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A Summer Fairy Tale

Three views on the FIFA Women's World Cup's exciting weekend

Abby Wambach

Brandi Chastain, Put Your Shirt Back On.

Kate Hasler Steilen on the United States women’s national team’s latest triumph.

The quarterfinal match between the United States and Brazil was supposed to be a referendum on the state of women’s soccer. If the U.S. lost, Pia Sundhage’s job would be in jeopardy, the side would be demoted to second-tier status, and every question about its preparation and the skill of its players would be answered, resoundingly, in the negative. Perhaps, more importantly, a loss would have tested the world’s attention span for the Women’s World Cup — with Germany and the U.S. out, would anyone watch the last two rounds of play? If Brazil won, its narrative of the women’s team, its talent, its struggle for support in its own country, would be one step closer to completion. The team of Marta would be two matches away from its first title and could stand toe-to-toe with the United States and Germany.

Given the significance of the match, it was wholly appropriate, even gratifying, that what unraveled was a marathon of differing intensities. Brazil versus the USWNT was calm, boring, fast, slow, insane, terrible, unbelievable, laughable, and profane. When the minutes hit triple digits, I began to wonder how many bladders in Dresden were close to bursting. That was the sort of fullness the match demanded.

Too often, international soccer is a fluky game. Histrionics are endured and rarely punished. Rules are somehow exceedingly difficult to decipher, interpret, and enforce (one hears a little snicker, from FIFA, here). If we thought the women’s version of soccer was cleaner, kinder, or less cynical — echoing John Wooden’s assertion that the women of basketball play the more original game, with all the purity that the female constitution should require — U.S. vs. Brazil provided a compelling counterexample. What happened on the pitch Sunday wasn’t pretty, pure, or polite. It was dirty, sweaty, and controversial.

But more than anything, it was ugly.

After being gifted an own-goal in the second minute, the U.S. did not do much more than defend and defend in numbers. This strategy would have been fine, but Rachel Buehler, Christie Rampone, Amy LePeilbet, and Ali Krieger, though organized, could not hold or move the ball forward. As they have throughout the tournament, the center mids failed to control the game. To cause further worry, the outside mids, who had been the strongest performers, looked shaky and did not play up to expectation. Heather O’Reilly was quiet, detached, and rarely in view. Lauren Cheney, practically a wizard against Colombia and Sweden, was repeatedly out of play.

In the 23rd minute, Marta shot through the defense with the ball, Rampone on her heels. Marta had to rush her shot but got off a strong effort that sailed high.

But the message had been sent: Marta was not fucking around anymore.

The U.S. had a scoring chance in the 26th minute when Amy Rodriguez broke out and shot directly at Andreia. Rodriguez was offside, but the Krieger cross that set up the nullified shot marked the first time the United States had really broken through the Brazilian defense. After that missed opportunity, Brazil settled down and began to work. In previous matches, if Brazil was given a hint of an opening — a long, on-point pass or a run down the middle — goals were scored. They had been scoring differently and scoring the way they wanted — neat sliding crosses, volleys, and nimble footwork.

At the start of the second half, the pace accelerated, and, in many ways, the true nature of both sides was revealed. The difference between the United States and Brazil can be seen whenever a player touches the ball. An American player will move, but rarely waits for the play to develop. She attacks, passes, and shoots quickly, or even sends the ball forward without an obvious target. The ball is mostly sent up in the air or sent hard at the goal from a direct angle. This technique can work, but it doesn’t provide flow, buildup, or rhythm.

The Brazilian player, on ball, hesitates and evaluates. She stops and usually rolls backwards, evaluating her options. Only then does she make her move. Those moves are as often sideways as they are forward, but when they get going forward, they are extremely quick and skilled. Marta and Cristiane both take the time to draw defenders or scoot around them before placing their shot.

For 121 minutes, Marta’s performance reflected the superiority of the Brazilian approach. The penalty in the 65th came at the end of a blistering run, highlighted by a tricky touch over the heads of two defenders. There is little doubt she would have scored that goal if Buehler had not made contact. Why Marta did not step up and finish the first PK herself remains unclear, but when Cristiane failed to convert, Marta took over and buried the second chance.

Her goal in the 92nd minute was one of the signature moments of the tournament — even the angriest USWNT fan had to pause and give props where they were deserved. Marta made a near-post run away from the defense to nab a cross from Maurine, and with Boxx right on her, off-balance and falling back, Marta shot the ball up, over, around, and into the side of the net.

Throughout the match, Marta put on a defiant and daring face. When the five-time world player of the year received her yellow card in the 45th minute, Abby Wambach had been spending more time on the ground than all the Brazilian players combined. Marta’s outburst, while churlish, must have come out of competitive frustration. Although the crowd turned on her, Marta created a watershed moment in women’s soccer in which the world’s best player screamed at the world’s second-best player, as if to say, “Come on! Stop diving and play!”

It took Wambach until the last possession of the match to respond to Marta’s call.

After the penalty debacle, both teams withstood attacks and pushed the ball into their offensive third, winning corners. Although the panic must have been swirling on the bench, the USWNT stuck with its trusted starters. This steady hand was what set up the final goal. Wambach’s equalizer came off an incredible whip from super-sub Megan Rapinoe — Rapinoe, beyond Hope Solo and Wambach, was the best player, integral throughout, and had almost created an earlier goal by serving Lloyd, whose header hit crossbar in the 63rd. It seemed, however, in the closing minutes, that she was exhausted. Her corners were too long, or not on spot.
And then she, too, found her spirit on her final touch in the 122nd minute, the cross to Wambach.

Late in the match, after wacky calls, and a litany of cards, the prospect of a comeback is slim, at best. By pressing until the very last possession of the game, the USWNT proved their confidence was justified; their fitness, great; their resilience, without equal. And although these characteristics are difficult to quantify and oftentimes fall by the wayside of sports clichés, the USWNT proved itself to be mentally and emotionally superior — it did not let the antics of the Brazilians (and the referees) defeat it, and in the end, it asserted its version of the game in the most dramatic fashion possible.

The equalizer in injury time was classic USWNT — the goal came on a long, aerial, centering pass to Abby Wambach, the biggest, baddest girl on the pitch; the perfect connection.

If the USWNT had looked beatable, if it seemed to lack patience, in this particular referendum on women’s soccer, it was exactly the acknowledgment of its fallibility and its wholly American impatience that led to the win. In the final moments of the match, inspired by its keeper — the livid and fiery Solo — and pushed forward by its offensive stalwart, the flying Wambach, the USWNT did not stall or falter, and produced one of the toughest, most inspiring displays the sport has ever seen.

Kate Hasler Steilen is a contributor to Grantland. Follow her on Twitter at @ksteilen


Happy Upsets

Jenna Pel on Japan’s storybook upset over Germany.

German soccer fans affectionately remember the 2006 FIFA Men’s World Cup as the “Summer Fairy Tale.” The tournament’s party atmosphere produced scenes of national pride that had long been frowned upon. The German flag became a hip fashion accessory rather than a reminder of the perils of nationalism.

The 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup was supposed to have a similarly inspiring effect on women’s soccer in the host nation. The sport remains rather stigmatized, particularly (and perhaps paradoxically) in football-mad countries like Germany, which has made remarkable strides to overcome a rather checkered past. Women in West Germany were banned from playing soccer from 1955 to 1970. After the ban was lifted, the German Women’s National Team reentered the international fray, and eventually reached an impressive level of dominance.

The team looked set on claiming an unprecedented third consecutive world championship this year. The side was stocked with talent that bridged generations. Prolific forward Birgit Prinz had been a constant fixture in Germany’s front line since the mid-90s and announced her intentions to retire immediately after the tournament concluded. Standout teenagers Alexandra Popp and Kim Kulig helped Germany’s youth team romp to the 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in the previous summer.

On Saturday, hosts and heavy favorites Germany bowed out to Japan 1-0 in the quarterfinals. It was the earliest Germany had ever been eliminated from a FIFA Women’s World Cup. It also marked the first time Japan had ever advanced to the semifinals.

It’s not that Japan outplayed Germany as much as it outlasted the superior side. Japan appeared calm and composed while the Germans played anxious and lackadaisical. Ninety minutes of regular time plus 18 minutes of extra time later, Japan’s Karina Maruyama finished a lovely effort that pierced a fatigued German defense. Germany couldn’t mount a comeback.

The Japanese were deserved winners. The team’s technical skill and sleek possession-oriented style put Germany in the unfamiliar position of having to chase down the ball. On the defensive side, Japan’s back four put forth a near-flawless performance. Center back Saki Kumagai constantly tracked Germany’s predatory attackers Inka Grings and Celia Okoyino da Mbabi and ably cleared away oncoming crosses and shots. Japan’s women’s national team has long been considered a rising power but had never managed to match its proficient technical skill with clinical end product in front of goal.

Its victory doubled as a tribute to a country that continues to rebuild after this year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami. Among those affected was standout outside back Aya Sameshima, who was a member of Tepco Mareeze, a club in Japan’s domestic women’s soccer league that was shut down because of its proximity to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Germany’s recent success has been staggering. The two-time defending world champion is winner of seven of eight UEFA European Championships. Entering the tournament, the national side had yet to concede a goal in a World Cup since 2003. Its squad featured 13 previous World Cup holders — the most of any other team in the tournament by some measure.

That level of success couldn’t be achieved without the stylistic characteristics that made Germany a powerhouse in international men’s soccer, too: efficiency, discipline, and mental fortitude.

Well, perhaps not that last bit. Not now, at least.

Germany’s track record of success coupled with Japan’s emerging status means the 1-0 victory may well be considered the biggest upset in women’s soccer history.

Saturday’s result outdoes the United States’ 2-1 loss against upstart Mexico in regional World Cup qualifying last November. It’s difficult to feel a sense of schadenfreude from it, even as a red-blooded American. And that’s a strange thing to admit considering it was Germany that had knocked the U.S. women’s national team off its perch in the semifinals of the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The U.S. spent the rest of the decade trying to reclaim the glory of the 99ers days in a post-Mia Hamm world. Germany, though, would have none of it and became the first team to win consecutive world championships in the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

A third world title seemed like a given, which was probably the team’s tripwire.

That and the pressure. An excessive amount of pressure. The country was determined to stage the best organized and best attended Women’s World Cup ever. A victory by the best team in the world (conveniently the host) was almost guaranteed.

At least it seemed so judging by the unprecedented level of hype in the buildup to the event. Kicker, Germany’s most prominent soccer magazine, devoted an entire issue to the tournament.

More still, a legion of national literary figures had been commissioned to pen sonnets and poems about the team’s players that would run in German print publications.

The heavy expectations carried considerable weight, and Germany showed early signs of cracking.

The team appeared tentative in its opening match against Canada in a near-capacity Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. Germany emerged with a 2-1 win, but looked even more tense against a dogged Nigeria side in its next group match.

It took 54 minutes for Germany to break down the team it had dismantled 8-0 in an international friendly eight months prior. The hosts scraped by with a slim 1-0 victory and walked off the pitch to a chorus of hisses that indicted dissatisfaction from the packed Frankfurt crowd.

After the match, Die Zeit, Germany’s most widely read weekly newspaper, asked veteran outside midfielder Melanie Behringer how the team was dealing with such demands.

“One has the feeling that [the national team] must save the country and strengthen the position of women in society. Is this an issue the team is aware of?” the journalist inquired.

Perhaps a sense of irony got lost in translation, but Christ, the position of women in society? Who could possibly withstand that amount of pressure? The team wasn’t only expected to win a women’s soccer tournament, it was also expected to spark some kind of social revolution.

Germany needed to manage the stress well as it faced upstart France in its final group stage match. The team claimed a victory, but in doing so, allowed two goals in a World Cup match for the first time since 1999. That also marked the last time Germany had lost in a Women’s World Cup match; a record now in tatters after Saturday’s defeat.

So for the German women’s national team, this summer probably feels more like a nightmare, and it’s tough not to feel a little sympathetic. But for Japan, a team that traveled from an earthquake-ravaged country to beat the best in the world, the fairy-tale promise of this summer continues.

Jenna Pel covers women’s soccer for the blog All White Kit. Follow her on Twitter at @jenna_awk.


Hope Solo

New American Heroes

Chris Ryan on the new heroes of U.S. women’s soccer.

Epics need heroes. Yesterday’s epic match between Brazil and the United States produced, at the very least two of them. Here’s how Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo became household names in a little more than two hours.

Dwight Clark can have “The Catch.” Megan Rapinoe now has “The Pass.”

You could call Rapinoe’s pass to Wambach a Hail Mary, but that takes away from how precisely calibrated her 30-some-odd-yard cross really was. The gorgeous, arcing ball seemed to hold up in the air just enough to goad Brazil’s keeper, Andreia, into coming out for it. But Andreia got it wrong, punching at nothing as the ball hit Wambach’s forehead and ricocheted in.

After scoring, after screaming so loud everyone back home in the States could hear her, and after being mobbed by her teammates, Wambach, towering over the other American women hugging her, looked toward something coming toward her. And there it was: Megan Rapinoe jumping into her arms.

“I don’t think I’ve ever hit a cross with my left foot that well,” Rapinoe said after the game. It was reminiscent of the kind of psychic, centimeter-perfect passes that made Juan Roman Riquelme into a national folk hero in his home country of Argentina.

There’s the fairy-tale version of this story that focuses on Megan Rapinoe missing two years of national team action and nearly having her promising, fledgling career derailed by multiple ACL injuries. And how her hard work, determination, and never-say-die attitude was rewarded with her Cup-saving, 35-yard rainbow cross to Abby Wambach in the 122nd minute.

And now here’s the better version of the story: Megan Rapinoe is an absolutely awesome American human being, and if she isn’t doing the Top Ten on Letterman by the end of July then we should just put Lady Justice on a milk carton and call her “missing.”

Look, anyone who celebrated a goal against Colombia by running over to a field microphone, tapping it to see if it was on and then singing Bruce Springsteen to the television audience at home, is going to Valhalla, as far as I’m concerned.

And anyone who steps up to the spot, as she did against Brazil in the penalty shootout, throws a cocky look to the sideline, crushes a penno, then does a totally earned, drop-the-mic-and-turn on the Brazilian keeper — like this 5-foot-7 woman from Redding, Calif., was suddenly possessed by the spirit of Rakim — and screams something into the air that, even in that most pressurized of situations, made her teammate Alex Morgan crack up … well, that person is my kind of athlete.

Megan Rapinoe

Hope Solo is not here to make friends.

When you talk about the United States women’s national team, you think teamwork and camaraderie. In her postgame press chats, Hope Solo stuck to that script (and, man, did these gals talk a lot about scripts): about never giving up and believing in her teammates and everything else, telling reporters after the match, “There is something special about this group. That energy, that vibe.”

But right there under the surface, taking digs at Brazil’s time-wasting, or calling Marta a diver, or her just-a-little-underminey quotes about how she got no explanation for why her 65th-minute penalty save was waved off, you felt that Solo’s real vibe that wasn’t so sunny.

Solo’s dark edge could be attributed to plenty of things, but there’s one thing we know for certain: If Hope Solo is a little bit different from the other players on the USWNT, it’s because she’s a goalkeeper. And goalkeepers are crazy.

Have you ever actually watched Gianluigi Buffon’s or Tim Howard’s eyes? Have you ever watched them strip paint off the walls with tirades at their defenders? Does that look normal to you? Do they seem totally well-balanced and always rational? No! Are they capable of being human brick walls and marshaling an entire defense at the same time? Yes. And that’s who you want standing on that white line for you.

There’s no “I” in team, but this woman’s last name is Solo. Some may recall, in 2007, when the extremely talented keeper was replaced in the World Cup semifinal by veteran Briana Scurry. Solo’s reaction, following the team’s loss, had the kind of candidness usually reserved for confessional interviews in reality shows: “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. And the fact of the matter is it’s not 2004 anymore. It’s not 2004. And it’s 2007, and I think you have to live in the present. And you can’t live by big names. You can’t live in the past.”

That kind of brash, conceited, locker-room-poisoning rant might have buried Solo and ended her national team career, but (a) she was probably right, and (b) that is exactly how a goalkeeper is supposed to think.

To be a goalkeeper is to accept that, no matter what, if your team loses, it is probably your fault. To be a goalkeeper is to rely on something as unreliable as your reflexes. It is to trust your own intuition above all else. It is to sacrifice your body, your reputation, and your self-esteem as many times as is called for over the course of the game. And it is to believe that, yes, you might be responsible for losing the game, but if you’re good, you might be the one who wins it.

Hope Solo is, by most accounts, the best female keeper on the planet. But for as much as her skill and talent and instincts and reflexes helped her save two penalties yesterday, it was her unwavering, questionably arrogant self-belief that won the game.

She is not here to make friends. Thank god for that.

Chris Ryan is a staff writer at Grantland.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Colombia and to clarify that Megan Rapinoe was not a starter for the United States.

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