Not even a minute into last night’s highly-anticipated, criminally-premature title fight that was France vs. Germany, Les Bleues were off on one of their typical jaunts towards goal, one that exemplified everything that makes them such a special team.
Awaiting a long throw-in from their own half, French striker Eugénie Le Sommer muscled off a German defender at her back to fight for position. As the ball came to her, she lept in the air and nodded it on with the top of her head in the direction of Élodie Thomis. As ball was bouncing and a little behind the winger’s run, Thomis lifted her foot behind her and flipped the ball head with an inventive little flick using the back of her heel. At that point, she was unleashed.
Thomis tore down the flank, outracing Germany’s helpless left back Tabea Kemme, who didn’t have a prayer in heaven of keeping pace. With Thomis’s speed completely warping the back line, Le Sommer and Louisa Nécib sprinted into the center of the pitch almost completely unmarked. Thomis then lifted her head, saw her teammates in the box, and clipped in a perfect cross, all while moving nearly at the speed of light.
Nécib, a uniquely gifted creative genius in the women’s game, was best in position to finish the chance. She strode confidently onto the incoming ball, volleyed it coolly towards goal, only for it to fizz wide of the post and into the ad boards. After the shot she hopped in the air and brought her hands to her face, knowing that she’d just blown the haymaker she could’ve and probably should’ve landed so early in the bout, then collected herself and ran back toward her position.
In that move, France exhibited everything they and they alone had truly mastered at this World Cup. They are physically imposing, with the height and strength to jockey with defenders and win the ball; they have unrivaled athleticism, as seen primarily through Thomis’s Olympic speed (and I’m still confused how the German defenders all ended the match with their hamstrings still intact after trying to keep up with her); their technique is exquisite, as Thomis’s half-rainbow flick and Nécib’s well-taken but poorly-aimed volley showed; they are tactically astute (pressing high and implementing a high tempo, looking to push their advantage as quickly as possible), and are full of intelligent players making just the right runs to open space for others and present dangerous options that their visionary passers almost always see and reward. France have everything. And now they’re going home.
It’s a shame they weren’t able to capitalize on their shocking dominance over their only other real rival in terms of consistent impressive play at this tournament. The match was as great as we all thought it would be, but not in the way anyone predicted. What was supposed to be a wide-open affair between two great offenses trying to score one more goal than the other team was actually a steady beat-down by the French on the Germans. From that first chance and the subsequent 10-15 minutes, France played almost exclusively in the German half of the pitch, slicing through their opponent’s shaky defense, combining to create but then bungling chances on goal, and winning back possession almost as soon as it was lost with their harrowing team pressing. France had Germany looking like the U.S.: disjointed, unable to string together more than a couple passes, and, when under pressure, resorting to speculative long balls for the isolated forwards to attempt to coral.
While that opening period of French domination would subside, they were still in control for basically the entire rest of regulation. Whenever Germany looked to be growing into the game and created a shot or two on consecutive possessions, France came right back and reasserted themselves. The Germans will have nightmares about Thomis torching down that right wing, as well as Nécib—finally living up to her ability after a fairly anonymous World Cup up to that point—and her movement between the lines.
But, soccer being soccer, if you don’t mark spells of control with goals, you’re always at risk of getting dinged against the run of play. Nécib did eventually get one of the goals France had coming in the 64th minute, but a handball in the box gave Germany a penalty that Célia Šašić slotted home to level things 20 minutes later.
(Aside: the handball in the box rule sucks. As it stands, it’s ridiculously subjective. Besides the two extremes—a ball kicked or ricocheted onto an arm when there was no feasible way of preventing it, or a glaringly obvious Luis Suárez-style intentional one—there is no consistency between what is or isn’t a penalty. You can see why the call Germany benefited from was made, sure, but it was practically identical to another incident in the first half that wasn’t called and that would’ve given France a spot kick. Penalties are too important to be be almost purely subjective.)
France were pretty worn out by the time extra time rolled around, but still had the better opportunities to kill the game off before the dreaded penalty shootout. Towards the very end of open play, substitute Gaëtane Thiney had the ball on her foot and an open goal in front of her, but much like Nécib at the very beginning of the match, she fired wide. The match went to penalties, Germany won, and France and all women’s soccer fans will have to live with the fact that the most complete team in the entire tournament was knocked out in the quarterfinals.
The end result shouldn’t taint what France managed to build, though. What they were able to achieve all tournament—with moments of individual brilliance like this and this, spells of intricate, one- and two-touch combination play that makes you want to tear your hair out in joy like this and this, plus the athleticism, the technical and tactical intelligence that facilitated all their play in Canada—is where the sport is going. They are moving closer to that platonic ideal of a soccer super-team that we lamented the USWNT for seemingly drifting away from. France weren’t rewarded for what they’ve done this summer in the form of their first World Cup trophy, but future winners will almost certainly look a lot more like this team than any of the others still in the field.
Photos via Getty