Twenty two days ago the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup kicked off in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany in front of an astonishing 73,680 people. (Yes, I do realize that Nigeria and France technically was the first game, but tournaments don't officially start until the hosts kick off.) On Sunday night the world was witness to a brilliant, nerve-wracking final as the Japanese were crowned World Champions for the first time in their history. In a summer full of international soccer tournaments, the Women's World Cup has upstaged all of them by demonstrating the skill, athleticism and class that makes women's soccer great.
The first thing that needs to be said in any review of this competition is the outstanding job that Germany did as host. The matches were played in beautiful stadiums in front of large and boisterous crowds. There was a legitimate fear that once the Germans were eliminated in the quarterfinals that they would stop showing up, but they kept coming and the remaining matches were well attended. The Germans, and all fans that traveled to the country for the competition, deserve all the plaudits they've received.
Luckily for all of us, the play on the field matched the play in the stands. For years the biggest complaint of the Women's World Cup has been that the talent disparity between the top few teams and everyone else was enormous. This tournament we did see two scorelines of 4-0, but in previous years it was not a shock to see teams get 5, 6 and 7 goals in a match. In 2007 the Germans would put 11 goals past Argentina. That's an absurd scoreline in a World Cup at any level.
There's a reason that soccer is called "The Beautiful Game", and viewers were greeted with it from day one. We saw the hard-nosed Americans, the flair of the Brazilians, the precision passing of the Japanese and the graceful attack of the French. There were great goals scored from artful build-ups, rocket shots from distance and exquisite free kicks.
There is some debate of what was the "Goal Of The Tournament". I would imagine the general candidates are Monica Ocampo against England, Heather O'Reilly against Colombia, Erika against Equatorial Guinea, Marta against USA and Marie Hammarstrom against France. I'm of the belief that the goal of the tournament was scored by Jill Scott of England in their quarterfinal defeat to France. The goal presented everything that I love about the sport: greatness, awfulness, and cheating. English forward Kelly Smith received the ball at midfield and used her hand to help her control it. She turned to chip the ball over the top to a sprinting Jill Scott who saw two French defenders take each other out of the play. Scott would then put a beautiful shot past goalkeeper Celine Deville.
Talking about the team that finished in last in a World Cup never seems like the thing to do, but we'll make an exception this time. Oh, Canada. How does a team enter the tournament as a dark horse favorite to win the whole competition finish last. Also, so you know, when I say last I mean dead last. Canada finished behind Equatorial Guinea. Yes, we should never put too much stock into the FIFA rankings, but Canada is number 6. In the world. How does a team that features the amazing Christine Sinclair finish in dead last? They only managed one goal in their three group games. Canada needs to improve and improve quickly if they expect to get out of the group stage in 2015 when they are host.
The event was not without it's fair share of ugliness on and off the field. We'll start with the on the field issues first. In the group stage match against Australia, Equatorial Guinea defender Bruna grabbed the ball in her own penalty box believing her team had been awarded a free kick. The offense was either not seen or ignored by Hungarian referee Gyongyi Gaal. Post match Gaal apologized for her error, but it wasn't enough as she did not see the field again in the tournament. In the quarterfinal against the United States, defender Erika went down as if injured late in extra time. Australian referee Jacqui Melksham called for the stretcher to take her off the field so play could resume. Once the defender was off the field, she quickly jumped off of the stretcher and ran back around to midfield so she could re-enter play. Upon her return to the field, Melksham showed Erika a yellow card for her disgraceful actions. The final bit of ugliness to mention is in the third place match between Sweden and France. French defender Sonia Bompastor and Swedish forward Josefine Oqvist fell to the ground in a tussle in the second half. Replays showed Bompastor clearly strike the Swede first, but referee Kari Seitz only saw the retaliation kick from Oqvist.
Unfortunately for FIFA, the controversy off the pitch was disgusting. Prior to the tournament, Colombian goalkeeper Yineth Varon tested positive for a banned substance. After their defeat to the United States, North Korean manager Kim Kwang Min would tell the media that his team lost the match because five of his players were struck by lightning before the tournament began. Personally, I haven't decided if that is just an excuse for the loss or an excuse to save his job/life on his return to Pyongyang. Equatorial Guinea would drop siblings Salimata and Bilguisa Simpore from their squad before the tournament started amid accusations that the sisters were really men.
That's enough off the field controversy for one tournament, right? Nope. Let me introduce you to Nigerian manager Uche Eucharia. Women's soccer has generally been welcoming of homosexual and bisexual players, but Eucharia determined that it was her duty to rid her team of all non-heterosexual players. Former technical assistant James Peters told the Nigerian newspaper The Daily Sun, that Eucharia removed players from the team "not because they were not good players, but because they were lesbians." She told the New York Times that she had never seen any homosexual activity by her team, but she'd heard rumors and based it on that. FIFA did come out and criticize her, but the general feeling is that they did not enough. I can guarantee you that we haven't heard the last of Ms. Uche Eucharia.
Thankfully the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup will be remembered for the wonderful play and classy performances on the field. This year saw the greatest upset in Women's World Cup history when Japan knocked out the Germans on their home turf when they were going for their third Cup in a row! We were all witnesses to the miraculous American comeback against Brazil in Dresden. In the final we were shown that "Never Say Die" attitude we expect in the USA matches, only this time it came from the Japanese. Led by captain Homare Sawa playing in her fifth (Yes... FIFTH!) World Cup, Japan never quit and managed to pull level twice including a late goal in extra time by Sawa. The Japanese never seemed to let the moment get to them, and that was displayed perfectly in the penalty kicks where they eased to victory. Japan's victory makes them the first Asian team to win a Men's or Women's World Cup.
FIFA has announced that in 2015 the Women's World Cup is headed to Canada. The tournament is also expanding from it's current 16 teams to 24 teams increasing the number of matches played from 32 to 52. While the 2011 tournament is the first where it seemed that no team was completely out of their depth, there is a fear that this expansion will dilute the talent level, and we'll go back to some of the ridiculous scorelines that were seen in years past. The fear is legitimate, but FIFA believes (And I agree with them on this matter.) that by expanding the tournament and allowing in more teams, you bring the event to more people encouraging them to increase the funding and exposure to women's soccer.
The Women's World Cup was against some tough competition this summer in international soccer. The FIFA U-17 World Cup, CONCACAF Gold Cup, and later this summer the FIFA U-20 World Cup are all taking place. If only those tournaments were played in any other summer, they'd be able to claim they featured the best soccer and were the most entertaining. Thank you to all of the participating nations in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup for putting on one of the greatest international sporting events I have ever witnessed. This one won't soon be forgotten.