Artificial surfaces have provided a poor platform to build women’s game, writes Alan Campbell
For all that the two semi-final matches of the Women’s World Cup provided some wonderful drama, there is a feeling of considerable relief that the tournament will return to Europe, and grass surfaces, when it is staged in France in 2019.
The choice of Canada to host the seventh World Cup may not, for any number of reasons, have been as controversial or inappropriate as FIFA’s decision to award the men’s World Cup to Qatar in 2022. It was, nevertheless, a retrogressive step given the huge success of the Women’s World Cup when it was staged in Germany four years ago; Canada is not a soccer country.
All the venues had artificial surfaces, and nor by any stretch of the imagination were they traditional football grounds. As a consequence the standard of play suffered badly – hardly surprising when the Australian striker Michelle Heymann described the combination of synthetic surfaces and very high temperatures as similar to running on hot coals. Women’s football has now been embraced by Fifpro, the international players’ union, and there is no way that such conditions will be tolerated at future tournaments. That FIFA allowed it in Canada only betrays a contempt for the sport.
The only bonus, as far as advancing the popularity of women’s football on these islands is concerned, was England reaching the semi-finals. Defender Laura Bassett, who conceded the 92nd-minute own goal which allowed holders Japan to go through to the final against the United States, ensured that she and her team-mates now have a profile which transcends the sport.
England, on the basis of their second-half display, were unlucky not to reach the final but overall they contributed to the generally disappointing nature of the spectacle. If their tactics were often cautious that was at least understandable, as well as being the prerogative of head coach Mark Sampson whose job it was to progress the team as far through the World Cup as possible, but what was less easy to forgive was their cynical time wasting. It is always a sign of an insecure team that they will try to protect a one-goal lead by taking the ball to the corner flag to waste time near the end of a match, but England took this to new levels in Canada. When you have a rare chnce to showcase your sport to a global audience, importing and exaggerating negative practices from men’s football doesn’t seem the smartest move.
To be fair to Sampson, who replaced the long standing Hope Powell as head coach, he took aboard the lessons of a 3-0 friendly defeat against Germany at Wembley last November and has made England a much more resilient side. Laura Bronze, the 23-year-old Manchester City full back, has been one of the tournament’s stand-outs.
England’s improvement is also a consequence of the players now enjoying a professional domestic league. Four years ago Kim Little had fewer training sessions with Arsenal than the so-called amateur players at Glasgow City did. The new FA Women’s Super League has provided the environment for England to flourish and, depressingly, the potential to start pulling well ahead of Scotland given the commitment of their men’s clubs compared to ours.
Other reasons why this World Cup hasn’t reached the standards of Germany include the subdued performances of the leading teams. The United States, bidding for a record third tournament win against Japan, didn’t come to life until the semi-final against the Germans.
The heavy criticism they were getting at home for their performances up until that point will doubtless be forgotten if Jill Ellis’s side prevail in the early hours of tomorrow morning. They have every chance against a Japan side who rely totally on keeping the ball and have very little punch in attack.
The United States continue to rely heavily on power and athleticism, as do Germany, who played England in the third and fourth place play-off match last night. The Germans have more technically gifted players, but were another side which failed to live up to expectations on the artificial surfaces.
France, who in many respects were the best all-round side in the tournament, adding considerable flair to strong physical attributes, lost to Germany in the quarter-finals. They were let down throughout the tournament by inconsistency and poor finishing, meaning they were unable to improve on their fourth place in 2011.
This year, FIFA brought the number of teams up to 24. The consequence was a World Cup which began on June 6 and will end (in North America at least) on July 5. That, added to the much more serious problem of awarding the tournament to a country which couldn’t provide grass surfaces, was too long.