Comparing men’s and women’s soccer is obviously an apples and oranges thing, but one of the biggest reasons I’m writing this is a guy named Roger Milla.
If you’re too young to remember a time when soccer games were nearly impossible to find on television, like ever, then congratulations. Because in 1990, at least in the United States, there was nothing. MLS was still six years away and piping in matches from Europe was the realm of satellite dishes that took up a good part of the roof at sports bars and still brought in fuzzy pictures when they worked.
The exception, kind of, was the World Cup, at least in 1990 when cable television picked up most of the matches because the United States had qualified for the first time in four decades. In the opening match, African underdog Cameroon upset Argentina 1-0 (they hacked Diego Maradona throughout and finished on nine men, but whatever), and the next day in school, my soccer friends couldn’t stop talking about Cameroon.
They ended up winning their group and beat Colombia by scoring twice in extra time. Both goals were scored by 38-year-old Roger Milla (the second a hilarious goalkeeping error by another legend, Rene Higuita). Obviously his goal-scoring made him special, but what really created his iconic status was his celebrations, dancing with the corner flag. He played with such joy, it was impossible not to root for him, especially as the massive underdog he was.
I still wonder what might have happened had Cameroon been called for not one, but two penalties (including one in extra time) in the quarterfinal, leading to a 4-3 loss to Gary Lineker and England. Other than Senegal in 2002, African men’s soccer has not been to such heights in the quarter-century since. To this day, I still own a Cameroon jersey or two and try to root for the African teams at the World Cup.
On Tuesday, I saw a little bit of Roger Milla in Gabrielle Onguene, even if she was just a 1-year-old in 1990. Gaelle Enganamouit wasn’t even born yet and veteran Madeleine Ngono-Mani (Cameroon’s all-time leading scorer), who scored the game-winner against Switzerland, was just six.
But that joy of playing, ability to make opponents look silly, and not really giving much of a hoot about history looked awfully familiar. Like the 1990 men’s team, Cameroon’s place in the second round is far from a fluke. They crushed Ecuador, out-shot world champion Japan 20-4 before falling 2-1, and were completely dominant Tuesday in the second half against a Switzerland team that almost everyone had tipped for the quarterfinals and a date with the United States.
That place may now belong to Cameroon. Of course, getting by a disciplined China defense Saturday won’t be easy and the Indomitable Lionesses would be a massive underdog against the United States, if it came to it in the quarterfinal.
Regardless of how they do the rest of the way, Cameroon has not only set the stage for a bright future, but they have given us entertainment that we just don’t see often anymore, in the men’s or women’s game at this level.
Somewhere Roger Milla must have been watching. And showing off his iconic grin.
– Ray Curren
What else did we learn from Groups C and D Tuesday?
Is Sweden the sleeping giant? Sweden has not had a strong World Cup, and it could end after Wednesday’s matches. If it doesn’t, they will play Germany in the Round of 16 in a match that will see the loser almost certainly miss the Olympics. The question is, if Sweden get a second life, will they be more dangerous than ever? They are still undefeated, easily could have beaten the United States, and also could have let go when Australia took an early lead on Tuesday. But they didn’t. If they survive, look for them to give Germany everything they can handle.
– Dan Lauletta
Here there Ecuador: Japan never really pushed the gas pedal at all, but still, Ecuador has to be proud of its performance, particularly goalkeeper Shirley Berruz, who had a few good stops to keep the score 1-0. Ecuador avoided the worst goal differential in World Cup history, which looked like a shoe-in before kickoff Tuesday. Ecuador surely has seen what Colombia has done and knows they aren’t necessarily that far behind them in South America, so with four years more experience and hopefully a little help from their federation, they’ll look to return in France.
Nigeria turning a corner? On paper this World Cup will look much like Nigeria’s others. Two losses and a draw leaves the Super Falcons 3-14-2 in World Cup play with a single trip out of the group stage (1999, when they earned two of their three wins). Their Olympic record is 1-8-0. But a deeper look says this go-round was different. Talented young players like Asisat Oshoala and Francisca Ordega made Nigeria dangerous at every turn, and to some extent they eschewed the physical tactics and tried to actually outplay their opponents. Tuesday began on the back foot, but just when it looked like they would implode, the Nigerians got hold of the match and made the United States work until the final whistle, even carrying possession at times after they were reduced to 10. The two takeaways for me from their World Cup are that they are not far from being actual contenders, and that with some more like last December at the draw they could have easily been quarter-finalists.
Is Japan in trouble? The defending champs will enter the knockout stage with a perfect 9 points and, on paper at least, in much better shape than it was at this time four years ago in Germany. But they’ve only scored four goals – one against hapless Ecuador – and were outplayed for long stretches in both the Switzerland and Cameroon matches. The Japanese media has made an issue out of the fact that Japan is the second-oldest team in Canada (wonder who the oldest is?). With Kozue Ando out for the tournament, will they be able to win every game 1-0? They might get the Netherlands in the second round, and if they get past that, Brazil. Can they survive both of those? Of course, we didn’t think so four years ago, either, did we?
Is it Australia time? Australia should be plenty pleased at finishing second in what many thought was the most difficult group at the World Cup. They should be further pleased by outplaying the United States for an hour, dominating Nigeria, and playing a controlled match against a Sweden team that needed it more. Next is a dicey match against Brazil, who will be waiting for them in Moncton, but Alen Stajcic’s side has to feel at this point that it can play with anyone in the world.
Switzerland can sleep soundly: Historically, three points and a plus-7 goal differential should be plenty for Switzerland to advance and while they walked off the pitch Tuesday in limbo, by the time Sweden were held, the Swiss were locked in. But at halftime Tuesday, they were looking at playing China with a real good shot at making the quarterfinals and a possible Olympic berth next summer. Now it looks like possibly host Canada. They have shown the ability to play with the best in the world for short periods, but their confidence will not be high, and the massive crowd against them may be too much to overcome.