I’ve watched football (soccer) for almost 30 years. My first real exposure to world football was the 1982 World Cup, the one everyone thought Brazil would win, and I watched with the eyes of an awestruck 6 year old. The beauty and skill on display was magical and I was hooked.
In 86’ in Mexico, I was wowed by Maradona’s incredible and wonderous skill and mortified by his hand of god. As the World Cups came and went and leagues went through their yearly drama, I observed each match I saw with less and less wonderment and with increasing scrutiny and cynicism.
Over the years I’ve witnessed the dominance of Serie A and it’s subsequent impotence, the rise of French international football, and the impacts of Heysel and Hillsborough. I’ve seen the rise and fall of Maradona, the brilliance and madness of Zidane, Man United’s domination of the Premiership, increased theatrics, outrageous transfer fee’s and soccer in the USA… and I’ve seen 3 Women’s World Cups.
Admittedly, I was fully gripped in 99 and like a lot of people fell in love with the USWNT, but my interest (like a lot of people) waned and I was only a casual observer for the next two cups. Leading up to this cup and writing for TSG, I became more involved with the USWNT as well as the English team’s path to Germany.
The first thing that struck me is that the world has caught up in many ways to the traditional powerhouses of Women’s soccer. England beat and mostly outplayed a strong US team in a friendly. Mexico beat the US and forced the number 1 ranked team in the world to play a 2 game playoff in order to book their ticket to the land of bratwurst and beer. China, quarter-finalists in the past 2 cups and finalists in 99, didn’t even qualify, finishing behind Australian, North Korea (Dear Leader must have been proud and I do wonder how he took credit for it) and Japan.
Watching most of the games (going to school and working for oneself does have it’s privileges), I’ve noticed that amazing athleticism is not just reserved for the best teams, but is prominent on every team, especially the keepers (Hope Solo is just out of this world). The supreme skill level, the deft touches, the sophisticated tactics and tip top fitness (Brazil aside) is pronounced on every team.
So this is a long winded path to get to my main point (if you know me personally this shouldn’t surprise you) – but I think that we’ve come to the point, where the women and the women’s game can teach the men how to make football beautiful again, and this goes beyond making Carlos Tevez and Franck Ribery wear bags over their heads.
Less handbags, more play.
The most noticeable difference is the general flow of the game. There is end to end action and the ref’s whistle is often silent for prolonged periods of time.
Why is this you ask? Well aside from the Brazil V. USA quarter final, there is no blatant bitching or disrespecting of every call or Oscar worthy theatrics to deceive the referee. Women footballers, don’t get in skirmishes or “throw handbags” like some of their male counterparts.
They respect each other, their opponents, the referee and the game. If a hard challenge is administered, the attacking player gets up, dusts herself off, “sacks up” and gets on with the game, versus squirming around in agony desperately trying to remember which body part to clutch onto, so that their injury is more believable.
The ref’s on their part let the game flow, as they aren’t concerned if every tumble is real or a dive, because no self respecting woman’s player (not named Erika) would feign injury, as they posses more pride in their skill and toughness and believe that’s “not part of the spirit of the game”.
The referee’s also let many tough tackles and fouls go, as they know that the players are not going to bitch and moan, but instead will continue to play.
There is no “me” in team
The overall team camaraderie and pride is also more prominent in the women’s game. Everyone celebrates the goals, the teams huddle and offer support during tough moments, and there is very little petulance directed at teammates and coaches. Are there instances of this? Of course – please step up Birgit Prinz and Marta, but those are rare exceptions.
Yes, men’s teams huddle and celebrate goals (and sometimes very homo-erotically), but you don’t always get the feeling that it’s genuine. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but the men’s game is often less about team and more about the individual – hell, Ronaldo has more product in his hair then the entire USWNT.
There also seems to be a greater respect for one’s opponents in the women’s game. Maybe it has to do with the fact that each player recognizes that they share a common struggle to gain respect and earn a living playing a sport they love in a male dominated game.
Brazil offers very little support to their national team and women’s soccer was still banned in Brazil in the 80’s. This from arguably the greatest footballing nation in the world, when every time their men’s team play, it’s declared a holiday.
In the States, the WSP is struggling, though they have just added two teams to the league. Hopefully, the World Cup will increase support, but don’t count on it.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that they are doing something they truly love, and so do their opponents and after all it’s just a game. That their opponents are people too, who deserve respect and for 90 minutes and in some cases 120, they will battle, but they will do it within the laws and spirit of the game and competition.
Whatever the reason, it’s a pleasure to see the women treat each other, their team mates, opponents and referee’s alike with dignity and respect. It makes the game better, makes it flow smoothly and offers us a chance to see some real skill and athleticism.
Specifically, I believe US soccer can learn from the women.
First, the USMNT should take some ball control lessons from their women counterparts. I’m not talking about dribbling and trying to beat 3 players on the run (but talk to Cristiane from Brazil who could show Jozy a thing or too), but more about trapping the ball (entire US womens team), precise passes (Chaney and Lloyd), smart and gutsy defending (Rampone and Krieger) and not relying on your superhuman keeper to bail you out of every situation (even though Solo could should she want).
Yes, I get there are differences between the men’s and women’s game, namely speed and power, but the gap in skill has very much narrowed, if it is still even existent. Did you seem some of those long range howitzers? Those precise delicate chips over the keepers and the penalties!
Everyone of the 9 penalties shot in the quarterfinal shootout between the US and Brazil were very well taken, accurate, and sometimes thunderous shots (Daiane’s penalty was actually quite good, but was just amazingly saved by Solo). How I would love it if the English mens team (the English women could use a tutorial as well) would sit down with Wambach and Lloyd and ask “Oy…how’d you do that love?”
Also, how much would I love to just sit down with Ali Krieger…sigh!
Finally, I think US soccer commentary could learn a thing or two from Julie Foudy. She’s not perfect, but she is streets better then Harkes, Lalas and Dellacamera put together (the thought of a morphed version of those three made me shudder uncontrollably).
Time-keeping aside, she offers very astute and insightful thoughts about the match, the tactics and the overall play. She doesn’t feel the need to overwhelm the viewer with stupid facts or personal stories (though the occasional one she does tell are appropriate to what’s going on) and she’s fair and mostly unbiased. She’s enthusiastic, yet sophisticated and incredibly well spoken.
She’s developed an excellent report with Ian Darke and has clearly learned from him, something Harkes failed at.
In 6 days the women’s World Cup will be over. 6 months ago, after winning the WPS championship, the FC Gold Pride folded due to financial struggles. The Premiership and the rest of the European leagues will commence in just over a month. The Champions League, Euros and 2014 world cup qualifying, as well as the European Championships will all commence within two months to a year. The chances to see women’s soccer will be few and far between.
I hope every mens player is watching the Women’s World Cup and taking notes. I hope they are realizing that the women “have more stones” then the majority of them, that they have more pride, love and respect for the beautiful aspects of the game. I hope they understand that football is best played when it flows, without the constant tweeting from the referee. I hope they understand that they can learn a thing or two…