x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The beautiful game of football for women just got more elegant

Perhaps the most useful way to think of the Women's World Cup? Twice as much international football. Twice the fun, as France and Japan can attest. And twice the pain, as England now know.

There have been agony and ecstasy in equal measure during this year's Women's World Cup.
There have been agony and ecstasy in equal measure during this year's Women's World Cup.

Almost nothing confers such swift and universal credibility on a global football event as these few words: England lose in a shoot-out.

Twenty years on from the first tournament, the Women's World Cup ticked that box on Saturday night when Faye White, the English captain, clanked a penalty off the crossbar to send the country into well-rehearsed melancholia and France through to the semi-finals of the sixth staging of the competition.

Many would argue that the women's edition of the World Cup "arrived" no later than 1999, when the United States and China played a memorable final before a crowd of 90,150 in Pasadena, California. That match ended in a 5-4 shoot-out and with giddy Brandi Chastain stripping down to her sports bra. But surely the last critics of the women's game were convinced of the attractiveness of the tournament on a day when England painfully lost and Japan shockingly won.

One fair criticism of the Women's World Cup, even as recently as 2007, was that it had so few serious challengers for its championship. The final four sides would be the US, Germany, Norway and Brazil, unless China sneaked in.

The drop from the elite to everyone else was precipitous, and it muted interest in the tournament, which featured 16 teams, at least 10 of which were making up numbers.

However, with France and Japan, 1-0 conquerors of two-time champions Germany, in the semi-finals for the first time, the breadth of growth in the women's game becomes more apparent and their World Cup even more compelling.

England's first appearance in the quarter-finals also was significant, given that the "masters of the game" usually had been strangely harmless on the women's side. But the appearance of their first elite player, Kelly Smith, and a 2-0 group victory over a Japan side that was about to end Germany's 12-year World Cup unbeaten streak, made England strong candidates to reach the semi-finals.

That notion was reinforced in the 59th minute when the midfielder Jill Scott split France defenders and lifted a marvellous shot over the goalkeeper Celine DeVille to put England ahead.

But France had been the more aggressive and technical side throughout, attacking steadily with skill and numbers, and they were rewarded in the 87th minute when their 37-year-old captain, Sandrine Soubeyrand, pounced on a rebound and knocked it into the upper-left corner of the goal from the edge of the area.

A half-hour later, as extra time neared completion, it was perhaps cruel of an American to mention to an English co-worker: "England ... World Cup ... shoot-out. What could go wrong?"

For a moment, it was possible for England to think the women might be immune to the spot-kick disease that felled their 1990, 1998 and 2006 men's World Cup sides. France's first effort, from Camille Abily, sent the ball straight into the arms of the English keeper Karen Bardsley, and England's first three shooters, Smith, Karen Carney and Casey Stoney, all converted.

It was 3-3 as Claire Rafferty, who had entered her first World Cup game as a substitute, took her shot and rolled the ball wide.

English collars were apparently getting tight.

Eugenie le Sommer converted for France, making it 4-3, and shifting the pressure squarely on the Three Lionesses.

Finally, White followed football compatriots Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle (1990), Paul Ince and David Batty (1998) and Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher (2006) by failing with a weak effort.

She knew the drill: crestfallen look, bury face in hands, receive condolences from teammates.

The second game followed no familiar script. Japan had never beaten a European side in nine attempts in the World Cup, and few expected them to end that siege of futility against Germany, winners of the 2003 and 2007 tournaments and 2011 hosts. But the tiny Japanese side defended with numbers, grit and hard tackling, and the German attacks grew ineffectual as the game wore on.

In the 108th minute, Karina Maruyama ran on to a brisk pass from the influential midfielder Homare Sawa, took a stride and drilled a hard low shot past keeper Nadine Angerer.

The capacity crowd went dead, aside from the handful of Japan fans, and the women's game had just taken another step forward.

The sport at the club level remains small, underfunded and little-followed. But women's football works splendidly on the national level: international friendlies, the Olympics and the World Cup attract tens of thousands of spectators and millions of television viewers.

What is not to like? The rules are the same, as are the national colours and the passion.

Perhaps the most useful way to think of the Women's World Cup? Twice as much international football. Twice the fun, as France and Japan can attest. And twice the pain, as England now know.

 

poberjuerge@thenational.ae