A Women’s World Cup of change, of unexpected early departures and tantalizing arrivals, has completed its upending of certainty and tradition.
No former champion remains in the tournament with two rounds to play.
Gone prematurely are the United States, with its four world championships, and Germany, with two. Ousted is Norway, the 1995 victor. And now Japan, the 2011 winner, has exited in the quarterfinals with a 2-1 defeat to Sweden on Friday in Auckland, New Zealand.
Of course, it would be highly inaccurate to consider Sweden an arriviste. It has participated in all nine Women’s World Cups, finishing second in 2003 and third three times. But it has never won a major tournament and longs to be a first-time champion.
Sweden will face Spain in the semifinals after smothering Japan’s versatile attack in the first half and then defending for its tournament life in the second. It built what seemed a secure lead early in the second half by scoring twice indirectly on its specialty, set pieces, then held on as Japan, desperate and energized, made a fierce, if futile, charge.
Japan, which had scored 14 goals in its first four matches and seemed a decent pick as the best team left in the tournament, did not manage a shot in the first half. But it awakened as the exit door loomed, creating furious chances in the second half. But it will long regret a missed penalty kick in the 75th minute.
“We fought so hard because we wanted it,” Japan’s captain, Saki Kumagai, said through tears. “We want to go to the next round, of course.”
Sweden’s victory, Spain’s first trip to the semifinals and Japan’s exit seemed in keeping with the spirit of a World Cup with the tournament’s biggest-ever field; the highest attendance at this stage; and the most receptive embrace of the newly-risen and revealing ambitions of teams like Colombia, Jamaica, Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco.
Finally, FIFA can begin to say with some legitimacy that the Women’s World Cup offers an event of global, not merely regional or entrenched, possibility. The other side of the draw is a similar reflection of that growth: Australia will face France, and England, the reigning European champion, will play Colombia.
On Friday, Sweden pressed high through the first half to suffocate Japan’s attacks. But when it possessed the ball, Sweden was patient, using short passes to maintain possession and looking for a long ball to take advantage of its height and aerial skills.
In the 32nd minute, Sweden’s set-piece mastery delivered a scrappy goal. Six of its 11 goals in the tournament have come directly or indirectly from set pieces — four from corner kicks. This time, midfielder Kosovare Asllani’s free kick rattled around in the penalty area and the defender Magdalena Eriksson kept the play alive with three jabs at the ball. Finally, it fell to her fellow center back, Amanda Ilestedt, who scored from just inside the six-yard box.
“I thought, ‘I’m just going to put it away now,’” Ilestedt said. “So that was a great feeling.”
Even before that, however, Sweden had set a physical tone against the smaller, younger Japanese players.
“They hadn’t played, like, a physical team until they played us,” said the Swedish substitute Sofia Jakobsson, who plays for the San Diego Wave in the National Women’s Soccer League. “We are bigger than them and could go into harder tackles.”
As the second half opened, Japan’s goalkeeper, Ayaka Yamashita, pushed a shot just wide from the charging Johanna Kaneryd, giving Sweden a corner kick. Fuka Nagano handled the ball as the corner sailed into the crowd in front of Japan’s goal, and after a video review, Sweden was awarded a penalty kick. Filippa Adngeldal slotted the ball low and to the left, giving Sweden a 2-0 lead.
It was not a safe one.
“Something happened,” Jakobsson said. “I don’t know if they were growing into the game or we were becoming more tired.”
After playing more defensive-minded in the first half, Japan’s attack was energized by the substitute Jun Endo. Sweden had expected a vigorous comeback, with Eriksson warning before that match that Japan’s attack could “come from anywhere and they will never stop.” Her comment proved prophetic.
In the 75th minute, Japan won a penalty kick when the substitute forward Riko Ueki had her heel clipped by Sweden’s Madelen Janogy. But Ueki’s shot clanged off the crossbar, and her header on the rebound looped high over the goal. It was suggested afterward to Sweden’s left back, Jonna Andersson, that her team was living a charmed existence in the knockout rounds, having survived a penalty shootout only five days earlier to eliminate the United States.
Andersson smiled and said she preferred to believe it was the imposing presence Sweden’s superb goalkeeper, Zecira Musovic, not luck, that had made the difference again, at least on Ueki’s attempt. “Maybe it’s a good goalkeeper that takes some energy or disturbs the penalty taker,” Andersson said.
In the 87th minute, Japan finally scored on a rebound by Honoka Hayashi after a failed clearance by Sweden gifted her an easy shot at Musovic. But not even 10 minutes of added time were enough to find a tying goal.
Japan was gone. And a first-time Women’s World Cup champion waits its crowning moment.
“I think we have the team to go all the way,” Andersson said. “And now we are one step closer.”