EDMONTON — The goal that sent Japan through to the World Cup semifinals was a scrappy one. Subsititute Mana Iwabuchi scrambled the ball across the line after two attempts from Azusa Iwashimizu were blocked. It was a fitting climax to an ugly game.
The 87th-minute goal was enough to give the Japanese — often held up as the example of beautiful, flowing football in the women’s game — a rather ugly 1-0 win over Australia in their Women’s World Cup quarterfinal match. The Japanese will now return to Commonwealth Stadium on Canada Day for the semifinal.
Japanese coach Norio Saskai hinted the Japanese might prefer a date with Canada rather than England.
“It is their national holiday, I did not know that before, I am sure the stadium will be packed… and to play the semifinal in packed stadium is my personal wish.”
Sasaki said that he told Iwabuchi that he felt that she would score.
“You are going to decide it,” is what he said he told her before sending her on.
Make no mistake, though, this game will not be held up as a classic. Played in hot conditions, this was a war of attrition that was not easy on the eyes.
We’ve all heard the criticisms of playing a World Cup on artificial surfaces. But what about the start times?
In the summer, it tends to get hot in the middle of the day. And that’s true if you’re in Edmonton, Asia, Europe or the United States. So, scheduling a Women’s World Cup quarterfinal to kick off at 2 p.m. local time on a summer afternoon likely means the athletes are going to be subjected to the worst heat of the day.
So, instead of seeing the world champion Japanese team ping the ball around, and seeing if the quick Australians could counter, the 19,814 fans in attendance at Commonwealth Stadium were subjected to a cagey match that, at times, was played at little better than a walking pace because of the sweltering conditions.
Australia’s 4-3-3 struggled to get the ball out of its own half, as the defenders couldn’t link up with the midfielders, who were outnumbered by the Japanese. But the Japanese simply couldn’t provide the quick, off-the-ball sprints to make their territorial advantage count. In fact, the two scoring chances of note in the first half were both speculative in nature, a chip from Shinobu Ohno that floated well over the bar, and a 25-yard drive from Aya Miyama that Aussie goalkeeper Lydia Williams parried over the bar.
Australian coach Alen Stajcic said the fact the Japanese had so much of the ball in the first 20 minutes hurt his side later in the match.
“In that first 20-minute period, we lost a lot of juice chasing the ball around. You always have to defend against Japan. But it’s when we were on the ball, that’s where the problems occurred, we just kept giving it straight back.”
Despite the Japanese possession advantage, Stajcic said the game was another signal Australia has arrived as a women’s footballing nation.
“We lost 1-0. We didn’t lose 10-0. We didn’t lose 20-0. It was 1-0 in the 88th minute off a scrappy corner. It’s not like we were humiliated.”
But, to see both the World Cup holders and the upstart Australians relegated to standing around, waiting for the other to make a fatal mistake, well, it wasn’t the spectacle the supporters deserved.
Ten minutes into the second half, Japanese defender Mizuho Sakaguchi made such a mistake: she stumbled when she stepped on the ball. The Australians pounced on the ball, but forward Sam Kerr decided for placement instead of power, and Japanese ‘keeper Ayumi Kaihori covered her shot.
In the 59th minute, Miyama’s near post-run resulted in an attempt just wide after a lovely low cross from Saori Ariyoshi. It was the first real sign of the Japanese invention which the team in known to provide.
The game kicked off while Edmonton was under a heat advisory from Alberta Health Services, which warned residents to curtail their physical activity because of the warm temperatures. At kickoff, Environment Canada reported the temperature at 29.1 Celsius, but with the sun beating down on a cloudless day, it felt much warmer to those sitting inside the stadium. When the second half began, the mercury had hit the 30 Celsius mark.
FC Edmonton played one of its home games at Commonwealth Stadium last year — in similar, sweltering conditions — and players and coaches reported that it was about five to six degrees warmer at field level because of the way the heat reflects off the pellets in the artificial surface. So, if Environment Canada reports that it’s 30 Celsius at kickoff, it was likely 35-36 Celsius for the players on the field.
Japanese midfielder Rumi Utsugi, who was named player of the match, admitted that the conditions were hard on the players.
“The difficulty was the heat,” she said. And, she added that “it was a challenge” to remain focused for 90 minutes.
But, her coach said he felt confident that Japan was going to win, even as the game went on and on at 0-0.
“If the goal was not going to come in 90 minutes, I felt that we would have the goal by 120 minutes,” said Sasaki. “Even at halftime, that was what the players were talking about on our team.”
Of course, there will be those who complain that the plastic pitch only amplifies the heat (this is true). But, the heat issue would have been mitigated by an evening kickoff. Sure, kicking off a game at 8 p.m. Edmonton time wouldn’t be optimal for the European viewing audience, but is it better to have a dull display of slow soccer on at prime time in Paris, or to give fans the teams at their best — even if it means early-morning start times across the Atlantic?
It’s also tough on the fans. Who wants to sit out in that heat on a plastic seat? Fans flocked to the shaded upper areas of the lower deck to try and get out of the sun and, of course, for TV, made Commonwealth Stadium look close to being empty. And for those stuck out in the sun, there were many parasols for spectators to hide under.