x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

No weak teams in women's football anymore

Japan's dramatic win in the women's World Cup final against the US was a common theme throughout the tournament, although some areas still need improvement.

Japan players used images of the devastation caused by March's earthquake and tsunami in their homeland to motivate them.
Japan players used images of the devastation caused by March's earthquake and tsunami in their homeland to motivate them.

Japan's dramatic win in the final against the US was a common theme throughout the tournament, although some areas still need improvement

The women's World Cup came to a bastion of the men's game - and, for three weeks, the whole of Germany responded. One of the most knowledgeable crowds in the world lapped it up, game after game with full stadiums and soaring television ratings.

Then came Sunday's final to bring the party to a fitting and emotional climax.

Japan became the first Asian nation to win the title, coming from behind twice with quick, nimble passing moves to force a 2-2 draw after extra time and then beating the United States in a penalty shoot-out.

Last weekend, Japan used the same intricate tactics to outlast a big, lumbering Germany in the quarter-finals.

"They are comfortable with the ball," Pia Sundhage, the US coach, said. "They believe in their technique. It is good for women's football."

All through the tournament, Japan were carrying the burden of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami which left some 23,000 dead or missing back home. Norio Sasaki, their coach, showed pictures to his players before the match against Germany to motivate them. After that win, he didn't have to anymore.

And the Americans?

Twice within eight days they were involved in matches so intense and enthralling they could easily rank among the best in the men's game, too. In their quarter-final, they came from behind with a last-minute goal and beat Brazil in a shoot-out.

Japan's win also spread the reach of the World Cup beyond the traditional women's powers of Europe and the US for the first time.

Any snide comments on how it all compared to men's football were an afterthought as fans revelled in the women's game.

"You should never compare such matches with those by men, even if it is the same game," Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, said. "There was great atmosphere and it continued even after the Germans were eliminated."

The Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt had a sell-out crowd of 48,817 for the final, which set a new record for tweets per second on the social networking website Twitter.

Many other matches were sell-outs too, including the opening game at Berlin's 73,680-capacity Olympic Stadium which was watched by a peak television audience of 18 million in the host country.

The players rewarded the fans with a great many standout games and goals.

Most of the games were tight, and gone were the days when one-sided results showed how unevenly spread the quality of the game around the world still was.

"There were no weak teams anymore," Blatter said of the 15 nations that joined the hosts in Germany. The competition moves to 24 nations when Canada hosts the tournament in 2015.

So even if the goal average slumped to 2.65 a game from 3.47 four years ago, many of the games and goals were outstanding.

Saturday's third-place play-off between Sweden and France was a case in point. Late in the game, down to 10 players, Sweden's Marie Hammarstrom picked up a loose ball, beat two defenders and then struck a left-footed shot into the top corner from just inside the box.

Many of the 32 games had moments like that.

The tournament was not all positive. Refereeing standards often were poor. Never more so than when the Equatorial Guinea defender Bruna picked up the ball in her penalty area, held it in both hands for a couple of seconds before dropping it, and the referee failed to spot it despite the outraged Australian protests.

"As far as refereeing is concerned, we still have some work to do. There is still a lot to do, actually," Blatter said.

And doping was a factor, with six positive cases.

North Korea blamed its five positive cases on medicine from musk deer glands to treat injuries from a lightning strike at a training camp.

"This is a shock," Blatter said.