EDMONTON — On a day filled with controversy about referee decisions, goal-line technology saved the day.
The 31,467 in attendance at Commonwealth Stadium weren’t sure what to think when English defender Laura Bassett’s deflection of Japanese midfielder Nahomi Kawsumi’s cross struck the crossbar in injury time. But goal-line technology alerted referee Anna-Marie Keighley that the ball had come down off the bar and crossed the line before spinning out. The game paused as the Japanese players mobbed each other at the centre circle, realizing they’d got the 92nd-minute deciding goal to give the defending champs a 2-1 win and a date in the Women’s World Cup final against the United States — a rematch of the 2011 finale.
It was a heartbreaking way for the English to lose the game.
But Japanese head coach Norio Sasaki said had Bassett not tried to get in the way of the cross, it would have gone to striker Yuki Ogimi, who was streaking into the box.
"It’s not that I feel bad [for Bassett], but if she didn’t try to clear, Ogimi was there waiting for the ball," Sasaki said through a translator after the match. "She couldn’t do anything about it, anyway.
"The own goal is not really an own goal because we created a very strong counter-attack."
"We’ll go home knowing that we could not have done any more, given any more ounce of blood, sweat or tears, smiles, whatever it was, we couldn’t have given any more," said England coach Mark Sampson, whose eyes were red and moist in the post-game press confer-ence.
"The way Laura Bassett has played today, in this tournament, she’s epitomized all the val-ues that English football fans want to see in that white jersey when you’ve got three lions on your chest. Pride, passion, never say die and play for the team. OK, she’s hurting now, but to-morrow morning she’ll wake up and she’ll have 22 teammates and the staff giving her a hug, telling her how proud we are of her."
The technology alerted the world to the winner, but, certainly, the goals scored earlier in the game will be debated.
First, let’s look at England’s equalizer.
The English have long lamented Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God.” After all, that famous 1986 World Cup goal was scored against the English, the longstanding vanguards of what is right and honourable in the game of soccer.
Of course, the “Spin-o-rama of Houghton” might not be something they’d want to bring up. (Oh, wait, curler Jeff Stoughton already has the trademark on the “Stoughty Spin-o-rama, doesn’t he?)
Down 1-0 to Japan in the first half of the semifinal, England’s Steph Houghton spun a full revolu-tion before throwing herself to the ground. It was the kind of dive that should be forever remem-bered in soccer blooper reels and worst-of lists. But Houghton was able to sell the pratfall to the only person that mattered, that being New Zealand referee Keighley, who determined that a foul had been committed by Ogimi on the play. In this case, “foul” would be “standing the closest to player who sold the call.”
Fara Williams stepped to the penalty spot and levelled the score, 1-1.
Of course, there will be those who will howl about the first-half penalty kick off the boot of Aya Miyama that allowed Japan to take the lead. There was no doubt if a foul was committed or not. Japanese fullback Saori Ariyoshi got up the field and got behind English defender Claire Raffer-ty. Rafferty clearly pushed Ariyoshi in the back. In real time, in press row, it looked a clear-cut penalty — and Keighley pointed to the spot. On the replay, it looked as if the initial contact may have occurred a few centimetres outside the box, and that Ariyoshi had fallen into the penalty area.
But, really, that is a matter of the width of a fingernail. And faulting the ref gets us into the dan-ger zone where we become so nitpicky about the game that soccer stops being a living, breath-ing entity that thrills us, infuriates us and gives us something to talk about at the bar. In the end, it’s a question about if instant replay should be used in FIFA, not if Keighley should humanly be able to pick out a couple of centimetres worth of real estate.
The game began with England leaving Jodie Taylor as the lone striker, and basically reverting into an old-school 5-4-1. Williams, the holding midfielder, was so far back in the formation that she basically turned a back line of four into a back line of five. Japan struggled early in the match to break it down, as the English crowded the midfield, and would only go forward in num-bers if they had set-piece chances.
Despite Taylor’s loneliness at the top of the formation, she did get a great chance less than a minute in. Taylor was able to get behind Japanese fullback Aya Sameshima and then lashed a volley that skipped across the face of goal.
But, by the 60th minute, Taylor was out of gas and was replaced by Ellen White, who scored against Japan in the 2011 Women’s World Cup.
England’s Toni Duggan had a great chance to give England the lead in the 62nd minute, but her volley struck the bar.
Just a couple of minutes later, after a giveaway by Japanese defender Mizuho Sakaguchi just outside her own penalty area, White curled a drive toward goal that forced Japanese ‘keeper Ayumi Kaihori into a diving stop. Then, Jill Scott just missed the goal with a header off a corner kick.
After beginning the game so negatively, the English came forward with more vigour in the se-cond half. If they spent much of the first half trying to frustrate the Japanese, they spent much of the second half surprising the Japanese.
Sampson said the Japanese deserved credit for defending so doggedly, saying they "have hearts of lions."
"In the second half, we couldn’t pass the way we should," said Ariyoshi. "But, our defence was very good."
Sasaki said his team was inspired by text messages and phone calls from Kozue Ando, the star player who fractured her ankle in the opening game of the Women’s World Cup. Sasaki said Ando will be in Vancouver Sunday to cheer on her teammates.
Japan’s coach said his team must be more carefree when it faces the Americans in the final.
"The final is the final. There is nothing beyond that. The players shouldn’t be afraid of mak-ing mistakes."
Meanwhile, the English will be subjected to the indignity of the World Cup’s greatest folly – the third-place game. The Lionesses will have to pick themselves up emotionally to face Germany on Saturday.
Sampson put a brave face on it.
"Look, this group are going to go again. They’re going to pick themselves up and they’re going to go again. When they put the jersey on, when they put the three lions on their chest, they feel 10 feet taller. They know what it means, they know the sense of responsibility, and they’re going to go for it. Whatever they’ve got left in the tank, this team will give."