Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

It’s No Choke

So, for the last three weeks, I’ve watched or at least kept track of the women’s World Cup soccer tournament. Sorry: must play by the official rules here: the-FIFA-Women’s-World-Cup-2011-From-Germany. Brought to you by…

I have on occasion been a bandwagon fan of some things; but in this case, I saw this event coming a mile off, and was paying attention start to finish. Mostly, I suspect this is because since the men’s World Cup last year, with all its American back-from-the-brink histrionics, I have somehow acquired a dogged interest in the sport. When I used to channel-surf, a soccer match would appear on one of my cable TV’s sports channels and I’d pause, look at it for a moment and move on. In the last year, if I crossed paths with a futbol match, whether the announcers were working in English or Spanish, I hung out for a while.

I suspect I can also attribute this sudden focused interest in the sport to my spectator-ness at the US Adult Soccer Association’s Veterans Cup tournament, which featured teams full of players over 30, over 40, over 50, and over 60 years old (and the over-60s might have been moving a bit slower than the over-30s but they were equally Not Taking Any Prisoners). The tournament was being held a half-hour drive from my house; a friend from high school was the goaltender for a Virginia team competing that week; and this confluence of events meant that I needed to go see this thing. Seeing it live definitely helped this feller get a grip on the sport. I discovered (by way of where I was parked to watch) that the linesman’s job, mainly to call plays offside, is a very difficult job indeed – among other discoverable things. Such as… that goal is awfully large for one person to cover. And… these people are running and running and running for an awfully long time. Even the referee has to be in great shape.

So I was taking books out of libraries that deal with World Cup soccer, English Premier League soccer, Manchester United!, Real Madrid!, Major League Soccer (gasp!) — any permutation of the sport I could get my hands on. I was ready for the women’s World Cup tournament, which my math skills told me was (1999 plus 4 equals 2003, plus another 4 equals 2007, plus another 4 equals) this year!

Group stage: the US team, led by a goaltender with the swashbuckling name of Hope Solo [therefore, there was a memorable hand-drawn sign in the stands that read “MARRY ME, HOPE — I’M SOLO”], played a few average to decent games in the round-robin phase of the tournament, and was one of two teams in its group of four to go to the knockout round. The quarterfinal game was against Brazil, which is not a cupcake team, and if you’ve been anywhere near TV in the last week, you’ve seen the completely ridiculous US goal: a perfectly-placed crossing pass in front of the goal, headed perfectly past the flying Brazilian goaltender, at what might have been literally the last minute in which it could have been scored, to tie the game.

(That’s another facet of soccer that most Americans can’t wrap their (our!) heads around: there’s a game clock; it counts UP to 90 minutes and then the referee tacks on however much time she or he wants to. I can only imagine how many aggrieved fan rants there have been in the last century or so about referees tacking on just enough time to let the Evil Undeserving Other Team score the tying or winning goal. A mere human could be sorely tempted to use this very subjective judgment opportunity to stick it to one team or another. I found myself hoping somehow that the US wouldn’t be hit with the old “they only won it because the ref gave it to them.” More, I hoped it wasn’t true. Heaven knows that FIFA, the soccer world’s governing body, has never been accused of playing politics…)

Not to diminish their next game’s achievement, but the US team got past France in the semifinal match with not nearly so much in the way of cardiac moments; and Japan put away Sweden in the other half of the semifinal bracket to set up a US/Japan final. I wouldn’t have thought Sweden capable of losing, after I saw them run past and around and all up and down the US squad during a group stage match. In particular, one Swedish striker called Josefine Oqvist had to have been the fastest-running woman in the whole tournament. You know those nightmares where no matter how hard you try, you can’t keep up?…

So at this point, I was philosophical. I hoped to see the US folks win, of course… I can root for a team with a 36-year-old mother of two playing side-by-side with at least a couple of kids right out of college. I can root for Megan Rapinoe, a striker who was taken out of the starting lineup for the first time since she was maybe in fifth grade, in the opening group-stage match, and responded for the rest of the tournament definitely proving how very foolish that decision was. Or maybe it was a terrific little decision by Pia Sundhage, the US head coach…

On the other hand, if Japan were to win, great: their team wasn’t even supposed to get near the final, didn’t have any marquee goal-scorers, had a goalie whose stature one online sportswriter actually compared to a “hobbit” (that might have been a bit extreme, but she really didn’t seem quite tall enough to jump and reach a crossbar) — and here they went and knocked out the host team, Germany, in the quarterfinal round – 3 goals to 1, which in soccer is something like knocking someone over AND stealing their lunch money. Also, their country was kind of in shambles since the tsunami and earthquake, and for heaven’s sake, one of their players actually had worked at the stricken Fukushima nuclear plant (although not that day) … and as ridiculous as this always sounds outside the sports world: nonetheless, if the Japanese can find any reason to smile, this year, that would be just fine.

(And how can you not appreciate a sport where some of the players are called “strikers”? If that ain’t an Errol Flynn-grade, swashbuckling title, what is?)

Either way, I like women’s soccer, at least at this level, as much as I like the men’s game, and possibly more. I’ve seen quite a few men’s soccer matches wherein, no matter the score, the appropriate tactics seem to be to pass the ball from one player to another, back and forth, slightly shy of the midfield stripe, seeming only occasionally interested in playing the ball forward to, you know, like, score. The women, or at least the women of this World Cup tournament, played as if there was a law against being boring. Push! Press! Move the ball, long passes into the corner deftly crossed back into the goal crease, and/or corner kicks wherein players took their lives in their hands if they were inside the penalty area and not paying proper attention. Oh, and by the way – the women don’t seem to do face-plants into the dirt and roll around in faux agony every time there’s contact; or at least they didn’t nearly so often, not in this tournament. The men in last year’s World Cup seemed to go down with apparently grievous ankle injuries if someone appeared to breathe on them funny.

Most likely, you know the story. A familiar story: a dramatic finish to the match – but it played out in role-reversal. The US scored a goal but Japan found a way to equalize. Twice. The second Japanese goal came, hmmmmm, in the overtime period. The Japanese women embodied the adage, “winners never quit…” They Did. Not. Quit. (The US team may have helped them out by losing a bit of focus in their own end and succumbing to their occasional bad habit of handing sloppy turnovers to the opposition. But…) At no time did the Japanese body language suggest that they were thrilled merely to be in the stadium for the game: they went and capitalized on their opposition’s mistakes and won that game.

Here’s what I struggle with, and not just in this particular instance: as soon as the game was over, the questions began. What went wrong? Where did the US screw up? What could have been done differently? All legitimate questions. They’re not the ones I struggle with, though.  This is: “Did The US Team Choke?”

No. You or I probably would walk out onto the pitch, see the 48,000 fans in the stands going crazy, remember the enormity of the game we were about to play, and choke right up. Locked knees, shortness of breath, nice to be here, where’s my smelling salts please? The US team are professionals, by way of both skill level and the fact that most of them play on pro teams, in the US or somewhere, for money. Maybe not a whole lot of money, but these aren’t just a pack of kids we scraped together from a crowd standing around in a mall somewhere. And it’s not a question of who wanted it more (an absurd cliche, I’ve always thought). The US team broke a sweat, friends. They were kinda into it all day long. They were professionals. They just ran into an opposing team who were playing just as much for emperor and country; and who saw their opportunities and took them.

The US team returned home this week to actual cheering crowds outside their hotel and many interviews with many media outlets (here’s my favorite interview), and to at least their requisite 15 minutes (and probably a few more) of fame.  Sadly, so many Americans probably said or thought, “but they lost.”  Um, well, yes, a couple of times over the course of three weeks of play; more to the point, as the English commentators would put it, they came second. For a bit of perspective, let us consider the New Zealand women’s soccer team, who were pretty happy about their group-stage game against Mexico, in which for the first time in their World Cup history they did not lose (it was a draw; the Football Ferns have never won). Cue the interviews, if you please, with the American women, who deciphered Brazil, thanks so much…

But the Japanese team worked, and persevered, and didn’t get down on themselves, and worked, and were patient, and waited for their chances, and made good on them. And when they stood on the podium, World Cup trophy in hand and medals around their necks, they were laughing and grinning and jumping up and down and up and down like school kids.

And more power to ’em.

July 20, 2011 Posted by | sports | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment