France holds up its end of the dream USWNT quarterfinal bargain

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From the very day the draw for this Women’s World Cup was held, back in December, the worry had been about how the United States women’s national team would avoid France in the quarterfinal. There was much handwringing from all manner of observers, while the team itself opted to simply power ahead and hope for the best. And on Sunday, Les Bleues very nearly didn’t even make if that far after Brazil took them to extra time before the French prevailed 2-1.

The trouble, as ever, with these kind of calculations is that the soccer still has to be played. Just as the Americans have yet to beat an up-and-coming and underappreciated Spain in their own knockout game on Monday.

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At any rate, the French favorites remain alive, in spite of a disjointed performance. And they were twice victimized by the controversial Video Assistant Referee. France was denied a rightful goal thanks to an incomprehensible VAR decision, while Brazil’s goal was disallowed at first only to be overturned by the new technology.

Valerie Gauvin put the home team ahead in the 52nd minute, but after Thaisa tied things up in the 63rd, there would be no winner until Amandine Henry scored in the 106th minute.

French captain Amandine Henry (6) celebrates her goal to beat Brazil with Amel Majri on Sunday in Le Havre. (Getty)
French captain Amandine Henry (6) celebrates her goal to beat Brazil with Amel Majri on Sunday in Le Havre. (Getty)

And so a quarterfinal showdown with the other favorite, the United States, remains on the cards for Friday, Spain notwithstanding.

But first, controversy.

The irrepressible Kadidiatou Diani’s cross was flubbed by Brazilian goalkeeper Barbara midway through the first half and went into the net off Gauvin’s shoulder. But in a bizarre decision, as the ball was obviously loose, the goal was disallowed after VAR flagged it for a review.

Brazil was energized by its escape and a chippy game broke out. The Brazilians, while the decided underdog for this affair, in fact had more shots and more of the ball in the first half.

But after the intermission, Diani again got away from Tamires and slipped the ball across for Gauvin, who slid it into the net from close range. It was France’s first shot on goal.

The six-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta then began Brazil’s push for an equalizer. She swerved in a free kick for Cristiane, whose header French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi only just managed to tip off her crossbar.

And then Brazil leveled it. Thaisa cleaned up a rebound and was eventually vindicated by VAR after the goal was initially called off for offside.

Tamires also put the ball in the back of the net, but was rightly called for being well offside.

So it would take an extra 30 minutes to sort out a winner, and as the game grew sloppy, Brazil started with the better of the chances. Debinha beat Bouhaddi but her finish was cleared just in front of the line by Griedge Mbock Bathy.

At length, a minute into the second half of extra time, Henry redirected a deep free kick past Barbara to win it and send France through.

Yet in spite of Brazil’s failure to survive the round of 16 for a second straight World Cup, this tournament may nevertheless prove a tipping point for its program. There was always a sense that for the Canarinhas to come anywhere close to matching their semifinals berth at the last Olympics, they would need the banged-up Marta and Cristiane, the attacking stars good for more than 200 combined national team goals and aged 34 and 33, respectively, to carry the team throughout the tournament. Much of the lineup, in fact, is older than 30, highlighted by the 41-year-old Formiga.

This desperate shortage of youthful players capable of starting speaks to the complete lack of institutional support this team has received from the Brazilian federation. The domestic women’s game is catastrophically underfunded. For all the success of Brazil’s men’s team and the record five World Cup titles it holds, the women’s national team remains an afterthought. Going into this tournament, the Brazilian women had lost nine games in a row and 10 of 11. That plainly isn’t because Brazil is bad at soccer.

But this Women’s World Cup, aired on Brazil’s equivalent of basic cable for the first time rather than subscription channels, has drawn enormous TV ratings. Its opener got 19.7 million viewers. The final group stage match averaged 22.4 million and peaked at 26.99 million, making it the second-largest domestic TV audience for a women’s game ever – trailing only the U.S. in its 2015 World Cup final – per the Wall Street Journal.

That, perhaps, will ignite a spark in Brazil, where it’s now plain to see that there’s actually plenty of interest in its women’s team, in spite of its lack of resources or recent success.

Perhaps that will be a silver lining in another failed Women’s World Cup campaign for the Brazilians.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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