It’s virtually impossible to make Americans care about soccer, and even harder to make them care about women’s sports, but seriously: you should all be watching the Women’s World Cup. Many of you watched the World Cup last year, and really got into it, and in many ways the Women’s version is even better: the games are thrilling, there’s no vuvuzelas, and the players look like this:
That’s not just eye candy, that’s Hope Solo, one of the best goalies in the history of the game–of either gender (plus her name makes her sound like a descendant of Han, which is awesome). On the American team, she’s backed up by two of the three top scorers in the Cup, giving us one of the strongest teams in the world and a favorite to win the whole tourney this year. The other top scorer in the Cup is Marta Vieira da Silva, leader of the Brazilian team and also heavily favored to win. On Sunday they played each other in the quarter-finals, and it was one of the best, most exciting, most maddening games I’ve ever seen.
The Men’s World Cup was famous last year for having bad calls, leading to accusations of corruption and, eventually, a public apology, which NEVER happens. The game this week between Brazil and the US was similarly riddled with questionable calls, but they happened to both sides and, in the end, the refs seemed like they were doing a fairly good job. The game started with Brazil accidentally knocking the ball into their own goal just 1 minute and 17 seconds into the match–the second earliest goal in World Cup history. I know I just said that the Brazilian team was awesome, and now I’m saying they started the match by giving away a goal; well, this was that kind of match. The US fought long and hard and crazy, finally scoring their second goal a full two hours later, the latest goal in World Cup history, giving them, in the process, the longest gap between goals in a single match in, as far as I know, the history of soccer. That’s a weird record to hold, but there you go, and it’s not one likely to be beaten anytime soon since most matches don’t even go that long. It was, as I said, that kind of a match.
The US held Brazil to zero for the first half, and then in the second the ref went insane and called a red card on a US player who fouled a Brazilian while blocking a shot mere feet from the US goal. There was no way that kind of foul was red-card worthy, but because it happened inside the goal box a yellow card gets automatically upgraded to a red card, so I suppose it was kind of excusable–if you believe that it was even yellow-card worthy, which some of the commentators didn’t. So it was a suspect call, but not a ridiculous one depending on who you talk to. The next call, on the other hand, was awful. See, when a player gets a red card two things happen: first, that player is ejected from the game, and the team is not allowed to replace them, so the US were now playing with only ten people on the field instead of eleven. Second, because the red card happened in the goal box, the Brazilians got a penalty kick: one kicker versus one goalie, with no outside help, at extreme close range. It’s incredibly hard to block a penalty kick, so this was practically like giving the Brazilians a free goal–except that the US goalie is Hope Solo, who can block anything. She deflected the shot, the crowd cheered like mad, and the ref blew the whistle and said it didn’t count because Solo had moved too early. The commentators, at this point, went back and ran through the footage over and over again, looking for any sign that she had moved early, but she was steady as a rock. The ref was determined to give Brazil a goal. For its second attempt Brazil sent in Marta, the top scorer in the world, and got the point. The game was tied, there was half an hour left to play, and the US was down a player. Things looked horribly unwinnable. But the US team never gave up.
When you’re short a player you have to choose: you’re going to have a weak spot regardless, so do you put it on attack or defense? With the game tied, the US couldn’t afford to slack on offense, so they put all their strength up front and trusted Solo to pick up the slack. She did so more than admirably. The second half finished with a tie, sending the game into two 15-minute blocks of overtime. Marta managed to land the craziest shot I’ve ever seen, kicking it over her head and backward to hook up, pass the defenders, and drop into the top corner of the goal like magic. She really is an amazing player, and if she’d made the shot just one minute earlier it would have won them the game, but overtime had already started, and they had to play the full 30 minutes. 30 minutes later, after almost a full hour of 10-vs-11 desperation, the US landed a crazy goal of their own, with a Hail Mary pass from Megan Rapinoe turning into a gorgeous headshot from Abby Wambach, the US team captain.
Not only did this goal happen after the normal time had ended, it technically happened after the overtime had ended, in what’s called stoppage time. See, in soccer, there’s none of the constant time-outs and whatnot that you see in games like American football; if the players stop playing for any reason, like a substitution or an injury or even a pause while the ref makes a call, the clock keeps running, and the refs keep track of all this wasted time and then add it on at the end. After Brazil made it’s overtime goal they decided to slow the game down as much as they could, playing around with the ball and keeping it away from the Americans as much as possible, on the theory that every second they don’t have the ball is a second they can’t use to score. This reached a ridiculous extreme toward the end as two different Brazilian players, within about five minutes of each other, collapsed in apparent agony and called for medics and stretchers to carry them off the field. If you can find the footage somewhere (I searched everywhere, but it’s not up yet), the second Brazilian to do this was awesome: she’s standing near the back line, twenty yards from the nearest opponent, and just keels over for no reason. The medics come out, the refs go over, they strap her into the stretcher, and about three minutes later they finally get her off the field, at which point she jumps up, runs to the bench for a drink, and then COMES RIGHT BACK ONTO THE FIELD. In a game renowned for its cheap “ow I’ve been hurt” fakeouts, this was the fakiest fake of a time-wasting improv show you will ever see. The refs didn’t call a penalty on her for it, but they added the full three minutes to the end of the game, and that is when the Americans finally scored their second goal. When you score in the 122nd minute of a game that’s only supposed to be 90 minutes long, that’s pretty much the definition of “never giving up.”
With overtime over and the game still tied, the game goes to penalty kicks, which as I said are incredibly hard to block. Each team gets five shots, and whoever makes the most wins the game. Once again, Hope Solo showed us just how good she really is, and managed to block two of them. One of the blocked shots, in a sad/ironic coincidence, came from Daiane, the same Brazilian player who scored the own-goal at the beginning of the game, more or less ensuring that she’ll spend the rest of her life blaming herself for Brazil’s loss. I also imagine she got a few wedgies in the locker room, assuming women give wedgies. Sad Daiane aside, the US team won the match and moves on to the semifinals tomorrow, playing France. you can bet I’m going to be watching.
So: one of the best teams in the world gives up an own-goal and loses to a team that doesn’t even have all its players. The game goes into overtime even though one team has technically never made a goal. The refs are inscrutable and the players are deceitful. Why did I love this match so much? Because it embodies everything I love and hate about soccer. It was thrilling, start to finish, and the players involved are just so dang GOOD. Yes, most of the goals came from what looked like pure luck, but it takes an incredibly talented team to create those lucky opportunities and then capitalize on them. Either of those teams, on that day, in that zone of excellence, would have demolished any other team they played against, but because they were playing each other the skill and the zaniness were catalyzed into a ball of chaos, and the fun came from watching both teams give it everything they had and somehow manage to control the uncontrollable. It’s like watching a bull rider: the slightest mistake will get them killed, but they hang on and do their best and make it work.
I love this game. Time for a soccer party tomorrow evening.