I know, I know...here it's nearly the end of the first week of the 2011 Women's World Cup and I haven't written a word about it!
Trust me, it's not because I'm not interested. This year, though, I haven't been watching the tune-ups and friendlies that lead up to the Big Dance, so I wanted to give the sixteen teams invited a chance to show what they brought. I wanted to look around a little rather than plunge ignorantly forward. But every team had played one game, and now I feel confident enough of my ignorance to talk a little about this year's finals.No changes in the set-up; sixteen teams; five from UEFA (Germany, the host, France, England, Norway, and Sweden), three from CONCACAF (The US, Canada, and Mexico), two from CONMEBOL (Brazil and Columbia), two from CAF (Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea), and, rather surprisingly, three from the AFC (North Korea, Japan, and - rather improbably - Australia). The Kiwis are the representative of the "OFC", a fairly ridiculous confederation representing the tiny nations of the western Pacific.
So; I have no illusion that any comments of mine about the teams, and the results so far, will carry any weight beyond my own opinion. But, hell, what's the good of having a blog if you can't talk shit on it? So let's go!
Group A: Germany, Canada, Nigeria, France
Germany: The weltmeistershaftin still looks the class of this tournament. Their opening match dissection of Canada was accomplished with their signature style; arrogantly confident and methodical. Today's 1-0 beating of Nigeria means that they will go through to the quarterfinals. Hard to see them as anything but the favorite to win everything again.
Quarterfinals: 100% (duh!)
Canada: A decade ago the Canadian women's national team had a great player, Charmaine Hooper, and managed to play just well enough to get beaten regularly by the USWNT. Hooper played for Canada for twenty years and earned the reputation as a rough player and a hard-to-like person. It's easy for me to understand why; her team, typically a collection of bobos, never managed to play up to her expectations. The current Canadian women's team has another wonderful player, Christine Sinclair. Her goal against Germany in the opening game was a strike of exceptional beauty. But I'm afraid that unless the CFA does something extreme in the next half-decade Chris is going to have a similar career. The Canadians are just good enough to make the top three in CONCACAF. And that's all. They have underperformed in every WWC they have played in except 2003. I'm sorry, Christine. You're a genuinely great player, and you deserve better.My predictions: Christine Sinclair has four years to assemble a team around her for 2015. If the CFA gets serious the next WWC may be Canada's only chance to have a go at Big Casino. Seeing Christine play the France game in obvious pain was difficult to watch. Her eyes, glaring out from inside that ludicrous facemask in hopeless rage, said all that needed to be said.France: The French women, unlike the French men, have never before been a factor in a World Cup. Their only previous appearance was an ignominious exit from the group stage in 2003. Their opening day win against Nigeria was unconvincing, but their destruction of a Sinclair-less Canada points to a very entertaining match with the Old Enemy, Germany.
Quarterfinals 100% (duh, again)
Nigeria: Women's football in Africa has been dire ever since 1991, and this year's African representatives appear to be little improvement, although Equatorial Guiana might even draw someone (we'll get to them later). Brutal hacking is the rule of the day in African football, and the women differ from the men only in degree. Nigeria's goalless exit from this year's WWC is just another argument against Sepp Blatter's insistence in expanding the finals from 16 teams. There's just not enough good soccer being played south of the equator to justify another team from CAF or CONMEBOL.
My predictions: The Nigerians are among the strongest of the men's sides in Africa, and the Super Falcons have been here before, going to the quarters in 1995. If the NFA ever gets serious about women's footy the Falcons might have a chance to make the step up to being a serious contender in world football. But at the moment, the Nigerian gals are just the latest scrimmage team provided by CAF for your amusement.
Group B: England, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand
England: The English have never gotten over the fact that they now pretty much suck at the game they invented. This year's England women's side, however, looks more promising than most. Their 2-1 defeat of the USWNT in a pre-finals friendly was a solid match, and they can both defend well and score. The draw against Mexico was a trifle surprising, but a one-goal match is never a good prediction of team play - one goal can be a fluke, or a moment's lapse, on the part of a good team. Their next match should be a one-sided walkover against the Kiwis, whose -20 goal differential is the worst in the finals outside the total unknowns like Colombia. If it isn't, there may be reason to worry that the Lionesses have reverted to the form that saw them failing to qualify for the finals in three of the six WWCs.My predictions:
Japan: I admit - I have a soft spot for the なでしこジャパン ever since their freakish 2-1 defeat of the mighty Brazilians back in 1995 between ugly 0-4 and 0-8 thrashings from the likes of Germany, Brazil, and the U.S. The hard-working little gals in dark blue have always seemed to me to represent the best of Japan; tireless, fierce teamwork and desire. Their skills are often lacking, and they will never be a genuine power in women's soccer.But they're in a chancy group, and they have the three points that needed to take (from the hapless Kiwis). If they can hold the English and Mexico to draws...well, I'd love to see the small women from Japan go to the quarters. (Update 7/1: Banzai! 4-0 and Japan is through! Great work, Japan, and good luck in the final eight!)
Champions: Not a hope. But - ganbare!
Mexico: The female Tri are something of a problem for me. They have typically been the "third-of-three" in CONCACAF behind the U.S. and Canada, and suffer from the usual macho-Latin handicap as most other Central and South American women's teams. Where they have succeeded it has been because they have poached Mexican-heritage players from U.S. college teams. But this year's edition looks to have some skills, and their finish above the U.S. in qualifying and group-stage draw against England suggests that they aren't intimidated by the traditional powers of the sport. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that they are going to win the next two matches and go through top of group. (Update 7/1: Wow - I couldn't have been wronger. The Tri stumbled badly against Japan and will now have to completely demolish New Zealand for any hope of going through. Once again, form doesn't hold in the women's game...)
Champions: 0.1%New Zealand: Honestly. Why are you here, ladies? You're the "heavyweights" of the ridiculous OFC, and so long as there IS an OFC you'll be here again and again. At least when Australia was in your confederation we got to see you alternate with the Matildas, but now we'll have to watch you give up goals and flail hopelessly against moderately good sides you have no hope of beating consistently. If there are living indictments of FIFA's greed New Zealand is one of them. Argentina is the other, but they're home watching on TV like the rest of us. Thank God.
Quarterfinals: 1%, if some sort of immense divine intervention upsets the rules of time and space. Otherwise they may well be celebrating their goal against Japan as the highlight of their international campaign - they've only scored once before, a meaningless goal in a 4-1 demolition at the hand of China's Steel Roses.
Group C: USA, Sweden, Columbia, North KoreaUSWNT: Aside from Germany and Brazil the U.S. women are the only other perennial favorites to take home the World's Cup. And this year's edition looks solid, as usual. But there have been some small, irking flaws showing, like a crazed finish on a Dresden plate, that suggests some internal weaknesses. The WNT underperformed in the CONCACAF qualifying, losing shockingly to Mexico and only going through after a playoff win against the UEFA half-share side, Italy. And the first match began rather unimpressively, with a U.S. backline making some unforced errors and looking very vulnerable around the wings. I'll bet that the Germans and Brazilians were smirking as they watched the films of U.S. left wingback Amy LePeilbet get beat to her endline several times by a quicker North Korean attacker. Even Julie Foudy, not the most perceptive of analysts, noted that the U.S. midfield was leaving a LOT of space ahead of their backline and the Koreans put that to good use.But. Pia Sundhage is a damn good coach, and I suspect that she will have already made some adjustments to fix that problem - kicking Shannon Boxx in the ass to make her play harder wouldn't hurt; she was invisible against the Koreans - and there's no question that her choice of Heather O'Reilly was a good one. Abby Wambach now has a strike partner, and the two of them combine to make a truly frightening weapon. And given that their next two games are against the pathetic Colombians and the lethargic Swedes, the U.S should have no trouble going through. That's not the problem. At that point they'll run into the Brazilians, or the Germans. And that IS going to be a problem.
Sweden: The Scandinavian women were the monsters of the sport in the late Eighties and early Nineties, but since then something has happened to football up in the land of the ice and snow. The Swedes have never won this thing but came close, losing the final match to Germany in 2003. But since then they seem to have shared the decline that Norway experienced. The next generation of Swedish players has either not emerged, or has failed to succeed at the top level. Watching the Swedes flail away against a hapless Colombia was painful, and their eventual 1-0 victory practically defines "unconvincing". They will have their hands full with the U.S., and even North Korea has the capability to surprise them. If the Swedes pull together and have a good outing against the Koreans and then hold the U.S. to a draw they might yet go through - they seem like they should be the second-best in this lacklustre little group. But the Swedes have always held the power to disappoint in abeyance.
Champions: 1%North Korea: The gals from the Hermit Kingdom played their usual ugly, bunkered, counterattacking style against the U.S. and made the American women look pretty stymied for 50 minutes. But the bizarre and secretive Koreans - who, we are told, claim that their first-match loss to the U.S. this past week was due to several players having been struck by lightning early in June - just don't have the horses to compete with the big girls. They are frustrating and difficult to play because they pack behind the ball, and they showed some nice runs against the U.S. But their lack of consistent attack makes it hard for them to advance. They're luck that they have Colombia to make a feast on, and they have the capability to shock the Swedes if the latter show up in their slow mode...
Predictions: Sill go home again after the first round to face an angry Kim Jong Il and a future of starvation on the Korean soccer clone farm.
Colombia: Well, at least it's not poor fucking Argentina again.
The U.S. best hope for a 4-goal win in the group stage. Hopeless.
Group D: Brazil, Norway, Australia, Equatorial Guinea
Brazil: The third of the big three, but, like the men's side, prone to being either at your throat or at your feet. Struggled to get the three points against a far-inferior Australian side. Again, the next game will probably show us which Brazil showed up at this finals. Still, it's hard to predict that the most creative side in women's football won't make it onto the quarters. But the Brazilians have always seemed curiously frail to me. They have never consistently figured out Germany, and are no better than an even chance against the USWNT. So I think they will run into the German buzzsaw at some point and go home.
Norway: Same-same problem here as Sweden. For whatever the reason, the Norwegians have not aged well. They're still among the best in Europe, but their game has become a parody of the clockwork lutefisk it once was, and they had a terrible time scoring even the one goal against the Guineans. Still a solid team and likely to advance to the quarters, but they will have to find a spark they haven't shown thus far if they want to advance to the final match.
Australia: So far, the inconsistent Matildas greatest contribution to women's international soccer was their nude calendar back in 2000and their tough 3-2 loss to Brazil in the quarterfinals of the 2007 WWC. I've never been able to figure the Aussie gals; they have played some fine games (like the Brazil quarterfinal) but then get hammered by sides like North Korea and Japan. They seem to draw almost exclusively from their domestic women's league, which suggests that, Lisa de Vanna aside, their players lack international skills. So far they have been beaten by Brazil, which is no disgrace, and showed some skill in doing so. A good result against Norway might see the Gals from Down Under through.My predictions:
Champions: Tie me kangaroo down, mate
Equatorial Guinea: Another poor punching bag from the CAF, albeit with some nice attacking skills. But the level of football just isn't there. Why, FIFA, why do you embarrass these not-ready-for-WWC teams from the global south? It's not like they're going to go on a tear at the finals.
My predictions: No hope, though it'd be nice to see them go all crazy on the Brazilians and get the upset win of all time.So. Here's my guesses for the rest of the tournament. I'll go on record now and we can revisit them to see how smart I am about soccer in general and the women's game in particular.
GermanyMeanwhile, the great spectacle drives on, and we are the beneficiaries, getting to see the best women's football in the world. Play up, ladies, and get tore in.