The relatively short history of international women’s soccer has yielded precious few dramatic upsets, mostly because the developmental curves have been so skewed they were often quite literally impossible. And even as we celebrate the parity among most of the 24 teams scattered across Canada for the 2015 World Cup there have been scorelines of 10-0 and 10-1. Neither of those seemed to be a fluke.
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Saturday afternoon in Moncton though, the world shook. Colombia, who for much of their opening match against Mexico looked to be the inferior side, pulled off a 2-0 upset of France. It is the same France team that ran the United States off the park in a friendly earlier this year, and a side many have picked to lift with the trophy on July 5 in Vancouver. For their part, Colombia had never had a lead at any point during their four prior World Cup matches. Before the final whistle sounded on this one, opinions were rampant about whether or not we had just witnessed the biggest upset ever in women’s soccer.
Such hot takes can be dangerous and are often clouded by the emotion of the moment. It can, in fact, take years to properly assess the impact of a specific match or event. But who really wants to make even a few hours, let alone years? So let’s look back at the two other landmark upsets in international history and examine some similarities and differences.
The one that immediately comes to mind was Japan over Germany in the 2011 quarterfinals. That was a similar sort of match in that Japan absorbed nearly all of the pressure but a tight, imprecise German team could not find the back of the net. As it was a knockout match, extra time ensued and Japan’s Karina Maruyama scored in the 108th minute. It was the only goal of the night. Germany’s reign as World Cup winners twice over came to a sudden halt.
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That match, of course, was in Germany. The Germans were hoping to duplicate USA 1999 with massive crowds around the country and a win in the final to culminate the month. They got the crowds but not the trophy thanks to the tenacious, disciplined play by the Japanese. Eight days later though, Japan were world champions. The next year they won silver at the Olympics (Germany missed out on that tournament thanks to the loss to Japan) and after that their first continental championship in Asia. Does the fact Japan used the match as a springboard to becoming a world power make it less of an upset in retrospect? It probably does, but that Maruyama goal and final whistle were shook the foundation of the sport.
One year earlier the United States lined up against Mexico in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup which doubled as qualifiers to the World Cup. The semifinal winners booked their trip to Germany while the losers played for 3rd place, the winner of that thrown a lifeline in an intercontinental playoff against a European side. When Mexico and Canada were drawn in the same group it was believed their group match would be a de facto qualifier as the loser was likely to the face the United States. Canada drubbed Mexico in that match, 3-0.
Three days later in Cancun, Mexico played the match of their lives and stunned the United States, 2-1. The crowd was small but boisterous, and the final score put CONCACAF on its ear and the United States in dissaray. Even after Mexico lost to Canada again in the final—this time 1-0—the upset over the United States was hailed as a potential changing of the guard in the region.
For their part, the United States easily beat Costa Rica for 3rd place and then eked out a two-leg series against Italy for the final place at the World Cup. But look what happened in Germany. Canada and Mexico combined to go 0-5-1 and by the time Japan was shocking the world, they were both back home. By the time Japan finished the job in penalties against the United States, the qualifying upset was but a distant memory.
So which one of those was the bigger upset? And what of Saturday’s Colombia-France result? The answer may lie in what happens when Group F play concludes Wednesday, and even what happens after that in the knockout round. Will the loss be the wakeup call that propels France to the title? Or will they stumble again against Mexico? And will Colombia be able to duplicate the performance against England or even in the knockout rounds? Looking ahead, will the ripples make their way to Colombia and persuade the federation to throw more money and energy into the women’s program? (Many of the Colombia players work full-time jobs outside soccer.)
For me Japan over Germany remains the gold standard because of its sudden and immediate impact on that tournament. Mexico over the United States was clearly an intersection of many favorable circumstances to the winner, and the programs have spaced out again since then. Colombia over France? A shocker for sure. The coming weeks and years will continue to tell its narrative.