American’s in the “group of death”, but were frankly incredibly fortunate to escape with a draw against Nigeria. Aside from a devastating corner routine, the Swedes offered little. They looked ponderous, slow and overmatched. Apparently they’re an old team, this being the third world cup for a lot of this generation of Swedish women, so I guess it makes sense.
Which brings me to Nigeria. What an incredible game. That 3-3 draw had me out of my seat. Nigeria deserved to win. If only they knew how to defend. (now how often have you heard that complaint levied against an African team) Some of their defending was borderline amateurish. Diving in when they should jockey, playing offside as individuals, not a unit. But then, when they went forward…. FUCK. The Nigerian front four were about as dynamic as any forward group I’ve seen. (eat your heart out Messi, Neymar and Chomper) Such skill, pace, power and technique.
Apparently they’re all in their early 20s, and this is their first World Cup, so they’re only getting better. But it was truly scintillating, when Nigeria would launch attack after attack. If they made better decisions in the final third, the game would have been a rout. Now of course, in classic global soccer style, the Africans were billed as the underdogs and outsiders, and the announcers expressed consistent surprise at their abilities. As always.
There’s a reason of course, and no, it’s not just subtle paternalistic western racism. The Ivory Coast were creamed 10-0 by the Germans. Yes, 10. Granted, Germany are an incredible team. Stereotypes aside, incredibly efficient. But so technically gifted, and every player knew their role and worked hard for each other. Frankly, there couldn’t have been a worse match up for the poor Ivory Coast, who were at their first ever World Cup finals.
The poor women were completely overmatched. It really did look like they’d never played soccer before. Some of the defending was beyond amateurish, and not one player could complete a 30 yard pass. But that’s the point. Just like when Zaire were trounced 11-0 by Yugoslavia all those years ago in 1974, it’s about the experience, it’s about the opportunity, and the Ivorian women will come back stronger and better next time around.
That’s actually been one of the fascinating sub-plots to the World Cup. It’s been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, which has opened to door to more participants, allowing the women’s game to grow. So yeah, when Nigeria took the field against Sweden, everyone expected Sweden to win, easily. Because, you know, African teams aren’t good. On the flipside though, Cameroon and Ecuador were both first time competitors, and Cameroon won 6-0. So there.
Tonight, the French are playing the English, which should be one hell of a game. The French are one of the best teams in the world, and the English are… well, the English. They at least think they have a chance.
Now, one final, and incredibly important thought.
For once, the focus is solely on women, which is unlike most other global sporting events. (specifically the Olympics) It started with the opening ceremonies. Not a man in sight. Just women and girls dancing and celebrating. Mothers, daughters and grandmothers. It was beautiful to see.
Then the teams walk out, all women, the refs, all women, and for once, for 90 minutes, we were watching women play sports. And enjoying it. This almost never happens, except for women’s hockey at the Olympics. It’s the only other time we cheer for our women athletes en-masse. And you know what? Hockey isn’t the same. For one, you can’t really see the women’s faces when they’re playing. With soccer, they’re impossible to miss, hair flowing, faces straining, all the emotion and energy and passion on display for the world to see. For the world to see that women are athletes too, passionate and strong and dedicated and focussed. But also, women’s hockey is just part of the Olympic experience. With the World Cup, soccer is the only event, and the stars are all women.
Sadly, we still live in a patriarchal society, where the women’s world cup is trumpeted as a sign of progress, and rightly so, but that it has to be trumpeted at all speaks volumes. At the end of the day, it’s all about the 8 year old girls around the world watching women perform on the global stage, believing that perhaps one day it’ll be them. 30 years ago this wasn’t possible. There was no Women’s World Cup. And fuck me, every time I write “Women’s World Cup” I feel weak. It should just be the World Cup. Progress is slow.