Oh how things change in a week.
I almost don’t know where to begin. So many surprises. So many amazing plays. So much controversy.
Australia vs Norway
Let’s jump in with Australia versus Norway. It was supposed to be a big day for Australia’s Sam Kerr but she never was able to quite get a handle on the ball, though it certainly wasn’t for lack of effort on her part or any of the Matildas, who played solid futbol. Kerr’s first chance came 23 seconds into the match when she got herself in great position to set the tone for Australia and pulled the shot into the post. Her facial expression after that was so tense that I worried the near miss would set a frustrating tone for her. Less than a shortcoming by Kerr, though, was the research and attention paid to her by the Norweigan defenders. They went stink on her all night and really limited the damage she was able to do.
The player of the match was on the other team. Caroline Graham Hansen is siiiiick. My goodness how she strikes the ball. She’s playing like a woman on a quest to burn a hole through the back of the net. This isn’t the first time she’s been a force in this World Cup but it felt bigger because the stakes were higher. Norway in general, from 39 year old goalie Ingrid Hjelmseth all the way through every line to the forwards are playing excellent soccer. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of play from this side. They had beaten Nigeria 3-0 but it didn’t feel earth shattering. Then they played well vs France to a degree where you thought there might be something there. The next victory over South Korea was a bit of a shoulder shrug. Norway had several breakdowns on defense and scored both goals from penalty kicks. I came away not really knowing what they were all about. But in this round of 16 win they’ve established their worth.
I hate when a game comes down to penalty kicks, but after two periods of extended time, that’s exactly what happened. Sam Kerr sailed her first shot over the net and Hjelmseth saved Australia’s second shot and that was just about all she wrote. Norway knifed in four straight goals during the penalty kicks and that was that.
Norway moves on, Australia shoves off.
But now I’m scared for England. Because Norway seems to be improving.
England, on the other hand…
England vs Cameroon
First of all, England vs Cameroon is the #3 ranked team in the world vs the #46 ranked team in the world. It makes you want to automatically pull for the underdog, no matter how you feel about England.
I can’t stress enough what a match like this means to an African nation, or any nation not among the G7. I’ve been in smaller or less developed countries during the Olympics and for other international sports events and the way it brings an entire country together around a single focal point can feel magical. And also sometimes it might have the faint whiff of shared desperation. Like the very future of that country swings in the balance of the team or the weightlifter or the judo specialist or the discus thrower. It crystallizes a people in a way that can be broadly connective. With African nations, set aside the history of imperialism or the various incursions of Europeans into the landmass directly south of them and just focus on the now. The difference in infrastructure. In the developmental programs of the nations. The exposure. The cultural differences between English and Cameroonian society. I mean, what does any average westerner really know about Cameroon?
Did you know that ‘President’ Paul Biya has been in charge since 1982? His personal police force, known as the Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide or BIR was accused in 2017 of a genocide in Southern Cameroon at the direction of Biya himself. Reports to the United Nations include accounts of students at university being raped by the BIR. It’s a shitshow right now in Cameroon. Did you know it’s basically in the middle of a civil war since about 2016-ish? Did you know that English-speaking separatists declared independence for the Northwest and Southwest territories of the country back in 2018 and that right now, at this very moment, they’re fighting for their lives?
It’s a lot. It’s just a lot any way you cut it.
So you know that Cameroon is amped up coming into the game as heavy underdogs. Their goalie makes an unfortunate error in the twelfth minute, giving England a bizarro indirect kick from the six yard line. Yeah. That’s basically in front of Cameroon’s own goal. It looks like this:
The English are able to score and it’s 1-0.
But Cameroon still plays hard. They stick with it even when an offsides call (correctly) leans in favor of England and they score their second goal in the 47th minute. Cameroon comes out fighting and scores a gorgeous goal seconds later but the goal is disallowed based on an offsides call that looks like this.
Yeahhhhh. That’s booooolshit.
Goal scorer and phenom Ajara Nchout can’t take it. Her emotions overwhelm her. The rest of the team is visibly frustrated. Things start to get out of hand in the second half. One Cameroonian player spits on an English player. That’s the moment that gave me pause as an athlete.
You spit on me? Everything goes out the window decorum-wise. I’ve gotten so heated playing sports over the years but I’d never even think to spit on a player. I’ve been in bench clearing brawls in baseball. I’ve been in more hockey fights than I care to remember. And one time in Sweden, during an international soccer tournament, we had a soccer fight. Like, a real fight. I was a striker for an American travelling team, playing against Team Mexico. I was at midfield, facing back toward my goal. My goalie punts the ball to me and as I’m looking up, waiting to take it off my chest and bring it to my feet, the guy defending me takes the back two metal spikes of his cleats and rakes them down my calf, tearing two gashes in my leg. The whole match instantly devolves into a fucking donnybrook. They just stopped the game and threw both teams out of the tournament. You could play soccer your whole life and never even HEAR of a fist fight, much less be in one. But even as crazy and surreal as that was, the thought to spit on someone never even crossed my mind. Not once in any of the situations I listed. That’s where it goes beyond sports and gets personal.
Sports fans everywhere appreciate good sportsmanship. (Except Philadelphia, obviously. That goes without saying.) People appreciate good sportsmanship in beer softball leagues and darts tournaments and when you’re walking to the supermarket and beat someone to the door but open it for them and let them go in first.
Likewise, poor sportsmanship is a curse. It’s a plague. It’s something that haunts players. And spitting on someone is just about the worst thing you can do outside of intentionally trying to end their career through injury.
So my initial reaction was one of revulsion and contempt. I was enraged at the Cameroonian player who did it, especially how she 100% did it intentionally and pretended it was accidental. It was vile.
But then I softened a bit when I considered everything going on in Cameroon, the unfair weight of expectations these women must be carrying and my personal ignorance about any possible differences in the cultural meaning of spitting on someone. Don’t get me wrong: the act pisses me off and that player should have been immediately bounced the fuck out of the world cup with the biggest, fastest red card in the history of the known world, but it’s not a reflection of the team or the nation of Cameroon. It’s just one person letting the frustration get to them.
Other players start to play dirty. Players are getting hurt. It generally sucks and is a bad look.
The game ends up England 3, Cameroon 0.
And to my eye, at least, England wasn’t great. Cameroon was piercing their defense all over the place. They looked undisciplined and sloppy.
If they try to come at Norway with that ‘weak ass shit’ as Crash Davis would say? They’re gonna get taken downtown. Today at 3 pm eastern.
Brazil vs France
I think the best matches of the World Cup this year have seemed to involve either Italy or Brazil, and sometimes both. Two exciting teams that play with passion, hustle like crazy, and leave it all on the field.
I wrote last week that I was worried for France because I thought they might be looking past Brazil to the United States and would get caught in a trap game.
Brazil was intense. I can’t say enough about the effort of that team. I came into the tournament with a question in my mind about the quality of goaltender Barbara and left with nothing but respect for her talent. She was great. And her full name is Bárbara Micheline do Monte Barbosa which I’m pretty sure is the most mellifluous name ever. Roll your r’s and say that puppy out loud. Goddamn that’s a great name.
Debinha is an absolute revelation and despite the presence of longtime superstars Marta and Christiana and Formiga, she was undoubtedly Brazil’s best player for the whole tournament. She’s just a dynamic playmaker. She has that rare gift of knowing where and when to exert pressure and having the speed and endurance to keep pressing. Her ball skills are awesome.
I cannot vouch for her other skills. But man, was she electric.
The French team had their work cut out for them in this match. It began with what I think was a poor call to take away a French goal in the 22nd minute. To me, that was a goal. The reasoning behind taking it off the board was that Brazilian goalie Barbara had possession, which appeared to be horseshit. That’s possession like I have possession of a million dollars. If you told me they wiped it away because the ball clearly hit French striker Valerie Gauvin in the front of the shoulder, which is part of the arm, which is a handball in soccer, I’d be more inclined to believe it. Because I’ll be frank: there isn’t a ton of handballing the ball into the goal in soccer.
But whatever. No goal.
Gauvin scores half an hour later.
So it’s 1-0.
Then Brazil scores but it’s ruled offsides. Until….VAR helps get the call right and it’s counted.
So it’s 1-1 when it should be 2-1.
But we go into extra innings and in the 109th minute, an arcing cross finds the stretching foot of Les Bleus captain Amandine Henry and her redirect into the corner of the net ends the match.
And so Brazil goes home, and with them goes international star and all time World Cup Goal Scoring Champion — for men and women — Marta.
But before she does she gives a frustrated, emotional interview where she speaks to the younger members of Team Brazil:
"Cry in the beginning so you can smile in the end"— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 23, 2019
Marta's message for Brazil's next generation will give you CHILLS. 💛💚 pic.twitter.com/waDAFlgM4F
It gave me chills.
Now, there’s certainly a version of this where you wonder why Marta feels the need to say it in public, as if doing so is a means to exonerate herself from the poor outcome. Like ‘hey- it wasn’t me and the older women. We work hard.’ But there’s really something to that. Marta is a fixture for a reason. This was not her best game and not her best World Cup, but what she’s done over the course of her career is the stuff of lore. It’s sad to see her go.
Nevertheless, France advances. To face the winner of Spain vs the United States.
Spain vs USA
I warned France about the trap game when I should have been warning America.
A week ago, I thought the American side looked all but impenetrable. After the last match vs Spain? Ooof. Not so much.
The Americans needed two penalty kicks from long time, outspoken activist and soon-to-be-Pajiba-10-dreamboat Megan Rapinoe to knock the Spanish side out of the tournament.
It was ugly as hell.
They also gave up their first goal of the tournament when American keeper Alyssa Naeher made a questionable pass to covered defender Becky Sauerbrunn, which resulted in a quick turnover and a lightning fast Spanish tally.
The play seemed to release a national groan that had been building for weeks around the fact that Naeher had never played in an Olympic or World Cup match before June. When pundits analyzed the American team, the biggest question mark was always in goal, where longtime standouts Hope Solo and Briana Scurry had always been viewed as stalwarts at the position.
In reality, the whole team was less than stellar.
All credit to Team Spain, who came out with a plan I loved. It reminded me of the way the New England Patriots defeated the St. Louis Rams — the “greatest show on turf” in Super Bowl 36 all the way back in 2002. The Rams were favored by two full touchdowns. They had a superstar running back named Marshall Faulk. The Patriots knew they couldn’t stop him, but they resolved to make him pay every time he touched the ball. They hit him as hard as they could on every play. No matter what, they made sure to pound him, and by the end of the game he was wiped.
Fast forward to this Women’s World Cup. The USA side is an overwhelming favorite with a superstar goal scorer named Alex Morgan. Spain knows they can’t stop her, but they’re going to make her pay.
From the opening whistle, they task defender Irene Paredes with the job of going staying on Morgan like white on rice. She shadows her. She hectors her. And any time Morgan gets the ball, Paredes physically smashes her.
Is this soccer? Is this allowed?
As long as the referee allows it, guess what? You keep doing it.
And that’s exactly what happened. Alex Morgan was getting upended on every contested play. It was kind of crazy to watch. The announcers were like:
“oooh Morgan is having a rough day.”
YEAH DUMMIES! THAT’S CLEARLY A PLAN.
By about the 43rd minute Morgan has had enough. She approaches the official and you can read her lips about Paredes. She’s like “she’s had three penalties against me in the first half!” But captain Megan Rapinoe shoos her away and emphasizes the point to the officials. Still, it takes almost the whole game before Paredes gets a yellow card.
But that wasn’t the only thing off the mark. The US game plan wasn’t ideal. While they beat the Spanish in virtually every category, especially in the possession department that Spain wanted to dominate, they seemed to force certain poor choices. For example, they must have determined to attack Spain up the left side, and to that end they kept sending long balls up the wing to widen the Spanish defenders. A smart idea. Except it was often Megan Rapinoe making those long runs and she’s not 16 anymore.
Contrast that with the right side where Tobin Heath got three real quality balls to my eye and all three of them resulted in scoring chances. It took a very iffy call inside the 18 to get the US back to the penalty line and over the top. It’s anyone’s guess if they could have gotten there on their own in regulation. For a while it looked like the engine had stalled a bit.
The US team felt clunky and scattered, and while it’s a positive to be able to eek out a victory when you’re not playing at peak performance, it’s still a concern when you have France and 6’2” Wendie Renard on deck.
Italy vs China
My kids make fun of me because of how much I love watching Valentina Giacinti play (pictured in the header). She’s amazing to watch. There’s just something so beautiful and pure about her eye for the game and her hustle and the tenacity she brings to the pitch.
Is Italy the most dangerous team left in the draw? They certainly have the look of a freight train that will not be stopped. The match versus China was predictable. Italy was fiery and creative, shooting from all over the place. China was restrained and less inventive, but did manage to challenge Italian goalkeeper Laura Giuliani, who had a stellar day. Her best save came on an amazing shot from Wang Yan which she one-timed off the outside of her foot. It looked like a goal for sure before Giuliani skyed to tip it over the crossbar. Chinese goalie Peng Shimeng also had an excellent day as she fought off multiple chances from the Italy side.
But the outcome never really felt in question for me. Team Italy is probably the most exciting team in the field and makes me want to go play soccer every time I watch them. They’re a delight. It’s only their second time making it to the final 8 in the World Cup and you can tell they’re hungry for more. The Azzurre look like a team on a mission and I’m fired up to see where they go from here.
Japan vs Netherlands
This is the game I’m most bummed out about. Holland advances, but Japan was far and away the better team.
It began with a pleasant spark from Team Japan, which had spent the entire tournament looking not-quite-fully-baked. Every time before this game, when you watched them, they felt like a shadow of their former selves. Would they be able to reconstitute the magic that got them to the finals of the last two World Cups? It sure didn’t look like it.
But in this one? Yes! They came out super snappy, as did the Netherlands. It was so pleasing to the eye to watch a team in an all blue kit take on a team in an all orange kit. For some reason, that alone made the game more enjoyable. But both teams came out strong. Initially, Netherlands looked like the better squad. They were led by Vivianne Miedema, who has been nothing short of amazing in the tournament. If there was any question about Holland, the defending European champions, it centered around striker Lieke Martens, who had been notably restrained to this point.
She changed that in the 16th minute when she put the Dutch on the board, 1-0, redirecting a short corner to the far side of the net.
Japan got the equalizer just before the half.
And from then on, it was all Japan. The Netherlands had no answer for them and could not come close to piercing the Japanese defense. During that second half I was like OH SHIT because right in front of your eyes you could see the Japanese team regain some of that world class swagger. This is one of those games where you should watch the highlights of because it was so lopsided in the second half. It reminded me of Francis Drake taking on the Spanish Armada. The Dutch were bigger but the Japanese were smaller and quicker and were zipping around the players from the Netherlands. A fluky handball gave Holland a penalty kick in the 89th minute and from then on they just had to endure a last gasp Japanese onslaught.
They did. But the better team did not win that game.
The Netherlands didn’t beat Japan as much as they survived them, and while I’ve always liked players who wear the orange, going back to the heyday of Marco van Basten when I was a little dude, but the emperor has no clothes. Germany got a gift when Japan was bounced, and the tournament as a whole is weaker for it.
Still, credit to The Netherlands for hanging in, and like the United States, managing to get a win on an off day. With Miedema and a newly charged Martens, they should have some firepower in the tank as they move on.
Higher praise to Japanese players who gave their all like Mana Iwabuchi and Yui Hasegawa and Yuka Momiki and Yuika Sugasawa. Highest praise to Japanese coach Asako Takakura, the first woman to run the Japan women’s national team. I don’t know how she did it, but she took a side that was middling and somewhat directionless and made them soar. The future is bright for Japan’s futbol program, and woe to those who have to play their national squad on home turf in the coming Japan Olympic games.
Germany vs Nigeria
No one gave Nigeria much hope in this one, but I always root for them be it Super Falcons or Super Eagles and I love the grit they bring to every match. In this one they ran headlong into what was just a superior team.
Germany plays like Germany. That’s a high bar but they seem to crest it just fine. They’re direct and intentional about their ball movement. They’re quick to expose any weakness. They’re solid and focused on defense. They have excellent skill on every line and coming off the bench. They don’t get rattled. Germany rattles you.
The first goal came just shy of the 20 minute mark when they scored on a set piece. Goal two was courtesy of VAR when a Nigerian defender whiffed on a clear and cleated Lina Magull in the knee. Sara Daebritz buried the PK in the right panel to put Germany up 2-0. A botched pass from Nigeria at the 81st minute was one-timed by Lea Schueller, who was only to happy to net her first World Cup goal.
It ended 3 to nil. Australia gone. Cameroon gone. Nigeria gone. Africa and Australia roundly drummed out of the tournament.
Canada vs Sweden
This was one of the matches I highlighted in my last piece as one to watch.
It really wasn’t. In fact it may have been the most lackluster game of the round. I expected Canada to be ready to take the next step and I hope this would be their coming out party, but against the verteran Swedish side, they couldn’t find any purchase.
I think it was one of the post game commentators who said this game came down to two plays, and she’s right.
The first play was the Swedish goal set up by an insane touch pass by Kosse Asllani. She. Is. So. Good. Hard stop. It seems like you have to have a superstar on your team to compete at this level, whether it’s Dzsenifer Marozsan or Debinha or Ajara Nschout or Sam Kerr or Alex Morgan. You need that killer who can either set the table for someone or drill a rocket into the goal from anywhere.
So the Swedes get a goal by Stina Blackstenius (total bad guy name) and then they focus on defense. Canada gets a penalty kick in the 70th minute but Swedish goalie Hedvig Lindahl makes the best play of the entire round by fully laying out to her right and driving to the post. Canada’s Janine Beckie aims the ball at the twine, but probably with juuuuust not enough pace and Lindahl is able to guess correctly, fully stretch out and saving the shot.
You ever wonder what a screaming viking looks like?
Goddamn that gets me fired up! She’s a gamer, that Hedvig Lindahl. Lady Clutch.
But my heart also bleeds for my girl Janie Beckie. Could the shot have been a bit wider? Yes. But the pressure! Don’t beat yourself up, Janie! We’ve all shanked our share of gimmes. You’re a great player. Come back next time and get revenge for every Canuck! You can’t change the last play, but you can change the next play.
And with that, Team Sweden wins 1-0.
Today at 3pm it’s England vs Norway.
On paper, England should take this, but they don’t play the games on paper. We’re not far away from kickoff and I can’t wait to see how it shakes out. I love upstart teams like Norway making a run when no one on earth expects them to. Should be a great match.
Speaking of great matches…
Tomorrow at 3 pm it’s France vs USA
This is the game everyone circled moths ago. My god it’s gonna be a thunderclap! I CANNOT WAIT. While my heart will always be with the Americans, I’m just hoping for a great match. I want the USA and Les Bleus to both put their top teams out there and let’s see who can outlast whom. It should be amazing.
On Saturday it’s a double header.
At 9am eastern it’s Italy vs Netherlands
The Dutch are favored but I’m still rolling with my girl Valentina Giacinti and the fiery blood of an Italian team hell bent on victory.
And then at 12:30 eastern you can play the Star Wars Imperial March as Germany crushes Sweden for the six millionth time in international play. (I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a pattern there).
Should be a great few days of soccer!
Seven matches left. 24 team enter. One team leave.
Thanks for reading and appreciating the wonderful world of soccer with me. What a thrill it is to see athletes compete at this level. I’ll see you next week as the quarters wrap up!
Header Image Source: Getty Images