Friday, July 30, 2010

Regime Change: Africa in the World Cup Final

Fifa's match reporters seem surprised that Nigeria made it to the U20 Women's World Cup finals. They write:
Few...would have predicted that Nigeria, representatives of an African continent which had never before sampled life beyond the quarter-finals of any FIFA Women’s World Cup or Olympic Games, would be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Sunday’s final in Bielefeld is therefore full of intrigue and fascination.
I must be one of the few. If you watched the women's games in the last Olympics, you might remember that Nigeria drew the toughest group - playing Germany, Brazil, and North Korea in the first round. The Super Falcons gave all three teams a tough time - they played some of the most entertaining attacking football in the tournament.  Watching Nigeria play Brazil, you couldn't help but think you were watching the future of the women's game - neither squad enjoys the institutional support they deserve from their football federations, and they compete well against teams lionized for not only the talent on the field, but for the organizational commitment behind the players. Brazil and Nigeria's senior squads would be contenders for next year's World Cup championship were they supported at even a quarter of the level awarded to their male counterparts. (Boy am I tired of writing sentences like that one.)  Both have fans in their home countries, and both play in styles that reflect the ethos associated with South American and African teams, but which seems lost in the men's game these days.

The Nigerians have not scored the outrageous number of goals that other squads have managed in some of the tournament's ill-matched confrontations.  But the Germans, who have 18 goals in their column, played the woeful French and Costa Rican squads in round one and rolled over the S. Korean squad, with 5 goals to their 1. And the Nigerians have kept the number of goals scored against them low - at 4, they have given up one fewer than Germany.  Furthermore, the Nigerians beat the US youth squad - symbolically, I can't think of a better result for the international game.

In the wonderfully titled article "Our Women Rule the World," Nigerian journalist Ikeddy Isiguzo writes,
USA is the most dominant country in global female football and its U-20 team has never failed to reach the semi-final since the competition started in 2002.
It was the defending champion, and had garnered two wins, a third and fourth place in the four previous competitions  no other country has a record close to this.
Another article, on Nigeria's semifinal win over Columbia is headlined "What Our Men Couldn't Do."  Ghana getting past Uruguay would have been historic. But Nigeria's women beating USA? Or Germany? That would be a ground-breaking victory for not just Nigeria and indeed for Africa's women's teams, but for all women's teams that aren't USA or Germany.  When so few teams play in finals so often, it makes victory for the rest feel impossible - it makes the whole system feel rigged.  It furthermore feeds the defeatist attitude that defines the approach of the vast majority of national FAs (which think: women's football sucks, women don't play well, nobody cares about it, and they will lose anyway).

So, yes, Germany should be favored in this match. But I think anyone who sees the Falconets as unlikely finalists or accidental contenders has not been following the women's game very closely. And I guess that includes FIFA itself.

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