Women’s World Cup: Small step for Japan, giant leap for women’s soccer

The penalty shootout wasn’t great, particularly for U.S. fans. But this Women’s World Cup was a wonderful event that demanded attention from around the world and got it.

Certainly Japan, which has suffered so much this year, won’t soon forget it. Neither will the USA, even the cynics who would like to forget it ever happened.

This tournament was full of great teams, great players and great moments:

– Germany got a sellout crowd in Berlin’s giant Olympic Stadium, and Canada gave them a game.

– Mexico, which upset the USA in qualifying, got a draw with eventual group winner England.

– Equatorial Guinea, particularly energetic attacker Anonman, was fun to watch.

– New Zealand was level with eventual winner Japan through much of its opener and got its first World Cup point with two goals in the dying minutes.

– Beautiful cities from Dresden to Augsburg got dressed up for the Cup.

Controversial at times, Marta is still a player to behold. (Yes, Jacqueline, we’d love her if she were American. Maybe not unconditionally. I haven’t read through all 698 comments to see if anyone made that point.)

– England, a wreck at times, put it all together for a win over the eventual champions and was unlucky to lose in the quarterfinals.

– A smart, skillful Swedish team beat the USA and shook off semifinal disappointment for a well-deserved place on the podium.

– Led by the ageless WUSA/WPS veteran Homare Sawa, Japan showed its skill in a 4-0 rout of Mexico in the group stage, showed its pluck in ousting host Germany and showed its heart in winning the title.

Then there’s the U.S. team. On paper, this was not the best team you’d want to send to a World Cup. Right back Ali Krieger still seems like a newcomer. Left back Amy LePeilbet is out of position. Central midfielder Shannon Boxx doesn’t have the spring in her step she use to have, and she and Carli Lloyd often struggled to maintain the possession essential to the game Pia Sundhage would like to play. U.S. fans knew Lori Chalupny would be dearly missed while the mysterious concussion saga goes on, and Lindsay Tarpley’s injury in a friendly against Japan was especially cruel.

And yet, as they did in 2008 without the injured Wambach, the U.S. players proved to be more than the sum of their parts. Question their skill. Nit-pick their tactics. Never doubt their heart. Americans didn’t realize it, but they were cheering for the overachievers we so often claim to be and love to admire.

For those who need analogies to other sports — imagine if Butler’s Gordon Hayward had hit that shot from a neighboring county to beat a flawed but favored Duke in the 2010 hoops tournament. That’s what happened here, with Sawa as Hayward.

So what does this mean going ahead?

In the USA, repeating one more time, WPS has its own issues. League owners might be able to work things out and harness the goodwill of this great tournament to build a sustainable league. Or we might see the W-League or WPSL step forward as the most viable model. We’ll see.

Globally, this tournament should invigorate the game in Europe, where the Champions League is taking hold and teams are getting more professional. We can only hope Germany will better appreciate its Frauen-Bundesliga, which had players on many of these rosters and is already signing players who made an impact in this tournament. The game’s profile certainly won’t be hurt in Japan, either. And maybe China will be motivated to get back into it.

So don’t look solely at WPS attendance numbers and use that to gauge the health of women’s soccer. Again, WPS has its own issues. Repeat, WPS has its own issues. Repeat …

And one thing this tournament proved is that these games can be thrilling, full of skill and heart, and a lot of fun to watch. It’s not mired in the cynicism that plagued last year’s dreary World Cup final and too many MLS games this year.

Some people, naturally, confuse cynicism with intelligence. (Yes, I read your Tweets.) No one says we as soccer fans and sports fans have to accept that.

If this tournament showed nothing else, it showed this: Women’s soccer is a game worth watching.

1 Comment

  1. For me the key is the “other teams” results you list: for most of the 17 years or so I have been watching international women’s soccer, I would only approach games between 5-6 with any sort of excitement. Not simply featuring those teams – between them. This WWC changed that, and I am glad of it.

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