Day 5 of the World Cup was probably the most rewarding, and a great example of how football is football no matter who is playing it, no matter where they come from. We do our best to not compare or relate the women’s game to the men’s, as they’re two different sports. But Sunday night’s fare was perhaps the most brilliant example of how soccer ethos in particular countries will always bleed through, how they see the game, and how they think it should be played. Identity still rules overall. Which means if you’re Brazil, a soccer game is not only no reason to stop partying, but a reason to simply turn it up. If you’re Italy, it means playing with a sneer. If you’re Argentina, it means playing with a straight-up middle finger raised. And if you’re Germany, it just means being an efficient steamroller. It was all on display in the wee hours of Sunday night, so let’s make it hot.
Certainly not the game with the most goalmouth action or chances, but the only one that was competitive so we’ll start with it.
Desperation can make for great spectacles. Both of these teams will fancy themselves as the more likely to advance behind Sweden in the group, though South Africa won’t go quietly either. But after Sweden’s win, as dodgy as it may have been, would have boosted both Argentina’s and Italy’s impetus to get three points to start their campaign to A. get a leg up on both the loser and South Africa, and B. not require getting a result off of Sweden when they have to play them. Of all the first-round games we’ve seen, this one felt like it had the most riding on it.
Which is why it was certainly the most frantic, as these two teams hurled themselves at each other full throttle for most of the 90 minutes. At times this looked like the army of men and the army of orcs chucking pieces of Gondor at each other. The tense and helter-skelter nature was only heightened by both teams pressing high and furiously and both teams being just short of being able to negotiate it smoothly with the ball. Turnovers, tackles, and then more tackles turned the temperature up on this one.
Argentina had more yellow cards than shots on target (4 to 1) and were determined to get stuck in. The charge was led by striker Mariana Larroquette, carrying on the Argentine tradition of a forward who could start a fight in an empty room. Romina Nunez, Estefania Banini, and Florencia Bonsegundo (Trying really hard to not make a “left my wallet” joke), who are Argentina’s front four, followed Larroquette’s lead in getting in Italy’s face.
Italy didn’t shy from the spiciness, and perhaps the story of the match was Giulia Dragoni, a mere 16 years old, not only starting the match, not only being deposited into the middle of midfield but rising above the bubbling lava to show why she is the first foreign-born woman (girl, really) to be taken into Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy.
She was basically the last scene of Slapshot on a soccer field.
Italy looked most dangerous in the second half when Dragoni was moved into the #10 role instead of part of the double pivot she started the match in. And while the whole match was played on a knife’s edge (and possibly with actual knives), the game probably turned on Italy finding a calm within the storm while Argentina continued to rage and try to turn the whole thing into Double Dragon. That doesn’t mean Italy created a ton (0.4 xG), but they created enough and just more than Argentina:
It’s how Italy would have drawn it up — an overload on their right, the ball recycled back to Manuela Giugliano in deep midfield who switches the play out to an isolated Lisa Boattin, a player who was more winger than fullback all night. She slings in a menacing cross to the far post that Italy have flooded off the back of that overload, and Girelli with an absolute class header to win it. It’s what they’d looked for all match.
You don’t get this type of match when either or both teams think they have time to build something later in the tourney or think it’s a free hit. Italy and Argentina both thought they had everything riding on this one and played like it. It wasn’t artsy or pretty, and downright ugly at times, but great theater doesn’t have to be.
No one’s more up for ruining a fairytale than Germany. Morocco is a great story as the first Arab nation to qualify for this tournament, as well as all the resources, and effort they’ve put into their program. Germany is not required, and in fact instructed, to not give a shit about any of that. And they most certainly didn’t, going for a touchdown in their World Cup opener.
That they did it without Lena Oberdorf and Marina Hegering is only scarier. Morocco set up pretty organized in a 4-4-2, trying to cut off access to Sara Dabritz and Melanie Leupolz and force Germany to go long, and wide, and it didn’t really matter. Svenja Huth from right back, Lina Magull from advanced midfield, and the three attackers all rotated in and out of space in front, and behind Morocco’s midfield four. Occasionally the centerbacks would lace a pass straight into Alexandra Popp and then out wide, or just a switch-ball out wide. Their variety was stunning, and Morocco didn’t have any answers.
Hell, Popp didn’t even need to face the right way to score:
The World Cup isn’t won in the first game, and there really isn’t anything such as “message sent.” But the fact that Germany did this without two of their linchpins…well, their rivals won’t feel great about it, let’s say.
If there was a ruthlessness to Germany’s ass-waxing of Morocco, perhaps the only thing more hurtful is to perform the same kind of ass-waxing with a joie de vivre. It’s one thing when it’s just business, and another when your tormentor is getting off on it.
Brazil were joyous throughout the 90. They were smiling, laughing, and high-fiving after chances, and shots that didn’t go in. They played like it was an office party and the bar was open. While Panama wanted to clog the middle and make the spaces tiny, Brazil are the most don’t-give-a-fuck side you can find. It’s probably the most don’t-give-a-fuck country you can find. While Lori Lindsey in the booth pleaded with Brazil to play the ball out wide more, there is no space tight enough that Brazil doesn’t want to test itself against. The front four in their 4-2-2-2 of Adriana, Debinha, Bia Zaneratto, and Ary Borges were a constant dervish of motion and interchanging, with all four pulling wide or combining in the middle, or coming deep to running in behind. They at least showed they were willing to try to pick their way through the clogged middle through delicate touches and 1-2s to open up the space out wide, where fullbacks Tamires, and Antonia were bombing forward with glee.
What will delight manager Pia Sundhage the most is that Brazil, as managers love to say, “earned their right to play.” Meaning that when they lost the ball, they furiously chased it back down, and forced Panama into giveaway after giveaway. A stat during the first half showed that Brazil averaged just seven seconds between losing the ball and gaining it back. This has been Sundhage’s quest with this team, and so far it looks like a success. Though obviously it’s one thing to do it against Panama in their first-ever World Cup game and the challenges to come, but have to start somewhere.
As if there could be any other:
This is so Brazil even The Redeemer statue started dancing. Borges turns down a gimme for a World Cup hat trick, in her first-ever World Cup game, because she’d rather pull off the backheel to Zaneratto for the dunk. Then again, when you have a touch like Borges’s to kill that cross right at her feet, you can do whatever the fuck you want. This is the type of goal that makes your hips do things you didn’t know they were capable of.
He had the day off, but that didn’t mean Fox couldn’t make things weird. There’s a way to link men’s and women’s teams from countries, and there’s a way not to. Guess which one Fox found?
Before the Argentina game, host Rob Stone couldn’t wait to connect the men’s triumph in December to this team, and there was even a full video segment about it. As if one has anything to do with the other. While the women’s team are certainly fans and were delighted to see Messi lift the trophy just like any other Argentine, it has exactly zero to do with the women’s team. The challenges and obstacles they face are completely different. If Messi had claimed that World Cup a mere 10 or 15 years after the country started taking the sport seriously (and not seriously enough yes), then we can talk. You might as well connect it to Argentina’s gold medal in basketball in 2004. It’s lazy, easy, and nonsensical. Perhaps illustrating the difference between how the two programs are treated by the Argentina FA through that World Cup win would be useful?
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