Canada 2015 – Women’s World Cup – Review of Australia / Matildas

28 June 2015

Disappointing end to a promising campaign

After escaping the so-called “group of death”, and then beating Brazil in the round of 16 to record their first knock-out match win ever, the Matildas succumbed to World Champions Japan 1-0 in the quarter final. Even with 5 days break compared to 3 for Japan, the Matildas seemed lethargic from the start and unable to impose their game. While commentators suggested fatigue was the problem, it seemed more like a combination of Japan being too good and Australia possibly pacing the game in case of extra time. The “hot weather”, which was 26 at the start of the game and forecast to reach 31, should not have been a problem. The artificial pitch, supposedly 50 degrees in such conditions, did not hamper the players’ post match commiseration, as they lay sprawled all over it in sadness. Pacing the knockout games seemed to be a trend at the men’s World Cup in Brazil last year, and maybe it’s crept in here too. It’s a good strategy, as long as you’re not sucker-punched near the end of regulation time.

Other than the early phase of the second half, Australia were shut out of the game, and ultimately hit with a sucker punch. Their only shots were speculative from range or from the very rare Japanese mistakes. While 8 corners to zero and a 60% possession rate are suggestive of the dominance, the reality of the dominance is that Japan’s high-pressing strategy saw Australia’s attempt to play its possession game collapse. It only seemed a matter of time that Japan would capitalise on a mistake or convert a corner, and that proved exactly true when a loose pass out of defence was picked off. After the shot was blocked, the resulting corner on 87 minutes was scrambled into the net. Game over against a Japanese team that all teams have found difficult to crack. Ignoring the bad goal-keeping error in the R16 final against the Netherlands, Japan have only conceded one goal all tournament.

Australia’s best performance of the tournament came against Brazil in the R16 final. They managed to shut down the dangerous Brazil while creating good opportunities for themselves. The winning goal came on the 64th minute by the fabulous Kyah Simon, who scored both goals in the pivotal game against Nigeria that virtually sealed Australia’s place in the second round, to leave the Brazilians shattered. It was marvellous scenes for both the jubilation of the Matildas and tears of the often arrogant and conceited Brazilians.

This World Cup had been expanded to 24 nations from 16, meaning the four best third-place teams from the six groups would also progress and 3 points is quite often to progress. Australia drew 1-1 with Sweden in their final group match to hold second place, while Sweden’s three draws were enough for them to progress in third. USA, which had difficulties against Australia and Sweden, won the group with 7 points. Against the USA, Australia matched them for the first 60 minutes, entering half time at 1-1, before class told in the end and USA ran out 3-1 winners.

Quotes – Norio Sasaki, Japan’s coach

Even if we didn’t get a goal within 90 minutes, I felt we would get it inside 120 minutes. The game-plan was executed very well. We recognise the growth of Australia in this World Cup and my team will take confidence from this and we can build with future success (at the tournament). Also the solutions we came up for this match worked very well, and this also gives us confidence. We will fight hard in the semi-final being mindful of the people supporting us back in Japan.

Quotes – Alen Stajcic, Australia’s coach

Clearly the better team won, even though I thought it evened out a bit after the first 20 minutes. Japan were a lot more composed over the full 90 minutes. We didn’t set out to play any differently, but we just spent a lot of energy in the first 20 minutes chasing the game. Most of our players are young, and it is a heartbreaking moment for them, but sometimes you learn from these experiences. We don’t want to compete with the best, we want to beat the best, so now it is a case of taking further steps. There is a lot of room for growth moving forward.


The Women’s Game

Watching these tournaments since Sweden 1995, when just 12 teams participated and Australia lost all 3 games, the growth in skill has been phenomenal. The key growth area is the goal-keepers, who bordered on embarrassing even until the last World Cup in Germany. So many long shots would be scored as the goalies’ poor athleticism would preclude them from reaching shots that seemed in very simple reach of the men. Even allowing for women being less powerful in the leap and generally shorter, the attempts to save looked terrible, or the women would be left flat-footed. That’s all changed for Canada 2015 with notably far few shots from range being scored, and that’s not from the lack of trying. Australia’s Lydia Williams notably pulled off several world class saves, especially against Brazil, and she’s only 175cm tall. Defending is also tighter in general, especially the lack of one-on-ones. It’s only the African and Latin American teams, who are quite a bit off the pace, that you still see some of this calamity. Also the expansion to 24 teams did bring a few weaker teams in, notably Ivory Coast and Ecuador, both of whom conceded 10 goals in a match.

The general attraction of the women’s game – the more open play and more shots on goal – that’s still there. That should remain a part of the fabric of the game given women’s weakness (or strength!) of being naturally not quite as strong or fast as the men. So, too, should the paucity of diving, cheating and time-wasting that often blights the men’s game. Let’s hope this difference is a result of women having more integrity rather than being “less professional” than the men so that it never enters the women’s game. This overall increase in action and flow meant that the Australia/Japan QF was probably the only match that approached the banality of a stalemate in the men’s game. If the women keep improving, there’s no reason why they cannot provide a product that’s as compelling to watch as the men’s. In tennis and basketball, connoisseurs of those sports (including myself) appreciate the more technical and nuance nature of the female versions. Football, with the rules unchanged for the woman, can certainly reach this level.

Of course, the other attraction of the women’s game is the women themselves. Let’s be realistic and resist accusations of sexism, women have for generations enjoyed watching men play for reasons more than just watching a football match, so why not vice versa? Thankfully the women are not treated as sex objects, as play in the same uniforms as the men, not any stupid bodysuits to artificially “sex up” the game, like Australian basketball did or once Sepp Blatter notoriously suggested that football do. Kyah Simon has the prettiest eyes and a winning smile that’s as lethal as her boot, and is certainly my favourite of the Australian team, while any player with a long ponytail looks so elegant. Japan’s Rumi Utsugi, who was integral in converting the winning corner, is one notable, as too almost the entire starting eleven of the Netherlands. USA still has the glamorous Hope Solo, who’s been a long time favourite.

It’s good to see different teams dominate at world level. In the early days the trio of USA, Norway and China were the most dominant. While Norway and China have slid a little, the USA have reached the semi final of every single World Cup. Japan has taken over as Asia’s most dominant team, while Germany has supplanted Norway. Traditional footballing countries are now improving thanks to their domestic leagues, notably England and France, and this was the first ever World Cup for Spain, Netherlands and Switzerland. Latin America is poor (except for Brazil) and Africa is far behind. Canada is the other strong member in the Americas, while Asia saw Thailand qualify to reinforce the power of the east. New Zealand is competitive for Oceania.


Offsides

Give the female assistant referees a gig at the men’s events! Never before have I see a virtual faultless display off refereeing the offside law. Most particular the “favour the attacker” edict in that, yes, in every line-ball case, the referees favoured the attackers! Maybe only once I’ve seen an obvious offside allowed, and even then we’re still talking reasonably close. More importantly, I don’t recall seeing a wrong offside called. Those are the true bane of the sport, because they deny goals and goal chances. The spirit of the law is being refereed perfectly at this World Cup. Whatever it is, better eyesight, reinforcement of the edict, or females having a better empathy for the game, it’s been wonderful. The outfield refereeing has also been great. If there’s an area that the women have clearly surpassed the men, it’s the referees.


Equality

The big talking point in the media has been the discrepancy of pay between the men and women. While the men get $6000 per match at their World Cup, the women get $500 at theirs. Obviously market forces are involved here, with the men generating far more revenue. They also get a slice of the prize-money, which the women also do. While you could say double the match payment to $1000, there will still be calls of inequality unless it’s even. Just look at Grand Slam tennis where even at less than 5% difference in recent years, the women were still howling until it was equal. That’s even despite the fact their matches are only 60% as long as the men, they attract less crowds and the depth in their fields is much weaker. Given the match payments are a relatively small cost in the overall expense of sending a team to a World Cup, the FFA should probably just make it equal. As for prize-money split, that percentage should also be equal. Unfortunately, until the women’s game generates enough revenue to pay the massive prize-money on offer at a men’s World Cup, that means total dollars from prize-money will remain low compared to the men.

The important thing with any issue of equality is to see it progressing. It was only 20 years ago that the men were striking at their pathetic pay, which was in the realm of a few hundred dollars like the women now. Remember World Series Cricket in the 70s? That was all about pay, particularly revenue coming into the game that wasn’t being spread to the players. Cricket has just recently put their women on contract, something that the FFA has emulated. The advantage with the cricket model is that, yes, you do control your players, so your national team is never compromised. Unfortunately that’s created a problem that the women are then precluded to play overseas, where they could earn much more money than the local W-League. Football is not cricket, with fundamentally different structures at international level. Whereas cricket is a pseudo club team almost permanently on international tour, football is representative and an adjunct to domestic club competitions. For the short-term sacrifice to the improvement of the Matildas that the contract system seems to have made for this World Cup, it would better to disband the contracts, use that money to pay higher wages in the W-League, and be more accommodating to any player that does want to go overseas. After all, if it’s about equality, our female warriors should be treated equally to our male ones.

Full site: socceroorealm.com

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Asia fails and sticking with a France v Argentina final

27 June 2014

With the match-ups for the knockout stage complete, other than Spain’s early and humiliating exit, there’s actually been very few surprises overall for the tournament. Only Group D where both Italy and England failed to progress from the group, at the expense of Costa Rica and Uruguay, could you point to a surprise. Maybe Portugal in Group G is a small surprise at finishing third behind Germany and the USA.

The small upset in Group D means the earlier prediction of one semi final being Argentina vs Netherlands is all the more likely. The Dutch face Mexico then either Costa Rica or Greece, while Argentina must navigate past Switzerland and then either Belgium or USA. For either to fail to reach the semi, that would be an upset.

Knockout Stage Matches

Left Side

BRA v CHI
COL v URU
FRA v NGA
GER v ALG

Right Side

NED v MEX
CRC v GRE
ARG v SUI
BEL v USA

Despite the tougher run for both teams, I’m sticking with Brazil and France to reach the other semi. Brazil plays Chile and then either Colombia or Uruguay. Interesting that four of the five South American qualifiers play each other, meaning three can’t make the semi. Argentina stands alone for South America on the right side of the draw. The fact Brazil plays its fellow South Americans should be comforting to them. The times Brazil have been knocked out early it’s been by Europeans. Their opponents will be very familiar and most will play in the more open South American style that will suit Brazil.

The lower part of the left side should see France and Germany brush past Nigeria and Algeria, respectively, to then meet in a quarter final. Forget about France only securing a 0-0 against Ecuador in the final pool game as a case against their legitimacy as a contender With any luck, France could have scored the same bagful that they did against Switzerland and Honduras. They seem to have the fire power to break down Germany.

From the semi finals, I expect Brazil to crumble under pressure, from both the burden of being host and the fear of France’s attacking prowess. The Dutch defence has already been exposed as suspect, so expect Argentina to get through.

In the earlier preview, I cheekily said the team in dark blue to win the final, thinking both France and Argentina coud be wearing a dark strip depending on who is drawn as the nominal home team. Except, France’s dark blue is their home strip, and Argentina’s is their away strip, so there’s no clash. France will be in dark blue against the faint stripes of Argentina. It looks like it’s France to win the World Cup!

While France might be the prediction, who do I actually want to win? As always, a new team would be great. Based on the draw, Colombia vs Netherlands would suit perfectly, with the Dutch to win. So many near misses, including such a narrow loss to Spain four years ago, it’s time they won. If Colombia are the designated home team, Netherlands will just happen to be in dark blue too.

Asia’s failure – we’re not alone

All four Asian teams finished last in their group and could only accrue a total of 3 points between them. That’s courtesy of a draw each from Iran, Japan and Korea. Australia, in the toughest group, finished with nothing. While it’s disappointing, it should not be surprising, since Asia is still a fly-weight on the world stage. Only in the home World Cup in Korea and Japan did Asian teams excel, with Japan reaching the quarter finals and Korea finishing fourth.

Before anyone points fingers at querying Asia’s allocation of four spots at the World Cup, Africa and Europe can hardly claim a strong success rate from their allocation either. Three of 5 African teams bombed out, with the other two likely to be swept aside in the first knockout game. Excluding Algeria – an Arab team – it’s three of 4 failures from a region that was so widely hyped that Pele famously predicted they’d win a World Cup before last century’s end. They’ve gone backwards. As for Europe, seven of their 13 teams failed too. Europe, especially, benefits from a weight of numbers, and who’s to say that if more Asian teams were in the World Cup, some would not progress?

Asia’s small allocation meant they could not spread their numbers throughout all groups, and therefore have a team in all the weaker groups (even if three of them actually did have a reasonable draw). Does this mean Asia’s allocation should be altered? No. The only change should be that its half spot is linked with Oceania. This was part of the bargain for allowing Australia to enter Asia – that effectively Australia would not take a spot from the traditional Asian teams. At worst, such teams would finish fifth, and play against New Zealand. That happened for 2010 when Bahrain lost to NZ, which left no room for Asia to complain. For 2014, FIFA as they always do, re-jigged the rules to suit the more powerful confederations, meaning a random draw for cross-region playoffs that saw Asia face South America and Oceania face CONCACAF.

The World Cup is meant to represent the best teams in each part of the world. Ideally you have 8 teams from each approximately 50-team quadrant (Europe, Africa, Asia/Oceania, Americas) at the World Cup. Until all regions mature to a relatively equal standard, the best approach is continue performance based with a minium of four. Ideally this process should be more transparent so to end the ritual squabbling for spots. You do that by allocating spots based on an average of top 16 of the previous three World Cups. Meaning if Asia/Oceania had two teams in the top 16 for the last 3 World Cups, they get six spots. If Europe begin to average only 6 teams in the top 16, then their total spots should be 10.

Full site: socceroorealm.com