Friday, July 1, 2011

Nigeria's Game

I fell in love with the Super Falcons during the 2008 Olympics, watching them slug out the ultimate group-of-death: Germany, Brazil, Nigeria and North Korea. None of the games in that tournament were as exciting as those Nigeria played in this group.

Nevertheless, Nigeria didn't make it past that stage. Similarly, last night's performance against Germany will likely go down as one of the best in the tournament. It had everything: skill, stamina, speed and controversy.

Basically, the Super Falcons have so much pace, and play so aggressively that it was as if Germany's formation had been put though a blender. Nigeria is that fearsome team which does not allow others to play their game. The first twenty minutes in Nigeria's game are particularly chaotic. This does not mean they are without tactic: quite the opposite. It's the mobile, fluid tactic of a game constantly adjusting itself to the other team's strategies.

It was hard to reconcile last night's performance with the match against France: It seems likely they underestimated les Bleus, or is it that France read Nigeria better than did Germany?

It might also be possible that unlike last night's game, the match with France was actually refereed. Poor refereeing absolutely favors Nigeria - thus some the match's controversy.

In spite of their tremendous effort, Nigeria had scarcely any shots at goal. I asked former FC Indiana coach Shek Borkowsky (via Twitter) why Germany won, even though it was clearly a brutal game for them. (His comments are edited, to translate tweets into sentences.)
The way Nigeria performed yesterday no other team in this competition would beat them. Nigeria's aggression and commitment level was three times of that they showed against France. Still, Germany limited Nigeria to one shot on goal.  It was the most combative match, ever.
I asked him why, given the intensity of Nigeria's performance which genuinely seemed to rattle Germany, the host team still came out on top. His reply:
Because Laudher and Kulig are so good at what they do. Nigeria's strikers rarely have midfield support, and with limited options available for them, Bartusiak and Krahn's job is easier. The only time Germany had problems in their 3rd is when they gave away the ball. 
Despite poor passing and strong Nigeria performance, Germany was never going to lose that match. That's how strong they are.  You can kick Germany, you can foul them, you can take them off their game and still they win. Frightening!     [FF @ShekBorkowsky]
Call me an optimist, but the USWNT has some of Germany's mental toughness - the ability to keep it together under pressure, which comes from experience. (But do we have the depth of talent - I mean, Alexandra Popp and Inka Grings - two of the world's best players - came off Germany's bench!)

I am really excited to see France and Germany play each other: Olympique Lyon beat Potsdam in this year's European club championship, and there are ten of these club champions on France's squad (Germany's squad is more diverse than this). France are playing like a finely tuned unit (is someone trying to create a Barça-like synergy with the national team for Lyon?). We'll see that organization and talent tested as these two go head to head, playing for placement. Not exactly the highest stakes, but hopefully it will be enough for us to take the full measure of France's depth and mettle.

I've held my comments regarding the mess in the Super Falcons camp for last. It's important to foreground the players in all this, to divorce (as much as is possible) these women from the Nigerian FA, and their homophobic coach. It was awful hearing boos and whistles - at the start of the match this was clearly directed at the Nigerian officials. It is hard imagine how these athletes felt, taking to the field in that atmosphere. It didn't feel like support to me.

How do we properly support these women? Because to single out Uche as if she alone were the problem is just wrong. She was hired by the FA, and thrown on the front line to represent a "new look" for the team. It is also wrong to single out her homophobia as somehow an anomaly: - as if it looked nothing like, say the German FA's behavior - according to a story published in The Local,
In 1995, the DFB prohibited national team players from participating inthe European Gay and Lesbian Sport Championships in Frankfurt. Several players had expressed interest in participating, but none wanted to risk being dropped from the national squad before the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.("Women's Football Confronts Gay Taboos")
What I dread about the way the Nigeria story is being handled: it is too easy for this turn into a smug celebration of European liberalism as if Europe's own attitudes, histories and practices had nothing to do with any of this.  Let's remember - the original ban against women's involvement in football (which was adopted in Germany) came from the English FA, and was very much a response to the (accurate) perception that there were a lot of "unladylike" women on the pitch, having a great time together, in front of large crowds of people who thought this was a great thing. If a game like last night's - an epic match played before a packed stadium of people deeply involved with the drama unfolding before them - if something like that feels rare, it's not because of anything the Nigerian FA did a few months ago, but because of the systemic suppression of women's involvement with such spectacles since at least 1921.

We'd do well to keep this long view in mind, otherwise it's as if the Super Falcon's elimination from the World Cup has somehow solved the problem. Which, of course, it hasn't.

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