Updated: Jan 1, 2020
June 8: Matchday 2
Germany 1 – 0 China
This was not a very good game, and most of the blame for that falls on the referee (see below). But obviously the teams themselves played a big role. China came out ready to kick the German players, it not necessarily the ball. And it certainly set the tone for the game. In the opening fifteen minutes, Germany was in relatively firm control, and carved open a few very nice opportunities. But as the game progressed and the kicking grew more intense, the German team started to lose control of things a bit. By the end of the half, China had sprung a couple attacks of their own – most coming from extremely poor giveaways by Sara Doorsoun in the German defense – and it was only dumb luck for the Germans that kept the match scoreless.
The second half settled a bit more into a normal level of physicality, as the referee put a slightly firmer hand on the till. And once Germany found their goal, the match more or less petered out.
Many commentators seem to think that this was a colossal failure from Germany, and are already back to dismissing them as serious contenders. I’m happy to wait and see what happens. They are unlikely to face a team willing to commit to such cynical tactics again or a referee who allows it. And this will also have been a wakeup call for them, which may be sufficient to get them into gear.
For China, they were probably not really expecting anything here, and while they’ll rue having missed their chance to nick a result, even a 1-0 loss won’t hurt them too badly in a tournament where goal difference could be an important tiebreaker. They have Spain next, who seem like precisely the sort of team that might wither under this kind of relentless physicality. It will certainly be interesting to see if they try it again, and if it works.
Spain 3 – 1 South Africa
This was a weird and wild game, that very much belies the final scoreline. Spain came in as favorites, and left with a seemingly comfortable victory, but it certainly didn’t come easy. In the first half, Spain almost played as a caricature of themselves: passing the ball relentlessly through the middle, barely ever working it wide, and finding (to their apparent surprise) that the center was often clogged and impassable. Meanwhile, while South Africa found little time on the ball, they made the most of their rare chances, generally looking to spring Thembi Kgatlana in a wide left position. This was quite effective because Spain’s right-sided players – Torrejon and Sampedro – seemed as uninterested in defending out wide as they were in attacking there. Kgatlana’s goal came after it looked like the attack had fizzled as Spain was able to set, but she followed the play in, received the return ball, and then launched a perfect ball into the top corner. For the rest of the half, Spain looked flummoxed. They continued to control the game, and weren’t completely toothless, but kept looking to pass rather than shoot, and kept exposing themselves to counters.
After halftime, Spain came out with renewed energy. They actually started using the entire pitch and began to look for more direct attacking moves. This produced a few solid chances, though as the minutes ticked on and they couldn’t find a goal, they started to lose their calm and began flailing a bit. But then came the goals – two in rapid succession – each from a penalty, and each bringing its own controversy.
The first was a handball at the top corner of the box. By the letter of the law, it was clearly the correct call. But it was of the variety that makes neutrals grimace with frustration. Still, the equalizing goal was probably a fair reward for Spain, who had produced enough chances to justify a goal.
The second came from a dangerous challenge, once again in the far corner of the box. Watching live, I saw absolutely nothing to this. Vilkazi won the ball, and play continued. But then VAR reared its head, and play halted while they looked. And what they saw was a studs-up, crotch-level kick. Clearly dangerous play, clearly a booking, and since it was in the box, clearly a penalty. And as a second yellow, it also left South Africa playing with just 10 for the final minutes. That was a hole they were never going to dig out of, and it was no surprise when Spain, finally discovering the space to operate thanks to their player-advantage, produced a beautiful goal to seal the game.
It was a wonderful start for South Africa, and in a slightly different world, could have been a truly famous victory. But it wasn’t to be. And so Spain got their three points, in spite of having a miserable time for a big chunk of the game, against fairly weak opposition. They’ll need to harness some of the energy of the second half if they expect to advance any further.
Norway 3 – 0 Nigeria
I was on a train with no wifi for this entire match, so can’t speak about any of the events. The result, however, leaves us with four games and zero surprises. In all four, the team that was expected to win did so. Obviously, the expected winner should in fact win pretty often (that’s why they’re expected!) but a tournament is no fun without a few good upsets along the way. Tomorrow has some real promise on this front, with three games where the underdog has every chance of finding a result.
The other big story here was Ada Hegerberg’s non-presence. This is a legitimate issue to discuss, but the conversations around it have been very frustrating. I’ll have a full article on that subject available tomorrow, so stay tuned for that.
We spend a lot of time talking about refereeing decisions, for better and (mostly) for worse. There certainly was a lot of that today, especially with the two penalty calls and the sending-off that so completely defined the Spain-South Africa game. But for all the controversies about those sort of calls, I think the bigger conversation needs to be about how referees set the tone for the game. It’s an important skill, and goes a long way to ensuring enjoyable games.
The referee in Germany-China, the Canadian Marie-Soleil Beaudoin, failed at this job miserably. China came out to kick hard, and maybe play the ball once the kicking was done. It certainly did seem to rattle Germany, and in that sense was obviously a successful strategy. Which means it’s hard to blame Jia Xiuquan, precisely. They sought an advantage, and found one. And you can also frame this as a problem with Germany. They are the better team, and should have done something to address the situation.
But ultimately, this is coming at the wrong way. This is essentially a story of a referee who allowed rough play to go by with little or no punishment, and thereby incentivized that sort of play. We don’t leave it up to everyday people to enforce the law, and it shouldn’t be up to soccer teams to enforce the rules, either. I’m hardly a believer in strict textualism, and understand that referees absolutely need to exercise some discretion. But that should be in the service of making the game better, safer, and more aligned with the spirit of the rules.
Apparently, on the US broadcast, Christina Unkel said that referees are loathe to hand out yellow cards for fear of generating suspensions.
Christina Unkel telling Fox that referees are hesitant to give out cards due to the suspension rules (2 yellows = suspension), which is probably going to result in a lot of teams kicking top players to pieces. #FIFAWWC — Jason Anderson (@chestrockwell14) June 8, 2019
This is a terrible approach. The punishments exist for a reason, and while there can of course occasionally be injustices – nobody loves it when two nothing fouls rule a player out of a quarterfinal – the risks are far larger if you permit unrepentant physicality to rule the day. To wit:
German coach Voss Tecklenburg tells German tv several of her players got knocks, does not know yet whether it is anything serious for either of them. Said she was worried about Marozsan in particular — elisabeth (@livoline) June 8, 2019
One thing that weighed on my mind in Spain-South Africa: relative fitness levels. South Africa were clearly flagging significantly by the final twenty minutes, which may well have contributed to the mistakes that produced the penalties. It’s no coincidence that Spain started looking better at this point. It’s a story we’re likely to see repeat itself in the tournament, with countries like the US, Germany, France, and England – composed entirely of full-time professionals with the luxury of absurd physical regimens to keep them fit – face off against countries with players who simply can’t go the full 90 at anything close to 100%.
Australia – Italy. A good first test for Australia. Italy are a solid team with some genuine attacking threats. Australia should have plenty to overwhelm them (my gut says this feels like a 3-1 victory for Australia), but after their rotten run-in to the tournament, they’ll want to actually prove that they are in form.
Brazil – Jamaica. At one point, some oddsmakers were refusing to even take bets on this game since it was expected to be such a blowout. That was always a mistake, since Jamaica is much better now than their ranking suggests (it’s amazing what a year of actual training and some new recruits can do for a team), and Brazil much worse (they’ve lost nine games in a row, going back almost a full year). And now it’s been confirmed that Marta will miss this game. I still think Brazil has enough to pull out a win, but a draw is maybe the most likely result and a Jamaica win is absolutely possible.
England – Scotland. A rivalry that literally goes back to the dawn of modern soccer in the late 1800s, brought to life in a new form here. England are cleaerly the superior team, but Scotland are a tough team to play, and they will certainly be up for it. This should be a cracker.
I’ll be in Valenciennes for the opener, and will do my best to catch as much of the others as I can before my train back to Paris.