At noon on Wednesday, as the U.S. Women’s soccer team began playing France in the game that would propel one of the two teams into the finals of the World Cup in Germany, numbers of fans in the Boston area were gathering in sports bars to watch the action over a long lunch.
At the Coolidge Corner Clubhouse in Brookline, one fellow surrounded by television sets tuned to the game seemed more interested in his iPhone.
“No,” he said. “I’m actually relaying scores to somebody who’s traveling.”
He watched the opening minutes of the game. “The U.S. Women are playing very well. They look better than most MLS teams, to be honest with you.”
The U.S. scored first in that game, and carried a one-nil lead into the second half. By then, I was in the Sunset Cantina, where I asked a fan named Keith if he thought that one goal would be enough.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s tough. France is really moving the ball well, so I’d like to see a little bit of insurance.”
Very shortly after he’d said it, France scored to tie the game.
Everybody around us groaned.
I looked at Keith and shrugged. “Now we know one goal won’t be enough.”
“Apparently not,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll have to get another one.”
Another one would come, as would one more. The three to one victory over France, coupled with Japan’s triumph over Sweden in the later semi-final, meant that the U.S. would avoid the team that had beaten them during the group stage. But according Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, who spoke to me from Germany, the U.S. will underestimate Japan at their peril.
“They really have a good vision for the game, and they kind of make up for the fact that they’re not tall and strong and really that fast,” Wahl to told me. “And so there’s a real contrast in styles when they play a team like the U.S., which is known for its athleticism and size and toughness. And it’s been working well for Japan, but you still have to remember here that Japan has never beaten the U.S. in twenty five games, and has lost to them three times this year.”
Commentators have been telling those of us watching the World Cup on t.v. in the U.S. that Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, et al captured the hearts of fans in Germany with their tenacious quarterfinal win over Brazil. But according to Grant Wahl, the Japanese team has also built a fan base in Germany and beyond.
“Every game in the tournament, the Japanese players have carried a sign around in English, thanking everyone for their support of Japan after the tsunami and earthquake,” he said. “I think that’s really struck a chord with the fans here in Germany and with the people watching around the world. And the television audience has been very impressive, including in Japan. We’re talking three or four million people watching, which is much bigger than that team has ever had before.”
This development has not escaped the attention of the U.S. players, who have been wired into reaction to the tournament via e-mail, texts, tweets, and facebook. They know lots of fans were rooting for the U.S. after one of the Brazilians, Erika, faked a serious injury during the quarterfinal to delay that game. But in a conference call on Thursday, U.S. goal keeper Hope Solo acknowledged the popularity of the Japanese team.
“Japan are the sentimental favorite of this tournament,” she said. “They’re playing for something bigger and better than the game. And when you’re playing with so much emotion and so much heart, that’s hard to play against. So I think it’s going to be an incredible final that people didn’t expect to see.”
It has been suggested that a U.S. win would boost interest in the Women’s Pro Soccer League in this country, the six teams of which employ many of the world’s best players. Certainly the close games and upsets over the past couple of weeks in Germany have demonstrated that the number of solid women’s teams has grown. But Grant Wahl cautions against making the same mistake some people made in 1999, when they assumed that from that heady moment on, women’s soccer would draw big crowds.
“I’ve learned, covering soccer over the years, never to think there’s going to be some magic bullet that makes soccer a huge thing, day to day, in the U.S., the way it is in the rest of the world,” he said. “I think we should be happy that the U.S. is doing so well. It’s a nice event, very inspirational, and we shouldn’t try to make any crazy predictions about what it means for the sport in America, except to say that it should, you would think, help a little bit with WPS.”
The final matching Japan, newcomers to the spotlight, with the U.S., two-time World Cup champions, happens Sunday in Frankfurt.