Brazil and Colombia impress at World Cup but Argentina need boost

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Might that win of Lionel Messi and Co. in Qatar last year serve as leverage for Argentina‘s campaign in the Women’s World Cup? Of course not. Firstly, because the men’s win last December had very little to do with domestic football. The third-choice goalkeeper was the only home-based player in the squad. And more significantly, because it would be a crass mistake to attempt to transpose the geopolitics of the men’s game onto the women.

The growth narrative, Brazil aside (we’ll get there), has left women’s football in South America far behind. Argentina have never been strong in the game. They are still waiting for their first victory in a World Cup. Progress has to be measured on a more modest scale.

Back in 2003 and 2007 their only aim was to try to keep the score down. In the last two World Cups (with Vanina Correa still in goal) they have at least been hard to beat. In their group stage opener at the current tournament they held Italy until the last few minutes. But that late goal conceded in the 1-0 loss conceded is ominous.

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Next come South Africa, who looked good in their opening game, and then they face Sweden, one of the sport’s most traditional powers. To make it through to the knock-out stage they will have to get something from the Sweden match, which would entail the greatest ever achievement in their history.

Outside Brazil (once again, we’ll get there), South America has only ever won three games at a World Cup — and one of them was Colombia‘s opening 2-0 victory over South Korea. In a group containing Germany, one of the favourites, this was the crunch encounter. With debutants Morocco still to come, Colombia can now set their sights on getting out of the group — just as they did in their last appearance in 2015, when they won a famous triumph over France.

Colombia are South America’s great hope. With a bigger population than Argentina, they have probably been under-achievers in the men’s game — an excuse being that they came to the game relatively late as it spread northwards from its heartlands in South America’s Southern Cone. But in the women’s game, in comparison with their continental rivals, they were quicker off the mark. This almost certainly has something to do with a cultural proximity to the United States, giving the sport a legitimacy in what in many ways is a socially conservative country.

However they got here, the current side is very interesting. Teenage superstar Linda Caicedo is supported by a phalanx of experienced, highly competitive players. In last year’s final of the Copa America, admittedly with home advantage, they gave Brazil plenty of awkward moments on their way to a narrow 1-0 defeat. A year on, morale is extremely high in the Colombian camp as they prepare for a game against Germany that, with three points already in the bag, they can afford to lose.

One of the best recent developments for both Argentina and Colombia is the (belated) rise and consolidation of the league in Brazil. Both squads contain five players based in Brazil, making a reasonable living and testing themselves on a weekly basis in a good standard of play. This reinforces a vital point — it should have happened earlier, but better late than never, South America’s giant has got its act together.

Brazil’s presence and prominence in the women’s game is almost exclusively the product of heroic work by generations of players, many of whom have never had their stories told. The sport was officially banned from the early 40s to the late 70s, and was frowned upon afterwards. In the eyes of the authorities it was an afterthought when international competition got underway.

Their equipment was castoffs from the men, and when they went to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta they only carried enough pre-match pennants (to be exchanged with the opposing captain) for their group games. When they caused a surprise by making it out of the group, goalkeeper Meg had to teach captain Sissi some rudimentary English to apologise for the lack of a pennant in the next match.

They started to be taken more seriously when, spearheaded by Marta, Formiga and Cristiane, they stacked up the victories. For a while around 15 years ago they had a claim to be considered the best side in the world, although they kept on coming up short in the big finals. But as the sport took off, they stood still. There was no structure, no league, insufficient investment. The spontaneous generation of talent was not enough, and Brazil have been off the pace for over a decade.

But they have acted to do something about it. In addition to the launch of the league they took the dramatic step of appointing a foreign coach to take charge of the national team. In came the vastly experienced Swede (and former USWNT coach) Pia Sundhage. For four years she has been building towards this World Cup, and Brazil’s debut was her triumph.

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There will, of course, be far stiffer tests than Panama, seen off 4-0 on Monday — starting with France in the next game on Saturday. But what was so impressive in the debut game — aside from Ary Borges‘ remarkable hat-trick — was the clear view of what Sundhage has been trying to do. One of her early priorities was extra defensive solidity. True, the defence was barely tested against Panama, and the absence through injury of keeper Lorena is a concern.

But in her conception, the entire team has to defend when the team loses possession. She declared war on what she calls ‘popcorn time’ — a tendency she identified for players to go to ground looking for fouls, and then stay there protesting to the referee. Instead, she wants everyone involved in the collective press — and it was this aspect that was so striking on Monday.

Panama could not build up any rhythm. They were stuck in their own half because Brazil worked sufficiently hard to keep them in a stranglehold.

But in addition to the collective approach of a Scandinavian side, Sundhage’s team are recognisably Brazilian. After the Tokyo Olympics two years ago the coach came to the conclusion that the defence was okay and the time had come to add and encourage more creativity.

Brazil’s third goal on Monday, scored by Bia Zaneratto after a backheel flick from Borges, was a collective work of art which will live long in the memory of those lucky enough to have seen it.

That goal and the entire performance, sent out a powerful message to the other teams. Colombia look interesting, but it is Brazil who are leading the South American challenge, and they might take some stopping.

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