Shock And Disbelief As A Global Soccer Powerhouse Is Downed
Germany vs Sweden
Days later, I’m still surprised.
This is why I’m not a betting man. I barely covered Germany vs Sweden in my last analysis because it felt like such a lock. I mean, I watched the Americans handle the Swedes fairly easily in the group stage. The final was 2-0 but it could have easily been 5-0. Despite the nervousness of Americans going into that match, where Sweden had so often had the USA’s number, the match itself wasn’t particularly notable and it felt like something had changed.
Change, then, is possible. That was the takeaway I missed.
Because Sweden hadn’t beaten Germany in women’s match play for like a quarter century. And nothing I saw from Germany, with the exception of the injury to star Dzeniffer Marozsan, suggested there was any reason to believe this outcome would buck that trend.
Indeed, I expected Canada to beat Sweden in the opener of the round of sixteen. The Canadian team felt fresh and young and full of jukes while Sweden looked…I don’t know…more predictable.
But Sweden beat Canada handily. It wasn’t a particularly memorable game, but you really had the sense that Canada would need a break of some kind, a gift really, to pull even. When Hedvig Lundahl saved a Janine Beckie penalty kick, that gift went the way of the dodo.
So Sweden was set to face Germany. Ho hum. Okay. Germany wins, obviously. Moving on.
But Sweden had other plans. Germany scored first on a kick-ass goal in the 16th minute where Lina Magull got a knifing bouncer and instead of waiting to settle it she fell sideways and pinged the half-volley through the legs of an approaching Hedvig Lundahl.
Germany was up 1-0.
And I was like oh.
Because the goal felt like a statement goal. Like WE ARE GERMANY. It had the faint whiff of theatricality to it.
But no one on Sweden was paying attention.
Especially not Swedish striker Sofia Jakobsson.
Her goal five minutes later was not theatrical. It was not the offspring of a thousand butterfly kisses off the toes of allies to feather a curling goose into the kill box. It was an old fashioned long ball.
I’m gonna send you, and you’re going to outrun the competition.
Maybe that’s what made it so alarming. Because Jakobsson split through the heart of the German defense and wedged a running bunny past the kick-save mechanics of German goaltender Almuth Schult.
And for the first time in this tournament, Germany could be scored upon. They were vulnerable.
The next few minutes, though, are what set the tone for the rest of the match. Unlike many other teams, Germany hadn’t really overcome any hardship in the tournament. No dangerous goals, never trailing, no scary moments, no come from behind wins. Everything to that point had gone exactly as planned.
So it would be interesting to see how they responded with a nick in their armor. And the answer was that they had trouble mustering an efficient response.
From that point on, Sweden surged. They played with a sense of urgency and had that feeling of a team who could taste it. They controlled play and started to put together some offense while Swedish keeper Lundahl started to have the look of a player who would not be beat again.
It was only a few minutes after halftime when the Blågult would get the go-ahead goal. Jakobsson speeds down the right wing, gets position on the defender and chips a beautiful, hanging watermelon over near-post scavenger Stina Blackstenius and onto the head of far-post charging Fridolina Rolfö. Rolfö redirects a gorgeous backside header toward the far panel and it’s all German goalie Schult can do just to get a hand on it and drop it to the waiting feet of Blackstenius who pounds it netward.
And the earth shook.
My kids were jumping up and down in the living room and high fiving. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Germany was down.
Germany was losing.
I’m not sure I breathed for the next half an hour while Germany tried to get even. But even as they did, Sweden kept compiling the better chances. A counter by Sweden at the 70th minute looked promising before Blackstenius lost her footing and fell down a few meters from the goal before pulling the trigger. In the 77th minute, Jakobsson again gave herself a shooting lane and roasted a searing shot at the net which was turned away ably by Schult.
But where were the German tries? Where was the piercing passing that snuck Lina Magull tiptoeing onside past the sweepers on the svenska damfotbollslandslaget?
Nowhere to be found.
The final whistle blows. Sweden wins.
It’s pandemonium. Polite pandemonium, because Swedes, but wild bliss wrapped in blue and yellow. Moments like this — getting over the hump moments — are so rare and beautiful in sport. It’s a you-had-to-be-there-to-understand type vibe.
But Sweden bests a side that had been the bane of their international experience since the nineteen-nineties, and in doing so, automatically qualifies for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Germany goes home, and one wonders if there won’t be some high-level soul searching for Die Nationalelf in specific and the DFB in general, especially in light of the jaw-dropping departure of the men’s side in the 2018 men’s World Cup.
Dark days for Germany as they face the inevitable sturm und drang that accompanies this level of disappointment. Heady days for Sweden, and the great train of futbol chugs on to the horizon, carrying the dreams of children upon it.
England smokes Norway
I expected more of a match in some of the other quarterfinal battles. Norway was riding on the crest of a wave coming into this match, while England sort of stumbled in after an oddly poor — but winning — performance against Cameroon.
But this match was all England.
Lucy Bronze played out of her head in this match. The first goal was her pressing the right line, then crossing. Ellen White whiffed on a slow roller like a drunk trying to kick a can of Coors light down an alley. It was the biggest whiff I saw in the whole tournament. She whiffed so hard I threw my back out. But the ball rolled past her and luckily Jill Scott was there to sashay into the ball enough to send it off the far post and in.
It was a terrible goal.
I mean, all goals are great goals, but holy mackerel that was ugly. One player strikes out on an easy one timer and the second almost gets faked out by her teammate’s galactic miss. Thank goodness for Ellen White that she’s generally playing excellent soccer and that England won this game or she’d be looking at a dose of national scorn and years of EMDR therapy.
Ultimately, that’s all England would need, though they did tack on a couple more goals for good measure, the last of which, by Lucy Bronze, was one of the best goals of the tournament. She hit that puppy with authority. It’s such a profound thrill, as any soccer player will tell you, to catch a ball right, on the move, and blast it past a goalie. Even David Beckham, in attendance for the game, was like DAMN, GURL.
Norway’s back line was so shit that day that it boggles the mind how they made it that far to begin with. England absolutely victimized them all day. It was tough to watch. It makes you wonder about what Australia was thinking in their previous match. Missed opportunities killed them.
England advances with a 3-0 barnstorming and it could have been worse if not for a saved penalty kick by Norwegian goaltender Ingrid Hjelmseth, who had a stellar tournament. Norway grumbles about Ada Hegerberg and what might have been.
Italy vs Netherlands
The Oranje should have lost to Japan, but squeaked by.
The Italians won their group and whipped the Chinese in every phase of the game.
So I expected that Italy would blast the Orange pretenders out of the stadium on gameday.
But it didn’t go that way at all. Against Japan, the Netherlands looked plodding and lacking in intensity and playmaking. Against Italy they looked dominant. It wasn’t much of a game at all, to be honest.
I was hoping against hope that Italy would find a way to rekindle the passion and the magic that had made them a surprise darling of the tournament. I love a good cinderella story and on the Italian team, my girl Valentina Giacinti was playing with spirit.
But it wasn’t nearly enough.
The Netherlands looked amazing, outclassing the Italians on every line and in every part of the field. For a long time, the only thing keeping Italy in it was the outstanding play of goalie Laura Giuliani. She was amazing. In fact, on both set piece goals by The Netherlands, she actually got her hands on the ball and almost made saves on both, but the pace pushed each past her fingers.
Still, watching this, it was a fait accompli. It was only a matter of time until the Oranje scored and then they did and then they did again. Italy looked messy and lost. They barely generated any offense. They also looked wiped out by the 90-degree plus weather. You’d think a smoldering day might favor the country with it’s boot in the Mediterranean, rather than the one from slightly more northern climes, but that’s not how it played out. Italy racked up four desperation-based yellow cards and mailed the rest of their performance in. It was an inauspicious end to what had been a remarkable tournament for them.
One only wonders where Team Japan might have gone had they survived. Another World Cup final, perhaps?
USA vs France
The biggest and most anticipated match of the tournament did not disappoint unless you were rooting for Les Bleues. And even then, it was a feast of wonder.
Both teams are so damn good. Both are stacked to bursting with talented, excited players. Either could have come away with a W.
But the United States has scored in the first twelve minutes of every game they’ve played. That’s a shocking stat. It wasn’t even five minutes before Team USA was on the board. My family was still getting situated, bringing drinks to the living room, and BAM all of a sudden we’re jumping around and knocking said drinks over.
The first goal was just a nice set piece where they blocked the view of the shot from goaltender Sarah Bouhaddi, who has been awesome the whole tournament. People want to throw this goal at the feet of Bouhaddi but that’s nonsense. You can’t save what you can’t see. It’s how like half the goals in the NHL are scored. Screen the goalie, send a duck at the net. Rinse & repeat. When goalies are as good as Sarah Bouhaddi, taking their line of sight away is a good tactic and it paid dividends for the Americans.
But this was in no way a rout.
In fact, France never quit. They played their hearts out. Once the USA was up, they fell back to defense. France dominated possession, but at every turn the US defenders managed — sometimes by the skin of their teeth and other times by blind luck — to fend off the French onslaught. It was shockingly early when American coach Jill Ellis had everyone fall back into a 4-5-1 formation, which leaves only one player high and the rest playing defense.
Still, the entire game felt like France was a hair away from tying it up.
Renard. Torrent. Majri. Henry. Tiney. Le Sommer. Gauvin. It was player after player keeping the pressure on for France. Striker Kadidiatou Diani played the best game of her life. Every time she touched the ball something good happened. She looked like a player on the edge of taking the next big, dangerous step toward stardom. When they subbed Delphine Cascarino in it was like giving the team a shot of adrenaline. She plays with phenomenal drive and intensity. I can’t say enough about this team. They played their hearts out but the bounces didn’t go their way.
Part of it was to the credit of the US defense stepping up. Part of it was Tobin Heath who, like Diani, made good things happen with the ball every time she touched it.
Like in the 64th minute when she drove the line and rather than arcing a cross across the goal mouth, she sort of swiveled her hip and chipped the ball backwards diagonally, in a way that resembled an NFL kicker placing an onside kick.
The ball spun slowly past anyone who might tap it in, and directly to the path of late runner Megan Rapinoe who buried it for her second goal of the day. My family almost needed oxygen we were screaming so hard.
Because France was going to score next.
We felt it the whole match. The US scored right away, and then France poured it on. It was insane. They were going to score next for sure, until the USA did instead.
And that would have broken most teams.
But not France.
THEY WOULD NOT QUIT.
I can’t believe the heart of the women on the French team who kept plugging away down by two to the Americans. I can’t praise them enough for their effort and mental resilience and discipline and skill. They kept coming. Over and over.
The US scored again in the 74th minute but the goal was disallowed because of one of the most bullshit offsides calls I’ve ever seen. But whatever. France got robbed of a goal in their previous match vs. Brazil, so it seemed — if not fair, certainly — then at least universally equitable. All shall be fucked by VAR and know pain.
The disallowed goal made the French raise their game. It felt like a last chance. They kept attacking.
It took them to the 80th minute to break through.
Wendie Renard scored on a set piece goal that was right in their wheelhouse. It was headed with such competence and authority it may as well have been a skills clinic.
And just like that, with ten minutes left in regulation, the US lead was halved and the French could smell blood in the water.
The US team held out through regulation and five minutes into stoppage play before the final whistle sounded. It was not the prettiest game, but the plan worked and the US punched their ticket to a second consecutive semifinal match.
France, cheered by their fans at home in a heroic if failing effort, will watch the rest of the tournament from the stands. It was a bittersweet win, but a win nonetheless, and now the American team sails toward another title.
“That was the most intense match I have ever been a part of.” Said American coach Jill Ellis.
And she’s not joking. That match was everything it was promised to be and more. And while my heart breaks for our French friends, and the celebrations that might have been, it was certainly a game for the ages.
But will they have the juice? England looked powerful in their quarterfinal match and players like Lucy Bronze and Nikita Parris and Beth Mead are peaking at the right time.
Still, the US has survived back to back nail-biters and managed to overcome. Will they suffer a letdown after knocking off a true contender in Les Bleues? And will England make the most of the chances they get?
It all remains to be seen. I’ve been shocked by so many things in this World Cup that I hesitate to even venture a guess, but I will say that a victory by England, while they’re certainly capable of it, would be an upset that would mark the single biggest moment of the Cup draw thus far.
We’ll see. The England team has undeniable skill, weird dye-jobs and one player who wears enough mascara to paint a Jack Skellington on the side of a white van. I’d say the sky’s the limit for them.
Today, at 3 pm eastern, they drop the ball and two allies will become fierce rivals, if only for a few hours.
And then on Wednesday, Sweden takes on The Netherlands in a match I will just watch with no agenda at all except enjoyment. On the one hand, Netherlands looks like they’ve righted the ship and is playing with that magic that crowned them European champions. On the other hand, Sweden just beat Germany, which means they can beat anyone.
Should be a great match, no matter the outcome.
And that’s all the futbol news for the moment as most of us settle in for the big game this afternoon. Will we be cheering or jeering? Only time will tell.
Header Image Source: Getty Images
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