Women's World Cup: Unexpected thrills
Germany toppled Brazil 2-0 in Sunday's final match, one that even a fan of men's soccer could love.
For 90 minutes Sunday night, 31,000 spectators at the Hongkou stadium here in Shanghai defied the accepted wisdom: They got excited about women's soccer.
Germany's 2-0 victory over Brazil in the women's World Cup final proved a thrilling match to the sell-out crowd, even to my jaundiced male eyes. And it was a thoroughly emotional and international affair with Germans playing Brazilians in front of a Chinese crowd doing the Mexican wave.
Indeed, from where I was sitting high in the stands, the only obviously empty seats appeared to be in the press box, which was little more than half-full.
Fans of men's soccer might turn their noses up at the women's version. And it is true that even at the top international level of Sunday night's game, the women's passes were not as accurate, their ball-handling skills not as precise, and their speed was not as breathtaking.
But even my French wife's uncle, who misspent his youth going to every game that the Saint Étienne team played, was impressed. "OK, the technical level was below the men's game, but that doesn't mean there were not some very good moments," he remarked at the close of the match here.
Germany's victory made it the first team to successfully defend a women's World Cup. Brazil's loss was a bitter blow; Brazil's women have never won a World Cup, despite coming from a country that's a powerhouse of the sport. Brazilian female players have suffered in the shadow of their male counterparts, who have won five World Cup titles.
After an evenly matched first half, in which Germany's vigor dampened Brazil's flair, the game shifted up a gear seven minutes into the second half, when Germany's star striker, Birgit Prinz, smacked a perfectly placed pass past the Brazilian goalkeeper. Ms. Prinz is a three-time Player of the Year winner.
But Prinz's goal galvanized the Brazilian women. They took every opportunity to move the ball forward to their own star, Marta Vieira da Silva, known by all as "Marta," whose ball-handling skills are often compared with those of her legendary male compatriot, Ronaldhino.
As Marta twisted and turned on the ball, just outside Germany's penalty area in the 66th minute, Prinz felled her from behind, setting up a penalty shot. But just as she had saved a penalty kick a few minutes earlier, Nadine Angerer, the German goalkeeper made a dramatic diving save. She did not let a shot into the net during the entire tournament.
When Germany's Simone Laudehr headed a corner kick home four minutes from the final whistle, Brazil's fate was sealed.
Even Marta's brilliance (she led all scorers with seven goals in the tournament) offered no salvation. And if it remains the case that male soccer stars "have all the money, all the media attention, even all the hairdryers," as one English commentator put it recently, Marta's style probably does not augur a new path for the women's game.
"Marta knows how to play like a man. That is probably what makes her different," Brazilian teammate Simone said last week.
Still, for the first time, the women were rewarded with a decent amount of cash, though it was small compared with what is on offer in the man's game. The winning team split $1 million, while the Brazilians took home $800,000.
In addition to the money, the Brazilian women got another boost at home, after they thumped the USA 4-0 in the semifinal Thursday: the Brazilian Soccer Federation announced it would be launching its first women's league at the end of the month.
The American team, meanwhile, salvaged some of its honor after its humiliating semifinal defeat by winning the bronze medal Sunday in a 4-1 victory over Norway. They did not need Hope Solo, the US keeper who was not even allowed to attend Sunday's game, after her public outburst on Friday.