By Juhi Shah
Everyone expects a final match to be tough. And usually, it is. But this FIFA Women’s Football World Cup finals was nothing I could ever have anticipated seeing with my own eyes.
I’m crazy about football. In previous years, I’ve had to deal with the fact that poor coverage of the women’s cup globally and in India has meant that I could only follow matches online, through news reports and painfully unreliable online streaming. But a week ago, I was in the stands at Vancouver, Canada as USA and Japan took each other on, and I lived out my dream of watching football greats Abby Wambach and Homare Sawa play on the same field against each other. As a massive USA fan, this is one experience I will never forget.
Before the finals, I’d been watching this year’s record-breaking World Cup on television in the US, where I’d gone to visit my sister, who works for the Chicago Red Stars, a US football club. And then I watched the semi-final match between Japan and England live at Edmonton. Edmonton, is a small, quiet city in western Canada, but there was plenty of excitement in and around the stadium there – while many USA and Canada fans were there supporting England, some supporters had travelled all the way from Japan. During the game, there was a group of Japan supporters to my left, who had brought drums and balloons with them. And every time Japan was on the counter they would start chanting “Nippon! Nippon!” They sure kept us entertained.
Both teams played exceptionally well, and it almost looked like the game was going into extra time after the game was tied at 1-1 during the 89th minute. It was the first time in England’s history that they’d made it to the semi-finals of a World Cup, but little did England know that an own goal from Laura Bassett would cost them qualifying for the final.
Earlier, before the game, I’d spotted my friend Lianne Sanderson, who plays for the England team, on the field inspecting the ground. I ran over and yelled out to her, and with gestures we’d communicated that we would meet in the stands after the game. After the match ended and England lost, the atmosphere was positively mournful. We didn’t meet – Lianne never came – but I understand why.
When it came to the finals between USA and Japan on July 5 in Vancouver, though, the atmosphere inside was just fabulous. Most of the crowd that was present was supporting the USA, (Vancouver’s close to the US border) while there were a handful of Japan supporters backed by Canadian fans. My sister and I wanted to buy some FIFA Women’s World Cup merchandise before the match began, but the lines seemed a few hundred metres long, so we decided to skip it and just take our places. I had the perfect view from my seat of the entire stadium and the ground. When the players came onto the field, both teams were greeted with loud applause. During the warmup, I was eager for a glimpse of the players, and I got to see the Japanese team, which was closer to my end of the pitch. People even sang for star US midfielder Megan Rapinoe, as it was her 30th birthday that day. The warmup soon ended and the players went back in to change.
The 20-minute break before the match meant I needed to refuel on snacks and drinks. And barely 10 minutes before kick-off, the closing ceremony began – children bearing flags and armed Canadian mounties (all women) – one of them holding the trophy – walked on to the pitch, placed a flag on the podium, both teams sang their national anthems, and that was it. I was a bit upset as it was nothing close to the FIFA Men’s World Cup Finals closing ceremony last year, which had lively dancers and musicians like Shakira and Carlos Santana performing for the audience. Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez performed their official FIFA world cup song at the opening ceremony in 2014, remember?
Anyway, back to the match. Ukrainian referee Kateryna Monzul was appointed to officiate the finals. At 4pm, when her whistle went “PEEEEEEPP!” the crowd burst into applause. I felt proud as well as excited to be viewing the match live. Everyone was yelling, including me – I shouted as loud as my lungs would allow, and my hands were an angry red from all the clapping. People in the stands were waving the flags of the countries they supported, but I had my India flag tied around my neck, like a cape. Someday, I hope to see the Indian women’s football team play in the World Cup.
But back to the match: right from the start, USA was all about the attack. Their first goal came from their captain Carli Lloyd, who scored in a corner kick set piece just three minutes into the game. Her second goal followed two minutes later, after a free kick was awarded to USA close to the penalty area. Defender Julie Johnston got the assist when she tried to flick the free kick in, and Lloyd managed to squeeze herself in and score. Another nine minutes in and forward Lauren Holiday smashed a volley past the goalkeeper and into the goal. (It reminded me of the Dutch footballer Robin Van Persie, well-known for his volley shots.) By this time I was in total shock – three goals in 15 minutes and 75 more to go! My sister and I were dancing with joy. I even remember telling her that she’d better call an ambulance, I felt like I was going to faint right away. Seeing three goals being scored at a football match was exciting enough, but to watch them being scored back-to-back within 15 minutes, now that was mindblowing!
But the best was yet to come. There was the small matter of Lloyd’s hat-trick goal – and what a goal it was. She took a shot from a little inside Japan’s side of the half-way line. Ayumi Kaihori, Japan’s keeper, was running back facing the ball, trying to reach it even though she was a few yards away. She did manage to get a few fingers onto the ball, but that wasn’t enough to stop it from going in. I couldn’t believe my eyes at the spectacular goal I’d just seen. The crowd was going wild.
There was a really cute kid, around three or four years old, sitting in front of me, and every time USA scored, we would bump fists. At first he was scared of me, as I kept on yelling out the names of every player I could see on the field. Then there was another girl who was sitting two seats above me, and she was cheering for Japan. I would use two fingers to gesture at my eyes and then hers, to indicate that I was watching her (a playful attempt at intimidation). And she would retaliate by jokingly attempting to stare me down, and shouting “Nippon! Nippon!” or “Go Japan!” At the end of the match, I even went up to her to apologise. It was all in the spirit of the game, and we all were just trying to enjoy ourselves to the max.
In less than 17 minutes, USA had a four-goal advantage over Japan, and Lloyd had scored a hat-trick within 15 minutes of her first goal. It seemed like USA would easily score 10+ goals if they continued to play like that. But Japan is one team that does not give up – and I love that about them. In the 27th minute, Japan forward Yuki Ogimi got the ball from the wings, made a quick turn and blasted the ball past USA keeper Hope Solo. In the 33rd minute, Homare Sawa came in as a substitute for Azusa Iwashimizu. Remember, Sawa was playing her sixth FIFA Women’s World Cup and is one of the best players in Asia. This was a much-needed change for Japan, as the coach’s plans weren’t working out, and Japan needed an experienced midfielder to help slow the game down – something the team should have done much earlier.
As soon as the second half kicked off Japan, was all about the counter attack. They pressed and pressed, and ultimately got a goal in the 52nd minute, though it was an own goal by Johnston (who’s performance otherwise in the tournament has been extremely good, even if she did allow Germany a penalty kick in the semi-finals). USA were quick to reply and midfielder Tobin Heath got the final goal of the match through another set piece in the 54th min. The game now seemed to only lead to one possible outcome, and that was USA taking home the World Cup. At this point, US coach Jill Ellis made some nice substitutions, giving the seniors a chance to play in their final World Cup match. Abby Wambach, who was playing her last World Cup, came in for Heath, and the minute Lloyd saw that change she went to her and gave her the Captain’s armband. Christie Rampone came in for Alex Morgan in the 86th minute. Forty-year-old Rampone was in the team when USA won the title back in 1999, and this would be her last World Cup too. Three minutes were added after 90 minutes, and every player on the bench was waiting for the referee to blow the final whistle. When that happened, every player ran towards Lloyd, Wambach and Rampone to celebrate the incredible win. Wambach ran to her wife, who was sitting in the stands, and kissed her – like Sydney Leroux Dwyer did to her boyfriend and Hope Solo did to her husband.
We, too, were going crazy in the stands. We waited for the prize distribution ceremony. Some of the players had their kids running around the field, playing with the confetti that had fallen on the ground. My sister and I, along with a few friends that we’d made in the seats around us, were dancing and singing to the latest songs being played inside the stadium. We waited until all the players had gone back into the dressing room. It must have been around 7 or 7.30pm, but it was still bright (as it was summer in Canada, the sun only set around 10pm when we in Vancouver). The stadium was slowly emptying and the volunteers had asked all the people to start leaving, as they needed to clean the stands. The merchandise counters were sold out by the end. My sister and I took some pictures together and then we decided to head back to the hotel.
Outside the stadium, all the Americans who had been chanting “I believe that we will win” – the war cry for US basketball and soccer fans – during the match now switched to “I believe that we just won”. Many Americans were singing songs and just enjoying the moment – it was, after all, the USA’s third Women’s Football World Cup title.
We were trying to find our way to the train station, which seemed like a much longer walk than it had earlier, as the roads were closed and people seemed to walking as slowly as they could, as if still in disbelief. The trains were crowded, but once we got off, everything seemed to get back in shape. It was finally sinking in that I had just watched my favourite team win the World Cup in such a spectacular way. As we made our way to our hotel, and everything started to feel real again, I hoped fervently that this was one memory that wouldn’t fade.
Juhi Shah is an MBA graduate who is passionate about women’s football in India and around the world. She is a football player as well as a qualified referee. She hopes to help the Indian Women’s Football Team gain recognition and make a mark for itself in the global arena.