Wow, that game had everything, didn’t it? Everything except a streaker. And a jaw-dropping coaching blunder. And Hope Solo discovering a terrorist plot and foiling it by single-handedly taking down an army of bad guys commanded by some Euro-accented heavy. Even without these things, USA’s women still appear to have caught the drama bug from the U.S. men’s soccer team. They won one of the most thrilling games in Women’s World Cup history, defeating Brazil on penalty kicks. How can USA’s remaining two World Cup games possibly top this?
(It’s early for a side note, but yes, there will be two games. Even if USA loses the semifinal match on Wednesday, it’ll still play a third-place game next weekend.)
Much of the press coverage Stateside is hammering Brazil for its turn to what the British call “the dark arts” of soccer. The Brazilians’ flopping, time-wasting, injury-faking, and relentless working of the officials were pretty clear to see. It’s worth pointing out that the Japanese team didn’t indulge in any of these antics during their stunning upset victory over the Germans, when they took the lead with 12 minutes remaining and had to kill off the rest of the game. Brazil’s display was unedifying, yet it was constructive. For one thing, it showed that the Women’s World Cup now means enough to enough of the world that people find it worth their while to cheat for it. Also, it deflates the whole myth that the women’s game is somehow purer and more honest than the men’s.
And, of course, it made it that much more satisfying to see the Brazilians give up the last-minute goal and then lose the penalty shoot-out. Sports thrives on good guys and bad guys, and the Brazilians have been spoiling for the bad guy role ever since their group-stage match against Norway, when Marta knocked down a Norwegian defender (a much larger player who nevertheless fell over rather easily, I thought at the time) on her way to scoring a sublime goal. It wasn’t just the antics in the US-Brazil game itself that caused the neutral fans in Dresden to turn on Marta and the Brazilians; there was history there.
Marta was far from the worst offender on her own team, but she’s gotten the lion’s share of abuse because she is capable of such sublime play. The quality of her second goal against USA has rather been overshadowed. It was an incredible piece of skill; with her back to the goal at an extreme angle and Shannon Boxx on her hip, she managed in one fluid move to turn and curl a shot around Boxx, up over Solo, off the far post, and in the net. No wonder Solo was enraged; there’s nothing she, her teammates, or her coaches could have done to prevent that. No one is talking about this goal now, and there’s no one to blame for that but Marta and her teammates, but it wouldn’t have been shameful for USA to lose to such a goal.
Before we overdose on moral superiority, we should remember that USA’s Carli Lloyd should have been sent off early in the second half for a stupid handball when she was already on a yellow card, and Alex Morgan got away with punching a Brazilian defender in the shoulder late in the second overtime. However, both of these incidents (along with many others) went unseen by the Australian officiating crew. The officials are also taking a good kicking, even though USA’s ultimate win should have gotten them off the hook. I actually don’t have a problem with the red card given to Rachel Buehler in the 65th minute and the subsequent penalty. It was a denial of a goal-scoring opportunity, and though you can argue that the triple-whammy punishment of these infractions is too harsh (expulsion of player plus penalty kick plus suspension of player for next game), those are still the rules. Allowing Brazil to retake the penalty, though, was at best a case of selective enforcement. Referee Jacqui Melksham deserves credit for this much: After Erika faked her injury late in the second overtime, only to run back onto the field after being carried off on a stretcher, the ref not only punished Erika with a yellow card but also put three minutes of stoppage time on the clock. Karmically, USA used the extra time to score its equalizer, which I’m sure hurt Erika far more than the yellow card.
As many observers noted, USA reacted so well to the red card that it often didn’t seem to be playing with only 10 players. The flip side of this is that Brazil seemed to mysteriously forget that they had the man advantage (so to speak). When they had the ball, they didn’t look to find the open player. Had they spent some of the time after the 92nd minute looking for a third goal instead of trying to kill the clock, they might have put away USA. Much is being said now of Wambach and Solo, but Megan Rapinoe’s cross for Wambach’s goal atoned for a string of terrible free-kick crosses and corner kicks, while Amy LePeilbet vindicated Coach Pia Sundhage’s faith in her by having a much better game than she did against Sweden.
Now Coach Sundhage has to bring her team down and get them ready for a semifinal match against France. The French are really, really good. Then again, I said that about the Germans in my previous post, and they’re out of the tournament. Hang on, the French are really, really good. They’ll have starting goalkeeper Berangère Sapowicz back after she served a red-card suspension of her own, and they play a different style than the Brazilians, one that involves lots of ball retention in midfield through the slick passing of Gaëtane Thiney and Sandrine Soubeyrand. The Frenchwomen don’t have the legacy of USA, Germany, or Brazil. They don’t have the legacy of the French men’s team, either, though unlike their male compatriots, they appear to be somewhat functional. Their soccer is free-flowing and attractive, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they took down USA.
In the meantime, there’s meaningful assessments at All White Kit and at Big Soccer. And for sheer hilarity, nothing matches this minute-by-minute commentary in The Guardian by Paolo Bandini, which includes lots of Star Wars references.