By Dileep Premachandran
When you have a 4.30am kick-off, it’s the kettle rather than the beer keg that comes into play. On Sunday night, as the United States of America and Japan kicked off the Women’s World Cup final, the first cup of tea hadn’t even become lukewarm before Carli Lloyd capped one of the most astonishing performances in a tournament final with one of the more outrageous goals you’ll ever see.
The Americans were already 3-0 up with just over a quarter of an hour gone when Lloyd surged into the centre circle in the Japanese half. A quick look up was enough to tell her that keeper Ayumi Kaihori was well off her line in the Japanese goal. Cue a swish of the right boot, and the ball describing a lazy arc that finished with a brush of the desperate goalkeeper’s fingertips before it nestled in the net via the right-hand post.
I spat a mouthful of tea out, and any regret at my four-year-old not being able to watch with me was quickly replaced by relief that she wasn’t awake to hear her old man swear like Captain Haddock on a Blistering Barnacles morning. In the days ahead, you’ll read comparisons with David Beckham’s effort against Wimbledon in 1996, and also Charlie Adam’s epic effort for Stoke against Chelsea last season. But let’s get one thing straight: those goals came in ordinary league matches. This was a World Cup final. Blistering barnacles!
It’s hard to think of a more bizarre opening passage of play in a major final. I was in Istanbul for Liverpool’s come-from-behind victory against AC Milan in the Champions League final a decade ago. Back then, Milan were so rampant in the first half (3-0) that it was ridiculously easy to lapse into men-against-boys clichés. In Vancouver, the intensity with which the United States came out to play made it seem like a contest between a zephyr and a hay bale.
Credit too to Jill Ellis for coaching decisions that allowed the Americans to shred a Japanese defence that had given up just three goals all tournament. In the semifinal last week, which they won with an injury time goal, Japan had dealt with a string of long balls from England. Physically, they hadn’t been brushed aside, and their greater skill on the ball told in the end.
Today, the Americans didn’t catch them out with greater height or high crosses into the box. They did so with clever low balls whipped into the six-yard box. On both occasions, Lloyd’s predatory instincts allowed her to get the decisive touch ahead of defenders perhaps disoriented by the ball being played across the turf. In the buzz over her virtuoso display, Lauren Holiday’s goal, a sweet-as-peach volley from the edge of the box, will perhaps be forgotten. It shouldn’t be.
The Americans had never finished below third in six previous World Cups. But it had been 16 long years since Brandi Chastain’s penalty – and a sports-bra-wearing celebration that garnered headlines around the world – had clinched the trophy for the second time. That was the era of Mia Hamm. For this, another generation of exceptional players, this was a last chance to savour ultimate glory.
Japan, who fought tigerishly to pull two goals back before Tobin Heath killed off the contest, can go home with a sense of pride. Aya Miyama’s skills epitomised their title defence, as did the work done by Rumi Utsugi as midfield shield. Against physically more robust sides, Japan had the courage to stick to their game plan – a short, quick-passing game undoubtedly inspired by the best Barcelona sides of recent vintage.
An easier draw also helped. Germany and France, two of the other standout teams in the competition, were in the same half of the draw as the USA, and ran into each other in a superb quarterfinal that was decided only on penalties. The Germans, who were outplayed in that game, were especially profligate in the semifinal against the Americans, perhaps the first indication of just how much the injured Nadine Kessler, Women’s World Player of the Year in 2014, was missed.
England exceeded expectations after an opening game loss to France, with Steph Houghton and Fara Williams catching the eye along with the marauding right back, Lucy Bronze, as they put out Canada, the hosts, before the last-minute heartbreak against the Japanese. Of course, we couldn’t watch most of these games on TV, having to rely instead of Internet streams. Fortunately, however, what coverage there was – the Guardian’s reports from the event were excellent – was generally free of the veneer of condescension that’s a default companion for most women’s sport.
Nearly half a century ago, England’s Geoff Hurst completed a World Cup final hat-trick against West Germany in the dying embers of extra time. It took Lloyd just 16 minutes. Two gifted teams, one goal for the ages, seven in all, and a magnificent spectacle. Next time, even if it means skipping school, the little girl will be watching with me. I’ll just have to keep the inner Captain Haddock under house arrest.
Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India.