Friday, August 12, 2011

Silencing USA! USA! chants (Musings on 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup)

I love soccer ('football' outside of NA) and the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup in July was a delight to watch. Amazing how much entertaining drama such international events can generate. It's taken awhile, but I'd like to offer some musings on the tournament, particularly the play of the Japanese and American teams and my reaction to chants of USA! USA!

Germany, arguably the best women's team in the world heading into the tournament and the two-time defending champions, was favoured to win, especially playing on home turf. They had not lost a game since 1999. What a shocker to see little Japan beat them 1-0 in extra time during the quarter finals despite the added disadvantage of a strongly pro-German crowd. But the win foreshadowed what was to come in the final against the USA team, also a tournament favorite.


I say 'little Japan' because most of their players are inches shorter than others, especially opponents on the German and USA teams, some of whose members are amazon-like. For example, the average height of the Japanese women is 5'4'' versus 5'7' for USA players. Japan's veteran star midfielder Homare Sawa is 5'5'', compared to the USA's prolific scorer Abby Wambach, who is 5'11''. Japan's midfielder, Aya Miyama, who scored in the final, is only 5'2''. Germany's legendary Birgit Prinz, although not a factor in the tournament, is just over 5'10''.

Being short has significant implications in soccer:
1. Short players have to run many more steps than taller opponents.

2. Short players seldom or never win challenges for the ball involving headers.

3. Short players seldom score on headers, a gold mine of goals from set plays such as corners.

4. Short players are typically much smaller overall, hence tall players can usually physically 'muscle' short ones off the ball.

5. Short players usually lack the power of taller ones and kick balls with less force and speed.

6. A short goalie is disadvantaged with a shorter reach. Tall 'keeper's' can stretch farther and protect more of the goal. Japan's Ayumi Kaihori is under 5'6'', whereas Hope Solo, the best goalie in the tournament (and arrogant at times), is 5'9''.
Yet Japan (ranked #4) beat the taller and physically stronger German and American teams.


Like many around the globe, in the final I cheered for Japan, the clear underdog. But it wasn't just a case of cheering for David against Goliath.

During the tournament, as in most international sports events, whenever the USA plays, chants of USA! USA! are bound to arise. Many American fans attended the 2011 FIFA tournament, not just American tourists, but also due to the presence of the US military in Germany. Since 1984 and the Los Angeles Olympics I've detested these chants.

It began when watching a volleyball game. I forget if it was men or women but the USA was playing a team from a small Pacific Island nation. As you can imagine, it was a rout, with the USA team being so much better. Yet the American fans in LA constantly chanted USA! USA! and never once cheered or clapped when the outclassed opponents from the tiny island nation made a good play.

The Yanks in the LA crowd seemingly had no sense of fair play and no appreciation for the game. Like bullies, they relished in the beating up of a runt, exhibiting chauvinistic patriotism, where only winning matters.

That's what USA! USA! has reminded me of ever since, including in the German FIFA women's tournament. (I won't go into the sickening feeling generated by over-the-top political use of USA!USA! by mostly right wing supporters at American political rallies, as if only Republicans and Tea Partiers are patriotic.)

For fun, this is a Canadian crowd chanting USA! USA! to recognize the great effort of the US women's hockey team in winning the silver medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics. It's during the medal ceremony after Canada beat them in the gold medal  game.

The pro-American crowd's USA! USA! chants aside, there are many admirable things about the US women's soccer team. Some that impressed me:

1. Abby Wambach is a class act.
Not only did she show sportsmanship throughout all the games, give interviews after the games that acknowledged opponents, e.g., after the USA won over France in the semi-final, she noted that France played better than the USA at times (No kidding! France outshot the USA 25 to 11.)
I was especially impressed that, even after the USA lost the gold medal game to Japan, which was a heartbreaker to Americans, Abby still showed good sportsmanship to those Japanese players who, like her, had won awards. She lent a helping arm to guide them into posing for photos, a joy to behold.
2. Besides Wambach, the team has many excellent players, including Megan Rapinoe. I've never seen anyone better at delivering corners. In the game against the talented Brazil squad, she saved the USA with a perfectly placed pass to Wambach, whose header tied the game at the 122'' minute mark (into injury time at the end of overtime).

Singing 'Born in the USA' after the win over Columbia was a bit much, but she has overcome setbacks and comes from a working class family who sacrificed for her.

3. Despite the high stakes, the final against Japan was a friendly match, with players on both sides, taking time to say 'sorry' and check on opponents after bringing them down by accident or on purpose. Nice to see, especially from Americans, who so often are focused on win-win-win at all costs. Both Japan and the US soccer teams showed great sportsmanship.

4. US coach, Pia Sundhage, a Swede, is a delight. After each game she always took time to praise her players and assistant coaches, and give credit to opponents.
5. The American team played its heart out in the final and had many chances to put the game out of reach early on. If they had scored on their opportunities, they would have won and been deserving winners. But they didn't.

You could say the Americans 'choked' in not capitalizing on their chances and then fell totally apart in the penalty kicks. Or you could say that Japan created their own miracle by never giving up and playing well throughout the tournament.

As a sports fan I rejoiced when the wee Japanese courageously came back to tie the game twice in the final with the USA and then win on penalty kicks.

Congratulations to Japan - Prior to the World Cup Japan and the USA had played 25 games, with Japan winning none (22 US wins and 3 ties). But on the days it counted they beat Germany and the USA without the advantages of height and power, not even the support of the spectators. Japanese players have the right stuff, the stuff of champions.

They are most deserving winners. Did I mention the Japanese team also won the tournament's Fair Play Award? They played the fairest of any team, getting just five yellows and one red card. After every game, they showed this banner to the delight of the crowds:
This summary of the tournament says it all:
What did it take? Skill, skill, and more skill. And most of all, heart. The Japanese gave 100%+ game in and game out against great odds. They didn't know the meaning of 'quit.' Their exemplary attitude, perseverance, and skilled play silenced USA! USA!

As always, comments are most welcome.

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