For the soccer players who are competing in the Olympic Games in Tokyo these days, the gold medal is as great a prize as winning a World Cup. Competitiveness proves it. As there are no age limitations or coincidences in the calendar with other international competitions, as in the men’s tournament, the teams have brought their best possible teams. Eight of the ten best nations according to the FIFA ranking were present in the quarterfinals played this Friday and there was no lack of emotion. A penalty shootout after a scoreless draw has ended with Canada beating Brazil (4-3); a three-goal overtime gave Australia a 3-4 win over Great Britain; the hosts lost 3-1 to Sweden; and, the icing on the cake, the repetition of the final of the last World Cup, the Netherlands against the United States, which was decided in a round (2-4) after a 2-2 draw in 120 minutes. Everything brought up the two semifinals that will be played this Monday: United States-Canada and Australia-Sweden.
The day started with Canada and Brazil at the Miyagi Stadium about 350 kilometers north of Tokyo. Both teams had qualified second in their groups, playing with a direct style and a fierce attitude thanks to the experience of their figures. The Canadians were led by their captain, 38-year-old offensive midfielder Christine Sinclair, while the Brazilian midfield contained Formiga, who at 43 is the oldest footballer to play a Games, and the legend that is Marta, from 35, the only one to score in five different editions. However, the game was stuck and advanced 120 minutes without goals. On the penalty shootout, it looked like Brazil had it from the start when Marta scored after Sinclair missed hers. However, the Canadians rallied and ended up winning 4-3 thanks to two key saves from goalkeeper Labbe.
While that party was contested, Australia and Great Britain offered a seemingly endless sway of emotions. In regulation time, the Matildas, as the Australian team is known, they started out winning despite British pressure. In the second half, a double by England forward Ellen White in 10 minutes – an accurate header from the penalty spot and a cross shot in an area full of defenders – put Great Britain ahead in the 66th minute. In one minute to 90, Chelsea striker Sam Kerr, Australia’s greatest figure, received the ball with his chest and shot at the far post to tie the game.
In extra time the suffocating heat was not enough to slow down the game that went from end to end with each play. After a penalty missed by the British, their rivals scored two goals in three minutes, but the Europeans refused to give up. Ellen White got her treble at 115 and she and her teammates besieged Australia’s goal until the end, but it wasn’t enough.
All this drama had not happened yet when, at Spanish noon, the hosts, number 10 in the FIFA rankings, the worst team in the quarterfinals according to that ranking, faced Sweden, the only one to win their three matches of the group stage, including a 3-0 win over the reigning world champions, the United States. The outcome of this duel was more predictable. The Swedes prevailed comfortably 3-1 and, despite the effort and pride of the Japanese on their own ground, they confirmed their ability to control the game and maturity to carry out a victory without too much wear and tear.
The main attraction of the afternoon was saved for last. The four-time gold medalists, the United States, faced the Netherlands two years after meeting each other in the World Cup final in France, a match the Americans won. The Dutch were looking forward to revenge and coming from scoring 21 goals in the group stage, courtesy of huge victories against Zambia and China, there was even some confidence. On the other side, the Americans were nervous. The defeat against Sweden in the first game left them touched and their offensive identity was affected, which was confirmed by a pragmatic approach in the tie to 0 against Australia that assured both of them a pass to the quarterfinals.
After 18 minutes of play, the Netherlands struck first with a goal from star forward Vivianne Miedema. But the United States had come out with a different mentality, as if they had something to prove, and with two goals in three minutes they turned the game around just after half an hour of play. The break came, the second half began and the Netherlands attacked on the wing, seeking to exploit the speed of the Barcelona attacker Lieke Martens. In 54 Miedema completed his double, and with it his tenth goal of the tournament, an Olympic record, and the match was opened. The Dutch attacked again and again, but the North American Naeher rejected them each time with save after save, including a penalty in the 81st minute. The game went into extra time and it was a chaotic half hour with two goals disallowed from outside game for each team. In the end everything was decided from the 12 steps and again Naeher was the figure with two stops.
The players of the four teams have just a couple of days to physically recover from the effort of playing 120 minutes in the already highly commented weather conditions at these Games. If the trend for women’s soccer at these Games continues into the semi-finals, there will be a lot to look forward to from Monday’s matches.
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