RIO DE JANEIRO — Pia Sundhage got the final say on Hope Solo, but she should gear up for more critics on her way to the gold medal match.
The former U.S. women’s national team coach led Sweden to yet another mystifying victory over a world power, this time beating Brazil in its own soccer cathedral, the Maracana, to move to the final against Germany.
Just like their quarterfinal victory over the Americans, the Swedes played lockdown defense for the whole match and forced 30 minutes of scoreless overtime to get to penalty kicks. And just like the result that led to Hope Solo calling Sundhage’s team “a bunch of cowards,” Brazil fell to a deciding dagger by Lisa Dahlqvist.
It’s been a masterful tournament for Sundhage, who loves a wide-open style but switched tactics completely after a 5-1 loss to this same Brazil side 10 days before. It frustrated Solo and it frustrated the host team, too. Goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl saved two shots in the shootout stage, and several more during the 0-0 match.
“We feel horrible,” said Brazil coach Vadao. “We had a domination of the way we played the match. The strategy of the Swedes was expected. They played quite well.”
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There was no sniping toward the winners from this losing group. Asked about Solo’s comments and their aftermath, Vadao said, “It’s not for me to criticize the opponent.”
Sundhage, when given the chance to fire back at Solo, sidestepped. “Football,” she said, “is much more than a comment here or there.”
It was a classy response, to be sure. But the attack of the lack of attack will likely continue for a few days, especially seeing that Vadao was asked in his press conference if Sweden’s new style is “good for the game.” This will remind some of the criticism of UConn women’s basketball, which was accused of squelching the excitement from women’s sport. For the Huskies, the boredom came from the dominance. For the Swedes, it’s from the defense.
“This result brings frustration,” Vadao answered, “but they have been working hard and the effect of that can be seen. We tried everything and I can only say this is very frustrating.”
One interested observer was U.S. striker Alex Morgan, who watched the game at P&G House in Copacabana. She thought the “shot differential and possession difference was so off the charts.” Yet her evaluation of Sweden’s strategy was far more measured that Solo’s.
“It’s not really that exciting for the fans when the team values defense so much,” she said. “But the game of soccer is played in all different sorts of ways around the world. A team like Italy values defense a lot more, whereas a team like the women’s French team values an attacking, transition [style] a lot more. It’s just the different values of soccer. I respect them all. But it’s not always the most attractive to fans.”
This goes to the heart of why this is a debate. The men’s game is impervious, and so Italy’s defense or the Euro 2016 can be uninspiring and have little or no ill effects. The women’s game is regarded as more vulnerable. As Morgan herself said on Tuesday, “I want to make the fans come back. I want to make a fan come back all the time.”
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Yet it’s possible women’s soccer is in a less precarious place than it was even two years ago. The Women’s World Cup final last summer got enormous viewership, which carried over to the Americans’ Victory Tour. The NWSL, although still fledgling, has expanded with reasonable success so far. And Tuesday’s match at the Maracana was a revelation. Fans came early, waiting in soul-crushing traffic, and lined up outside. They made so much noise that one reporter called it “blood curdling.” They not only stayed until the very end, but they cleaned out all the food at the concession stands, and even when Brazil lost, they cheered for the women even as they fought back tears.
“I am Brazilian,” they chanted, “with much pride, and love.”
All this took place at one of the sport’s true epicenters.
“It was a glorious moment for women’s football,” said Vadao. “The Maracana is a symbol of football in Brazil. Maracana means Brazil, which means football.”
These have been a statement Games for women’s soccer here, despite the loss. No longer is Brazil a nation where men are supposed to play and women are supposed to watch. Marta was feted throughout this fortnight; there was even favorable comparison with Neymar, even if some of that was razzing the men’s star. She may retire without ever winning a major international tournament, but surely there was a “next Marta” who watched Tuesday’s game somewhere – just like Carli Lloyd watched the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
“If I was sitting in the stands,” Sundhage said, “I would love to come back and see Brazil play.”
Football is indeed much more than a comment here or there. That’s the case with the men’s side and the women’s side. This is an evolving soccer world, and that was epically clear on Tuesday. Sure there is a long way to go, but women’s soccer can withstand a Hope Solo outburst or a defense-first Olympics final. The blood-curdling noise that echoed throughout a soccer church is proof.