Long ago (1988) I moved to Berkeley and started sending a monthly "newsletter" to my Boston friends. When I returned to Boston (1993), I continued the tradition for about five more years (or until I had kids). Looking back, I realize that I was actually blogging. Each newsletter contained anywhere from a few to several blog posts. Having been silent for the past decade or so, I've decided to resume these activities. Don't expect anything profound -- I tend to focus on what I find entertaining or amusing and perhaps sometimes informative. We shall see!

Monday, August 21, 2023

WWC23: Spain versus England -- The Final

Here is my World Cup Recap by the numbers:

  • Days: 32
  • Matches (in person): 16
  • Unique Cities visited: 5
  • Total km (excluding round trip to/from Vancouver): 21,377 (13283 miles)
  • Legs between Australia and New Zealand: 7
  • Domestic Australia flights: 5
  • Domestic New Zealand flights: 1
  • Number of different people with whom I attended games: 11
  • Number of soccer jerseys purchased: 3

But, it all ends in the final! Sydney, August 20, 2023. You might think that with the home team eliminated and all those US fans without a dog in this fight, there might be diminished excitement around the final. But fortunately, you would be wrong. Everyone turned out: thousands upon thousands of yellow-jersey-wearing Mathilda's fans, thousands of English, fewer Spaniards, and lots of Americans who expected to be watching the US when they bought tickets so many months ago, but instead were cheering on a team who would earn its first ever world cup star.

I started gathering my Women's World Cup Final crew at the stadium around 4:00, so we could enjoy the gala atmosphere, grab food at one of the zillions of booths, and basically hang out for a bit. We had a subset of the Olsen crew that we had in Lyon four years ago: Mike, Teresa, Jennie, and Benji, my former student Vaastav (currently at MPI-SWS) and his friend Mila (currently at University of Zurich). I was sad to be missing former final attendees Becks Ruck, Nancy Geimer, Chris Vance, and Beth Martens. Next time!

We all parted ways to head for different parts of the stadium. We had outstanding seats. Once again, we were way high up (on level 6), but we were at the 25 yard line of one of the goals (England's for the first half), and we were in two seats that had no seats in front of us and no one behind us. It was great! (Notice Maddie and I both decked out in Spain away jerseys.)

I don't recall there being fancy pre-game shows in 2015 and 2019, but I could just be forgetting -- there certainly was a big pre-game show this time! We opened with the traditional welcome to country, although perhaps it was not so traditional; it was the first game I'd seen in Australia where the welcome came from a woman of one of the aboriginal groups of Australia.

This was followed by Tones and I singing several songs accompanied by a light show as well as dancers and most entertainingly a ring of soccer-playing women showing off their ball handling skills!

And then, the opening we've become used to with a new banner and a bit more fanfare!

And then the game began. First possession went to England and they looked threatening; a few minutes later Spain made their own foray into the final third, but neither team was truly in control of the match yet. However, about ten minutes into the game, we saw Spain do what Spain does best, whip the ball all over the field at high velosity, through the midfield, and into the attacking third. It appeared that England couldn't quite figure out how to counter it. They looked smooth and dangerous when in posession, but that fancy Spanish footwork seemed to push the game the way of Spain. Young Spanish superstar, Paralluelo (who came off the bench and scored in two of the previous knockout stage matches) started and was a pesky presence in the final third.

About 25 minutes in, we were entertained by a runner on the field. The security folks did what they were supposed to do and (thanks to his slipping about 25 yards onto the field) four of them jumped on him and escorted him out. So exciting.

Just like the semi-final, it became a game of possession (Spain) and counterattack (England). Both sides looked dangerous in the final third, but it's difficult to score if you don't have the ball, and Spain controlled the ball. In general, losing the ball is bad, but about 30 minutes into the match, it was devastating for England. Spain stripped the ball from England around midfield, and Abelleira sent a pass across the field to Caldentey who found Carmona outside the box. Carmona sent a perfectly placed bullet past the outstretched arms of Mary Earps; Spain 1-0!

England steps it up a notch, but Spain presses hard. Just before the half, Paralluelo gets a pass just outside the goal area and sends a shot in, but that pesky player 12 -- the post -- denies the goal! It's halftime with Spain up 1-0.

At the beginning of the half, England makes two subs, one of which brings in Lauren James, who had sat out a two game suspension for (literally) walking on a Nigerian player's back. I was curious what the reaction would be -- the crowd was conflicted. Some were thrilled to see new, young blood on the attack, but others were not happy with her past behavior. There were most definitely boos when her name was announced as the substitute and they were repeated pretty much every time she touched the ball.

Play continued much as before, until about 10 minutes into the half, when England starts to take control, dominating possession. Spain counters by subbing in a new defender -- nothing like some fresh legs to keep those attacking forwards under control. And, just a few minutes later, it seems like it could be all over. A VAR review shows a handball in the England box area. But alas, rather than all but sealing the game, Mary Earps saves the day and stops the shot! England has found a new life, and the stadium is tense!

The final 20 minutes are brutal. Both sides are fighting: Spain for the win; England to stay alive. Players are getting knocked about and both teams end up with players down for serious assessment. Between those injuries and the VAR review, as the clock strikes 90, the ref gives a whopping THIRTEEN minutes of extra time! Anything can happen in thirteen minutes.

But alas, it doesn't happen and 13 minutes later finds us right where we were in minute 30: Spain 1, England 0. We have a new world champion!

Sunday, August 20, 2023

WWC23: Australia versus Sweden (consolation)

Once again, it was pure party in Brisbane! From numberes of fans and their behavior, you would not have known that this was the consolation (3rd place) match rather than the final. The streets were ablaze in yellow and green (and pale blue -- the Mathildas away jersey color, which it turns out, the were wearing for the match). We joined the merriment on Caxton street and had a linner (dunch) there before the 6:00 game. (Well, before our 4:30 arrive to buy our last gifts of WWC apparel to bring home and to soak in the stadium atmorephere.) The picture below is the stadium about an hour before the kickoff.

Maddie and I did a loop of the stadium (found some more FIFA apparel we had not found in the outside store), found the press booth, and soaked in the ambiance.

Then we found our way to our seats -- almost identical to the seats I had for the Quarterfinal against France (2 rows back, so 14 from the field, at the 24 yard box of Sweden).

The seats were just great, so we got a birds eye view of warmups and some of the TV coverage happened right beside us.

And here is the stadium about 15 minutes before the kickoff.

And then it was time for the match!

The match opened in about as terrifying a manner as imaginable: Sweden has the kick off and within the first minute of play Blackstenius is in the Australian box from which she launches a great shot that thankfully, Mackenzie Arnold gets a hand on. Um, it would be best of Australian were a bit more alert!

Unfortunately, the first 15 minutes are reiminescent of the semi-final. Australia can't quite seem to get in the swing of things; their passes are a bit off, the fluidity they show when they are at their best is missing, and Sweden is taking full advantage of this -- in minute four, Blackstenius sends in a cross that Arnold has to catch. It's feeling like it could be a long day.

And once again, Australia does settle down and starts to put together its own threats. But, the overall feel of the game is a lot like the semi: Sweden has possession, but when Australia gets the ball, they make you believe that something good is going to happen. Sadly, it doesn't. I feel it's important to remember that Australia is coming off only a 2-day rest, while Sweden is coming off a 3-day rest. To my eye, the Mathildas just looks (understandably) tired.

By the middle of the first half, we're starting to see a real end to end game with both sides attacking regularly. In the 27th minute, it looks like Australia is saved again -- this time Blackstenius finds Asllani, who chips the ball in to Rolfo who heads the ball into the crossbar. Australia breathes a short-lived sigh of relief until we learn that there is a VAR penalty review. And then, devastation! Sweden is awarded a penalty due to a foul on Blackstenius. Arnold goes the right way and almost gets a hand on it, biut alas it's Sweden 1-0!

It's now a bit more of a frantic game. Autralia is pushing for the equalizer and Sweden is looking for a second goal to give them a bit of breathing space. This continues up to halftime, where a frustrated and saddened stadium sees the teams head to the locker room with that unhappy 1-0 score.

The second half saw a lot more of the same. The longer the game went on, the more frantically Australia started relying on the "let's just launch the ball up to Kerr and hope that she can do something magical again" strategy. I think this was a huge tactical error. In the games Australia won, they won without Kerr. Instead they had a beautiful midfield game that involved lots of players in lots of plays. They lost site of this with Kerr's return, and it meant that they turned into a bit of a one-trick-pony team. It was exciting, and Kerr certainly makes you believe that every opportunity might, in fact, lead to a goal. But, it's much easier to defend against, and it meant that Kerr got beaten up pretty regularly.

Then, in the 61st minute, it's more bad news for the home team. It's that pesky Blackstenius again -- coming down the left side, she finds Asllani making a run into the box, and Asllani sends a rocket into the right corner of the net. Sweden 2-0!

The rest is, quite honestly, just ugly. Sweden continues to push forward and look really dangerous. The Mathildas continue to hope that Kerr is going to work magic. In the 77th minute, Kerr goes down with something clearly bothering her newly recovered (or maybe not so recovered calves). It's almost painful to watch. Australia has given everything, but it's just not quite enough, and the crowd just waits for the six minutes of extra time to end.

But unlike some fans (Boston, that's you), Aussies love their team win or lose. The fans are thankful for all the Mathildas have done for team and country. I am thrilled the next day when I see the majority of customers in Rebel (my source for all WWC soccer jerseys) still buying Mathildas jerseys. There are signs everywhere still praising the Mathildas and cheering them on. And even Monday, after the final, the airport sports signs cheering, "Go Mathildas." There is sadness, but it's still a loverest and a lot of gratitude for the month of joy that the Mathildas and the rest of the WWC teams brough.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

WWC23: Australia versus England (semifinal)

Semifinal number two pit the home team Mathildas against England's Lionesses, rated number 3 in the world. This match was in Sydney at the Olympic Stadium and as one might imagine it was a party. By 4:30, Olympic Park was one massive party with dozens of food tents, live music, thousands of ticket holders and thousands more coming to watch the games on the big screen. Since we were doing just a 1-day stint for the game, I booked us a hotel at Olympic Park -- the view from our window (right) was not that different from the view from in front of the stadium (left).

As sun set over the city and stadium, the view from our room was spectacular!

The short walk to the stadium was a dazzling array of people, lights, displays, music, fire, and joy.

As in past games at this stadium, our seats were along the touch line near one goal (Australia's for the first half), but very high up. So, nothing on the field looked big, but we had an outstanding view of the field. Maddie and were properly dressed for the occasion with an Australian practice jersey for me and a home jersey for her -- and of course, green and yellow face paint!

And then it was game time.

From the very beginning, it looked like this night was just not like the other nights -- for Australia. Although Sam Kerr started and fired up the offense in a way only she can do, passes were just not quite as perfectly placed and players weren't quite exactly where they should have been. Kerr looked dangerous fairly frequently, but even her passes seemed a tad off. England didn't look spectacular, but they were, controlling the ball better and putting pressure on Australia's back line which was holding well. And thus the half unfolded with England amassing significantly more possession, but both teams making attacking forays into the final third. By half way through the first period, Englad was controlling the ball with over 70% possession!

And in the 36th minute, the unthinkable happens: Starting with an English throw-in from the left side, the ball ends up with Russo who sends a pass into Toone, who places the ball perfectly into top corner of the far post, and Arnold simply cannot get to it. England: 1-0!

That 1-0 score takes us into halftime. The halftime stats are not pretty for Australia: with 68% possesssion England has made more than twice as many passes as Australia!

Unsurprisingly, Australia comes out after half time fighting for their keepalive goal. They are looking a bit better and making better passes and finding open players. For the first 15 minutes, their efforts are for naught ... and then Sam Kerr single handedly has the play of the game: she receives a pass right around midfield carries it to just outside the box and sends it sailing just under the cross bar. We have a tie game!

The change in the crowd is palpable. The fearful and nervous cheering gives way to unwavering belief and the crowd just knows now that Australia is going to do this! Kerr threatens repeatedly, but can't convert. Sweden regroups and starts threatening on the other end. It's a frenetic up and down the field contest.

And then a mere seven minutes after Kerr's brilliance, something goes terribly wrong. Arnold is out of the goal past the 6 yard box. England's Millie Bright sends a ball her way. Hemp dislodges it from the back line and the next thing we see is the ball in the back of the net. It's England 2-1! That one is going to be giving someone nightmares for weeks.

The next 10 minutes see an all out effort from Australia, but they still seem controlled and patient. But, by the 80th minute, it's become a frenzied, panicky free for all. On top of that, Sweden starts doing all the annoying time-wasting maneuvers that drive me completely crazy. One player picks up the ball for a throw-in, then sets it down while a second meanders over to the side line to pick it up. While the goalie gets a new ball from the ball-kids, another teammate kicks a second ball onto the field (this actually earned her a yellow card, which was well deserved IMHO. The goalie takes her sweet time doing anything. One thing after another and it's becoming infuriating.

And then it's all but over except for the clock: In the 87th minute, England pretty much seals the deal: A speedy counter atack for the corner and Hemp finds Russo, drops the ball at her feet and Russo places it cleanly inside the far post. Even with 6 minutes of stoppage time, a two-goal lead is too much and the final whistle shows: England 3, Australia 1.

WWC23: Spain v Sweden (Semifinal)

It's the first semifinal: Sweden versus Spain. From everything I'd seen, I expected this to be Spain's game. We had mediocre seats behind the Swedish goal off to the side.

There was a bit of rather light drizzle for about 5 minutes in each half, but otherwise it was a fine evening, albeit a bit chilly. As this was the first of two semi-finals, the initial welcome to country was a bigger event, and we were treated to a performance by the Maori.

And then it was game time. As has been the case, the opening minutes were a bit sloppy, with each side getting a feel for their opponents, but after about 10 minutes, both teams settled into their play. I would have to use the phrase "disciplined" to describe Sweden, while "graceful" or "beautiful" would more accurately describe the Spanish. Their ball skills are stunning and they sense each other's positions keenly, allowing the ball to move about the field with amazing speed. So, it became a game of Spanish possession and Sweden counterattacks. Both were dangerous, but Spain built up their attack fluidly, while Sweden was short-lived and direct.

The half continued at a frenzied pace, but the disciplined Swedish defense kept Spain out of their goal; and the blistering Spanish ball movement, kept Sweden away from the ball. And so it went, straight into half time with a 0-0 score.

The second half went much the same way and as the game entered its final ten minutes, the crowd settled in for overtime -- much as we'd done in the Spain/Netherlands game. But then, in the 81st minute, teenage super-sub, Paralluelo worked her magic: a poor clear from near-flawless Swedish goalkeeper Zecira Musovic, left the ball at her feet, and she drilled it into the right corner of the net. As someone with a flight the next morning at "stupid o'clock" I was both thrilled and relieved. Mark and I turned to each other and suggested that Spain NOT do what they had done against he Dutch and allow an equalizer.

And then, in a place eerily reminescent of my stint in Wellington, in the 88th minute, Spain let Blomqvist into the attacking third unmarked, and she did what she does best: fire it into the goal. The Swedish fans went wild, and the rest of us accepted the reality of overtime.

But then, 30 minutes earlier than had happened in the quarterfinal, and in fact, a mere 90 seconds after the Swedish goal, Spain's Carmona shoots for the third time from distance, but this time the ball hits the cross bar and drops into the goal! And just like that Spain were into the semi-finals, and Sweden faced an upcoming consolation match in disbelief. The statistics for the match tell an interesting tale: Spain dominated with 57% possession (and 72% pass accuracy) and 13 shots on goal. Of those 13 shots, only two were on target -- and we know where those ended up! But Sweden were more disciplined: only six shots on goal, but half of those were, in fact, on target.

Saturday, August 12, 2023

WWC23: Australia versus France

 It was a bit of deja vu. Here I was back in Brisbane watching the French play a team in yellow. But it coul dnot have been more different as well, because the team in yellow, was not Brazil, but Australia. In a country that takes its sports seriously and (while still referring to these amazing atheletes as girls) recognizes women's sports, this game was a party, a statement of national pride, and a battle of epic proportion.

Now, the savvy of you may recall that I intended for this to be a Canada game. Canada were supposed to have won their group, beaten Denmark in the round of 16 and the come to Brisbane. Well, life doesn't always work out as you want, so here I was cheering for Australia in Australia amid thousands of rabid Mathilda's fans. It was awesome!

This is going to be a lot fewer words and lot more videos in an attempt to capture the spirit of the match, since there is both so much to write about the match and nothing to write about it.

I headed to the stadium early, having been disciplined at purchasing no swag before my our last long stay here, thus minimizing the number of airports through which I had to drag said swag. The yellow parade to the stadium had already begun by 1:00 PM (even though gates didn't open until 3), but I joined about 3:30. Accompanied by thousands of my nearest and dearest friends, it was a roving party!

Having secured swag, I found my way to what were definitely my best seats to date: on the Aussie 25 yard line, 12 rows from the front. It felt like I could have been participating in the warmups!

And when I say that the fans were really into the game, I mean it. These folks were just a few rows behind me and were delighted to be featured in my video!

And yes, in addition to the party and overall jubilation, there was a soccer match. To be honest, it didn't look good for the home team for the first ten to fifteen minutes. There was good play, but the French looked sharper and more likely to score. The early stats had the french with a bit more possession, better pass accuracy, and more passes. And then the Mathildas settled down! Slowly, starting about a third of the way through the first half, the tides gently changed. Now, the Aussies were holding the ball and moving it around; they were making dangerous runs into the attacking third. And ever so slowly, you could see the change in the statistics. The whole half was an outstanding contest by two well-matched teams, but you could see the game moving in Australia's direction. And then, it was suddenly halftime with a score of 0-0.

The second half started much like the first had ended. Australia was just a bit more in control than France. I don't want to give the wrong impression -- both teams were playing exceptionally well. There were heart-stopping plays at both ends of the field. But Australia was just doing a bit better at it.

And then, what to our wondrous eyes should appear, but a Sam Kerr warming up on the sidelines. At the 56 minute mark, Kerr enters the game to an adoring fanbase. She brings an extra spark to the Aussie side -- more complex play in the final third, a stunning ability to get to headers, even though she is one of the fun-sized as we like to call the vertically challenged in our household. (And watching her compete with Wendy Renard for headers would be hilarious if Kerr weren't so threatening at it.) It's clear that the fans and players lover Kerr, not simply because she's an outstanding goal scorer, but because she is one of those players who makes the game just a bit better and a bit easier for everyone around her. Unfortunately, this new found energy and beautiful play has absolutely no impact on the score. The scant four minutes of extra time just isn't enough to avoid going into overtime.

The fans are thrilled with the epic battle they have witnesses.

And we are in extra time! Sadly, a different Australia enters the field. They are looking worse than they looked in those opening minutes. France has picked up where Australia left off; they are pushing towards goal; they are threatening. Having ended the game with about an equal number of corner kicks, France suddenly starts accumulating cornes in bulk, and each one causes the roughly 45,000 Mathildas to miss a heartbeat or two. And then, about ten minutes in, the unthinkable: the ball is in the Australian net. And then magically, there is no goal. Turns out Renard gave a bit too hard of a pull on Caitlin Foord's jersey. The fans are sequentially shocked, confused, and relieved all in a period of under five seconds.

And the game continues. The end of the first overtime period brings with it a familiar score: 0-0. And the second overtime seems a death march of frantic play up and down the field leading to the inevitability of a shoot out.

Given the epic battle we have witnessed for 90 minutes, it is no surprise that the shootout becomse its own epic battle. The longest in world cup history (that includes both the men's and women's tournaments). With France shooting first, the amazing Australian keeper, Mackenzie Arnold, and her trust post gave the Aussies three separate chances to win it. Arnold saved the first shot from France and the post saved the fourth, which put Australia's fifth kicker in a position to win it. Interestingly, that fifth kicker was none other than the goalie. Cruelty: her game-clinching goal stolen by the post!

And so we move to sudden death...six PKs, both score. Seven PKs, both score. Eight PKs, both score. Nine PKs, Arnold stops the French kicker! But no! She has stepped off her line, so the kicker gets to try again. And again, Arnold nabs it! Here we are, on the verge again -- Aussie kicker steps up and ... the French keeper (called in specially to take PKs) stops it. We are back at it -- Kicker number 10 ... French kicker hits the post. For the fourth time, Australia has a chance to win it .. and finally, the game is over, Australia 7-6 in PKs!

There is a collective sign of relief in the stadium before the pandamonium breaks out! I can only imagine what the semi-finals will be like!

And this is what a city does when the home town team wins!

WWC23: Netherlands v Spain (Quarterfinal)

And it's back to Wellington for the first Quarterfinal match!

Careful planning when last in Wellington meant that I arrived the day before the game and did a night tour at Zealandia with Mark Moir. And my New Zealand adventure is complete having now seen a Kiwi in real life (the bird, not the residents of New Zealand). They are every bit as cute and awkward as they are depicted and it was genuinely exciting to tramp around at night and peak in bushes to see the kiwi doing his thing (and yes, the one we saw was a he). We were also treated to a nice clear view as he waddled across our path (so, why does the Kiwi cross the path?).

The Dutch had a good first round, tying the US, beating Portugal 1-0, and trouncing Vietnam soundly. Spain had a bit of a rougher first round: they accumulated a bunch of goals against Zambia and Costa Rica and then were soundly beaten 4-0 by Japan. I was cheering for Spain, in large part due to their amazing footwork and fast-paced play. The Netherlands seem well-disciplined and skilled, but much less artful and creative.

We were seated in one of the cold corners of the field. You may recall from the USA/Netherlands match that the stadium in Wellington can boast multiple climate zones during the same game. Last time, we were in the sunny zone; this time we were most definitely in the cold zone, but at least it was dry and not terribly windy.

It was a match for the ages. The Dutch were bigger and more physical, and the ref let play progress uninterrupted for the most part. The crowd was largely Dutch (based on the orange hue throughout the stadium and the bit of a cheering contest the local TV personalities encouraged before the game). But there was no booing and there was universal appreciation for good soccer. And there was a lot of good soccer!

It was an end to end match with Spain dominating in possession, but the Dutch making the most of absolutely every opportunity presented to them. However, the Spanish defense was a thing of beauty, and they were quite successful keeping the Dutch away from any shooting opportunities. In contrast, the Spaniards made sure that the Dutch goalkeeper did not get chilly.

Spain took control of the game both maintaining possession and pushing forward on breathtaking attacks. The Dutch counterattacks looked threatening, but they were not able to create a single on-target shot! In the 38th minute, Redonda found Gonzalez who drilled the ball into the net. Unfortunately, our friendly VAR detected that Gonzalez was offsides and the it became the goal that wasn't. The Dutch players and fans breathed a synchronized sigh of relief and the Spaniards went back to work. But, at halftime, the score remained 0-0.

Spain wastes no time and setting the tone for the second half: in the opening fifteen seconds, Gonzalez sends a shot a hair's width outside the goal. Beerensteyn, the speedy Dutch forward continues to test the Spanish defense. She is blazingly fast and agile; she constantly gives the Spanish back line a run for their money, and in minute 63, it appears that Paredes commited a foul against her in the box. This time, the trusty VAR reveals that, in fact, perhaps there was no foul, and the Dutch are no longer on the cusp of a potential 1-0 lead.

And then, in a cruel twist of fate, in the 79th minute, the VAR shows reveals a Van de Gragt did, in fact, have handball in the box. Penalty! Caldenty places the ball perfectly in the lower right corner and it's Spain 1-0!

The clock ticks up to 90 and the game moves into 12 minutes of extra time. Spain is still leading and the Dutch effort does seem a biut frantic, but twelve minutes is an eternity in soccer! And it did not take an eternity: two minutes into extra time, Van de Gragt makes up for the earlier handball with a brilliant goal that seemed to come out of the middle of nowhere!. It's a 1-1 game!

Perhaps Spain had let up just a bit, and that's all it took to push this game into overtime. This lifesaver sends the Dutch into the first overtime period flying and Spain looking a bit flat. However, a couple of near-misses by the Dutch trigger the adrenaline rush and Spain are back at it. The first overtime period ends at 1-1 and you can feel the PK dread spreading around the stadium.

In the opening minutes of the second overtime, Beerensteyn threatens, but her shot goes just a tad wide. Spain really has dominated this game, but they have not been able to put the ball in the net from the run of play; does this mean we are destined for a shootout? Fortunately not! Substitute Paralluelo single-handedly carries the ball about half a field and sends a blazing shot into the far side of the net. Spain 2-1! And there are only nine (official) minutes left in the match.

And the rest is history: for eleven more minutes, it's an end to end frenzy for the Dutch and an end-to-end relentless push and defend from Spain. Final: Spain 2 - Netherlands 1! What a game!!!

Friday, August 11, 2023

WWC23: Australia v Denmark

Two days, two games. We call this game, "The game that was supposed to have been Canada."  But it was not Canada, it was Australia. Oh well, I can cheer for a team named after a female kangaroo!

I had been doing some catch up with past and present Wired Tigers (Michael Cahill and Mick Graham) and one of them had inside info on the Aussie team -- in theory, Kerr had not been spotted at all, so the theory was that she was really injured and out for the tournament. So, imagine my surprise seeing Kerr on the bench, suited up.  I figured it was a psych out, but no -- she actually played the last ten minutes -- the crowd went completely wild!  But, I get ahead of myself.

This game was at Olympic Stadium, the largest venue I've been to this trip so attendance was almost twice that of any other match (it was something like 73,000).  The Olympic stadium is located a bit outside the city but boasts a large grounds and is really quite beautiful.

Unsurprisingly, the stadium was heavily pro-Australia, and I had decided to become Aussie fans, since it would be particularly exciting to see the home team win. We had great sets around the 18-yard line in the front row of the upper tier.

The game started with the two teams looking pretty equally matched. An early dangerous play from Denmark leaves the Australia crowd speechless, but slowly. It took about 10-15 minutes for Australia to settle in; during that time, things looked a bit shakey for the home team, and Denmark appeared the stronger team. But slowly, everyone settled in and by roughly the 25-minute mark, the tides shifted. It became clear that Australia was just a touch ahead of the Danish. They were a bit crisper in their passing, a bit quicker to the ball, and slowly they started dominating the game. And sure enough, in the 27th minute, Caitlin Foord moves onto a perfectly placed through ball from Fowler and drills it into the net. Australia 1-0!

Denmark came back fighting! They dominate possession, but the Australian back line holds strong and we go into halftime with the 1-goal lead by Australia.

During this excitement, the England/Nigeria match finishes -- after a scoreless 120 minutes, the game went to PKs, which England won 4-2. But the bigger news was the mind-boggling move by Lauren James who literally walked on top of a Nigerian player who was laying on the ground. I didn't see that game since I was in transit, but like every other soccer fan on the planet I've watched the replay multiple times and for the life of me, I cannot imagine what she was thinking. The 2-game suspension seems entirely justified.

Anyway, back to Australia/Denmark. Neither team made any changes at the half. Much like the beginning of the match, it takes several minutes for both teams to settle into their rhythm. The Australian defense continues to play well and shutdown all Danish forays into the final third, but we aren't seeing a lot of threatening action from the Mathildas. And then finally, around minute 70, a 3-4 pass sequence finds Raso placing the ball into the net -- Australia 2-0!

With the game nicely in hand, around minute 80, in comes Sam Kerr to a loud and adoring crowd!  Kerr is active and gets off a dangerous shot or two, but to my eye, this looks like a bit of a tentative move to see whether she'll be ready for quarter final action.  And, indeed, as the clock winds down and the five extra minutes end, it's still Australia 2-0 -- into the quarter final!

Sunday, August 6, 2023

WWC23: Netherlands v South Africa

 If you simply looked at the score, and said, "Ah -- doesn't look like a very exciting game." think again. This was one of the most exciting games we've seen so far (and it's game #9). Although South Africa lost, they turned 40,000 fans around and put on quite a display. I just can't wait to see them in the Olympics if they can still qualify or the next world cup. They are simply thrilling to watch.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Today's update really begins at 1:00 AM. We are in a lovely AirBNB in the middle of the city on the 55th floor or an 83 story building (amusingly right next to the Kimpton Margot; I do wish they'd learn to spell it correctly). At around 1:00, the fire alarm went off. As we wandered about shaking off the sleep and putting clothes on, the blaring noise changed from just noise to the message, "Get out!  Emergency!  Get out!"  Now, I'm sure you all remember signs you've seen in every building that say, "In the event of a fire, do not use elevators."  Yup, so there we were at 1:00 AM walking down 55+ flights of stairs (we got down to the ground floor and then seemed to have to down a few more flights and find our way through passages to actually exit the building). As we got out of the building, we saw the fire trucks and the firepeople were getting back into them saying, "It seemed to be contained to just that one unit." So, just about the time we got downstairs, the elevators turned on and we got in line to return to our unit. It seems that something had gone wrong on the 57th floor. In case you're wondering, 55 is a lot of flights of stairs. I'm rethinking this whole "sky people" existence.

Anyway, hours later we made our way to the stadium (along with 40,000 of our closest friends). Once again, we had seats high up on the side lines, about 25 yards out from the first half Dutch goal.

The crowd was heavily pro-Dutch and very orange. In fact, an early attempt from South Africa drew a small chorus of boos, which, as per usual, made me sad. The game opened with the Dutch driving to the South African goal for a bit and then South Africa responding with an intense drive and some dangerous play near the Dutch goal. Then the Dutch settled down, held possession and sent in a hard shot that the South African goalie deflected, but took her to the ground, and once that happened, the ball found its way to Jill Roord's head and into the goal. Nine minutes in and it was 1-0 The Netherlands!

The rest of the match showed a lot of Dutch possession and then thrilling counterattacks from South Africa. Their speed, ball control, and agilty was simply breathtaking. Unfortunately, like many other teams (i.e., the US and Canada), they were less successful converting those thrilling opportunities into goals. South African striker, Chrestinah Thembi Kgatlana danced around defenders, frequently fed from left back Karabo Angel Dhlamini and left midfielder Hildah Tholakele Magaia. The three of them were simply a joy to behold. By the 20 minute mark, this pro-Dutch crowd was standing, cheering, and screaming on many of the thrilling attacking forays. It was an incredibly joyful atmosphere. Well, except that these dazzling players were outsized by the Dutch and two starters needed substitutions (both in the first half) after hard tackles.

Pretty much every minute brought some thread from South Africa and we all assumed it was just a matter of time before we had a tie game. But alas, the teams go into halftime with the Dutch still up by one.

South Africa starts the second half looking even more determined. But, in an eerie similarity to the first half, at about nine minutes into the half Beerensteyn beats her player on the left, finds Pelova near goal, launches the ball to her, and she passes it on to Martens who takes a spinning shot. The South African goalie Swart initially blocks the shot, but it then bounces into the net. But wait! There is a VAR check...Pelova is ruled offsides and there is no goal!

I expected that the near miss on that goal would propel a South African counter that would tie the score, but between the incredible goalkeeping of the Netherlands' van Domselaar and the disciplined Dutch defense, it didn't happen. As in the first half, the Dutch control the game, but the South Africans (Bayana Banyana - what a great name) counterattack aggressively and look threatening repeatedly. And then, in the 68th minute, Roord finds Beerenstyn who sends a long, hard ball towards goal. It looks like Swart has it, but the ball somehow goes through her hands and it's Netherlands 2-0! (If you can view Foxsports you can see the goal here.)

The rest of the game continued much as the past -- Dutch possession; thrilling South African counter attack. But alas, the 2-0 score stood. I simply cannot wait to see South Africa play again. I hope they can qualify for the Olympics. If not, I'll definitely be looking for them in the next Women's World Cup!

Saturday, August 5, 2023

WWC23: USA v Portugal

And then it was back to Auckland for the last of the USA's group stage: Portugal. They are first time WWC participants, so this should be an easy win, right? As the reuslts of the knockout stage attest, this would be a very, very bad assumption.

I must have gotten our tickets via USsoccer, because we found ourselves in a midst of more stars, stripes, red, white, and blue than we'd experienced in our previous matches. But, once again -- great seats!.

In fact, a particular bonus is that right behind us, USWNT former greats were doing interviews: Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett. And then Shannon Boxx (along with an adorable small Boxx) popped by. I'm guessing USsoccer had a box nearby. I tried to snap a sneaky pic of Julie and Joy

Then the game started. The US opened looking quite a bit different from their game against the Netherlands -- there was a constant, almost frantic, pressure towards the front. While I was excited to see a more attacking posture (and they did, indeed look threatening at times), the team play was not what I've come to expect from USWNT. It felt like players had absolutely no idea where any of their teammates were. There were a few outstanding solo performances: Starting Lavalle made a huge difference -- her speed, creativity, and ability to snatch balls away from opponents set a much different tenor for the game than either of the previous matches. While Lynn Williams started in place of Trinity Rodman, she did not have the same kind of impact, although my suspicion is that she could have done more if there had been more team-play on the field.

Understanding what was plaguing the US, Portugal filled up the midfield, which meant that the US had a difficult time playing through it and setting up strong attacks. It was incredibly effective. For the second game in a row, the US was losing the possession battle; meanwhile the Netherlands were running up the score against Vietnam, dashing all hope of the US topping their group. It's interesting to examine the passing statistics for the game: Approaching halftime, Portugal pass accuracy was at 75% compared to the US's of 64%. More interesting to me: I had no criticism for Crystal Dunn's play, but many did -- she and Girma had 75% and 76% passing accuracy, respectively; no one else was above 75% and Horan was way down at 44%. If you can't pass to your teammates, it's very difficult to move the ball.

Then, in minute 39, devastation! No, it wasn't a Portugal goal, but on a terrible call (someone was able to show the replays on their phone since you don't see replays in the stadium, at least not at Eden Park), Lavalle picked up a second yellow card. This means that she will be out in the round-of-16, assuming that the US advances (which appears a big assumption at this point in the game). So, at halftime, it's a 0-0 game; Portugal is looking the better team; US big names are not doing big things; and things are just not looking good for the red, white, and blue.

The second half continued much in the way of the first. The US still looks dangerous on set pieces, but they failed to convert several just-outside-the-box attempts. Just after the 60th minute, Andonovski makes a single substitution: Rapinoe comes in for Sophia Smith. While Rapinoe and Horan exhibit better on-field chemistry that I'd seen through the game so far, it's too little. They can work the ball up the left side, but not much happens once the cross goes in. At this point, there is no hope for the US to catch the Dutch in goal differential, so technically a tie is as good as a win. Thus, there is no US panic, but there is no US excitement either. Portugal, on the other hand, has everything to gain with a win -- that's where we see some excitement and creativity; it rightly terrifies every American fan in the stadium.

At minute 84, Horan and Willams come off while Rodman and Sonnett come in. The game goes into its 7 minutes of extra time, and almost immediately Portugal sneaks into the US third; Ana Capeta drills a shot that completely beats Naeher, and the US is saved by ... the goal post. That was definitely the US's twelfth player on the field. The USA fails to convert opportunities in the box and Portugal continues to attack. I'm pretty sure every fan in the stadium was just waiting for the whistle. And indeed, when it blew, the score sat at a most uncomfortable 0-0.

It was not the beautiful game.

Friday, August 4, 2023

WWC23: Canada versus Australia

Another day another flight: Brisbane to Melbourne for the final game in Group B: Canada versus Australia. Canada needed to win and needed to win big! We hit the ground in Melbourne the day before the game and got a chance to catch up a big on sleep and calm things down a bit. We landed mid-day and didn't get a chance to get checked in and find lunch until almost 3, so we did not see a whole lot of the city (we saved that for the next day). But we did take advantage of our nice apartment-like hotel rooms to watch matches in the evening. But the real excitement was the evening of July 31, when the home town darlings faced Canada!

We were treated to a marvelous dinner by a fellow Harvard alum (class of '81) who lives in Melbourne and is a Canadian citizen. I had been concerned about her allegiance, but all fears were laid to rest at our pregame dinner.

I had bought a Canada jacket for the occasion and, while I felt very much at home at dinner, upon arriving at the game, I felt like a small dot of red in a sea of yellow. For the most part, the crowd was friendly, energetic, enthusiastic and polite.

We had excellent seats for the match: high up and about 20 yards off of midfield!

The match opened with both teams charged up. Canada looked good with possession, clean passing, and a few forays towards the attacking third. Unfortunately, it took only 9 minutes for Australia to put together a goal-scoring attack. A failed Mathilda's corner kick, recovery fo the ball, ah overlapping run on the left, a cross, a deflection, and a one-touch from Hayley Raso (and a VAR offside check) and it was 1-0 Australia.

Canada responded with a very reasonable strategy: if they don't have the ball, they can't score. So, Canada took control of the game by playing a clinical possession game, racking upwards of 70% possession time. Unfortunately, there was a key mistake in this strategy -- they forgot to incorporate the "and then strategically score" part of it. Canada simply could not put together an effective attack. Worse still, they continued to reveal chinks in their notorious defensive armor, and Australia artfully exploited every one of them.

In the 34th minute, Australia's Mary Fowler took advantage of a Sheridan fumbling save, and drills the ball into the net. Much to the Canadians' relief (the 11 on the field, the 22 plus coaching staff on the side line, and the handful of us in the stands), the Fowler was ruled offsides, much to the dismay of the 27,000 fans in yellow. Canadian joy was shortlived, however -- six minutes later, Hayley Raso was at it again -- this time, another uncontrolled save from Sheridan (off a corner) lands at Raso's feet, and with absolutely no question of an offsides, once again, she sends it flying into the net. Australia: 2-0!

"But wait!" you say; there is a second half to be played. And indeed there was, but it wasn't pretty.

In the 56th minute, world leading goal scorer, Canadian leader, and 6-time women's world cup layer, Christine Sinclair leaves the field. If her teammates cannot pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hate, she will return home (to the greater Vancouver area, I might add) without having scored in her sixth world cup. It doesn't matter for her; she has secured her legacy. But can her teammates pull this one out?

Even with a four-player substitution to mix things up, it appears that the answer is no. Canada still cannot put together consistent attacks, and when they do, the Mathilda's back line is formidable. And lest there be any question, in the 58th minute, Mary Fowler makes up for that offside and blasts the ball just inside the far post. Australia: 3-0!

As if the 3-0 deficit was not bad enough, in the third minute of stoppage time, Fleming's misstep in the box (she stepped on Gorry's foot) turns into a PK. Unlike the spate of missed PKs in the opening rounds, Captain Steph Catley places a perfect shot in the net. Australia: 4-0.

It looks like I shall be following Australia through the knockout stage!

And here is what downtown looks like in Melbourne after your home team wins its group. The next morning, we also discovered a tunnel lit brightly in yellow and green on our way to the airport. If only other countries celebrated their women superstars this much!?

Thursday, August 3, 2023

WWC23: France versus Brazil

Another day, another plane. This time we were headed from Sydney to Brisbane. Our hotel was right downtown near the river and only about a 15 minute walk from the stadium, the largest one so far -- the Brazil/France match drew 57,000, mostly Brazilian, spectators.

This time we were three rows from the top of the stadium up in a corner. The field looked a bit tiny, but we certainly had a good view of the entire field of play!

I was disappointed to hear the stadium booing enmasse when France took the field. In general, I find the women's tournament fans to be passionate, enthusiastic, but cordial and friendly. That was not how the stadium felt -- the fans booed every call that wasn't made against France, regardless of the reality on the field, and they booed every goal.

Both teams got off to an energetic start; it was clear it was going to be a pretty exciting game. At the 3-minute mark, France got a 2 on 1 break, but finished weakly into the box. Les Bleues took control and kept the ball in the Brazil end of the field. The French put together a few nice attacks, but Brazilian goalie Leticia was grabbing everything. Around the 16-minute mark, Brazil took the ball down into French territory and drew a foul about 25 yards out. The play goes correctly, but the shot is just wide, leaving us with a tense 0-0 score.

But just a minute later, a pass in from Toletti finds Diani who spots Le Sommer in the middle. I lovely pass and a header and it's 1-0 France.

History seems to invert itself - about 16 minutes later, Brazil makes a fast break, but Toletti takes down Adriana outside the box. Debhina takes the free kick, but it goes wide. But this time there is no follow-up Brazilian score. Instead, France continues to take control and look exceptionally dangerous. And then Brazil busts through, looking equally dangerous (just not quite as frequently). The half ends with France up 1-0.

The second half starts with no substitutions and a fiesty French team coming out of the locker room. But, Brazil too starts to assemble some more threatening play and in the 58th minute, they turn this back into a tie game: Debhina receive a pass from Kerolin and sneaks it past France's keeper, peyruad Magnan. It's a 1-1 game!

Around the 60 minute mark, both teams start making strategic substitutions and the game continues at a frenetic pace, with both teams fighting for every ball and every opportunity to produce something in the box. Every time a Brazilian player so much as sneezes, the fans become a raging booing mess - it's not a pretty crowd. And then, in the 83rd minute, Brazil makes a huge mistake: they leave Wendy Rinard uncovered in the box on a corner kick; Renard does what she does best: she sticks the header right in the goal past keeper Leticia. It's a 2-1 game for France.

Brazil is frantic; Marta, Monica, and Ana Vitorio enter in the 85th minute. But, not even Marta can change the game. The ball races up and down the field and the official announces seven minutes of stoppage time. And, in one of the oddest things I've ever seen in a world cup, the French coach starts losing it about 3 minutes into extra time. He starts screaming at the ref and pointing at his watch even though it's 100% clear to me (who starts a stop watch at the 90 minute mark) that there are several minutes left. He loses it so completely that the ref yellow cards him (and in my mind, he's lucky it's a yellow and he's allowed to stay on the field).

Final score: France 1 - Brazil 1!

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

WWC23: England v Denmark

We woke up in Wellington and made our way to the Wellington airport at stupid o-clock for a flight to Sydney. Why Sydney? Because we were going to Australia for the Canada/Australia game on July 31st, so why not pop over a few days early and catch some other first round action? So, off to Sydney we were for some site-seeing and a group stage match between England and Denmark.

We were a tad surprised to discover that the Royal Exhibition Hotel (thank you Hotels.com) was located above a pub and casino. Oh well, the rooms were big, and we would be able to walk to the game.

We dropped off our bags and then headed out in search of food. We found a local cafe serving tasty brunch and then headed to the Waterfront, by way of the ANZAC memorial, some interesting birds, the botanical gardens, and of course, the Opera House.

That ate up the better part of the day, so we hopped on a bus back to our hotel/pub/casino. And then we headed out to find dinner enroute to the game.

We had great seats around the 35 yard mark facing the benches. Instead of the Maori greeting we received in New Zealand, we were greeted by a digirido and a verbally by an elder

England took control of the game quite early, with Denmark relying on speedy counterattacks (which continued to look threatening). However, it was England's posession and control of the game that produced a goal in the 6th minute from Lauren James. Denmark stepped up a bit and nearly equalized in the 27th minute, but English goalkeeper saved the day. The rest of the half continued in much the same fashion with England possessing, controlling, and attacking and Denmark threatening on the counter attack. At halftime, the uneasy 1-0 lead remained.

The second half continued much as the first, but with the intensity ratcheted up just a notch. In the 71st minute, Alessia Russo nearly sealed the match for England with a second goal, but . It was really never a comfortable game; Denmark's counterattacks seemed to become increasingly threatening the closer the game came to the final whistle, but ultimately, England prevailed.