German juggernaut does the job
CARSON, Calif. -- One the eve of the World Cup final, U.S. coach April Heinrichs put it best.
"Attacking play," she said, "will persevere in this tournament."
It certainly did on Sunday for the Germans.
Even after spotting Sweden a 1-0 lead at halftime, Germany's explosive offensive attack rose to the occasion. It took them a mere 42 seconds to tally the equalizer in the second half on a strike by Maren Meinert, while the Golden Goal Cup-winner came on a well-struck header from Nia Kuenzer eight minutes into overtime for the 2-1 victory.
In front of a sun-drenched 26,137 fans in the Home Depot Center, Germany's familiar attacking mindset and ability to overwhelm defenses time after time wore down the Swedes just as it had against the U.S. a week before. And exactly how it transpired in every other match they won over the past month.
Six wins, no losses.
Twenty-five goals, four against.
Eye-opening totals in any tournament, never mind the biggest competition in the world, and on the home soil of the defending champion and favorite to win the Cup. That sort of arsenal, led by two of the top players in the world -- Meinert and Birgit Prinz -- was too much for any team to contain.
"They are just so powerful," said Swedish defender Hanna Marklund. "We did a better job than most in stopping them, but it's nearly impossible to keep one of their players from scoring."
Sometimes the team with the best defense wins the World Cup. The best example of that in women's soccer is Norway in 1995 when they allowed only one goal the entire tournament to win the Cup in Sweden. On the men's side, the Italians have built a whole system around it, and no one is going to dispute their success over the years.
The Germans were solid in the back, but had a bend-but-don't-break feel during the last two games and were bailed out by Silke Rottenberg on many occasions in both victories. As dangerous as Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm were to the back four in creating chances in the semifinal, it was nothing close to the onslaught they faced against Sweden's gruesome twosome of Hanna Ljungberg and Victoria Svensson.
This active duo made endless runs to get behind the defense and wreaked havoc seemingly every time they touched the ball, whether it was by taking on defenders one-on-one or by taking shots from unlikely angles to try and catch Rottenberg sleeping.
But make no mistake, Germany's strategy from the outset was that its best defense was a great offense. It was like watching the Brazilian men.
"We have great players up front, so why should we defend?" said German coach Tina Theune-Meyer, who is now the first female coach to ever win the World Cup. "We have Meinert, Prinz and Bettina Wiegmann."
This threesome isn't exactly the Triple-Edged Sword from 1991 when U.S. forwards Michelle Akers, Caron Jennings and Heinrichs torched the nets 10, 6 and four times respectively to lead the Americans to the inaugural championship. Those three all played up front, as well, while only Prinz is a true striker for the Germans. As was seen against Sweden, Meinert is more of a true number 10, in that she plays like a linking midfielder between the offense and defense. And Wiegmann, 32, plays in a holding position in front of the defense, and provides the side with the experience of four World Cups without showing her age one bit.
|Connolly's Golden Ball ballot|
CARSON, Calif. -- German striker Birgit Prinz was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament's most valuable player. Her selection wasn't a major surprise considering that she led all scorers in the Women's World Cup with 7 goals and 5 assists, which also won her the adidas Golden Shoe award, as well. Swedish striker Victoria Svensson took home the Silver Ball, while Prinz's teammate, Maren Meinert, earned the Bronze Ball.
As one of the voters, here's what my ballot looked like:
Golden Ball: Meinert - I felt she was the best player on the best team. Period. Her 7 assists led the tournament, and opened up the field for Prinz and the rest of her teammates. Had she not been coaxed out of retirement, the U.S. probably would be celebrating its second World Cup victory in a row right now.
Silver Ball: Prinz - Was a workhorse for the Germans throughout the World Cup. Aside from her goal-scoring exploits, she was responsible for winning several head balls and kept opposing defenses stretched in all six matches.
Bronze Ball: Svensson - Created a fearsome duo with Hanna Ljungberg, which resulted in six goals combined for the Swedish strikers. Has to be considered one of the best players in the world right now, and among the top two or three as far as one-on-one ability.
- Marc Connolly
"I was wide-open," said Meinert, who said she was surprised to have so much time to slot home her goal. "It was a little bit lucky."
Not luck, really, just a mental breakdown by the Swedes. As Marklund said, they put so much energy into defending Meinert and Prinz, and not letting them turn when they got the ball, that sometimes it got the best of them when other players had the ball in the attacking third.
"One second here, and Meinert is right next to me, and the next second she is down the field," said Marklund, who played every minute of all six matches. "She was up in the attack, and then she was back on defense. It was just very tough to find her all the time."
In other words, as Swedish coach Marika Domanski Lyfors said about Meinert after the game, "I think she is the best player in the world."
Had Germany played the way it did in the first half, perhaps Sweden could have held on to its lone goal scored by Ljungberg in the 41st minute. However, the Germans never panicked when they got down for only the second time in the whole tournament. Instead, they went out and pressured the Swedes for the entire second half, and the majority of the overtime.
"Because of our second half, we deserved to win today," said Meinert, who was named the Bronze Ball winner as the third-best player in the World Cup. "We are very strong. We had -- I don't know -- ten corners in the second half. I always had a feeling that we would score a goal."
That sort of confidence was apparent, as the Germans forced the Swedes to knock the ball out over the endline nearly every trip down the field. Sometimes, it came via a tip over the bar by goalkeeper Caroline Joensson. Other times, it came on a deflection of a cross -- many from Prinz -- to give Germany another corner kick, which totaled a mind-boggling 24 on the day.
Germany might have caught a break in the overtime when the official called a free kick from 30 yards out after Svensson seemingly made a clean tackle on Kerstin Stegemann.
"I took the ball fair," said Svensson, who was the Silver Ball winner.
Foul or not, Germany still converted in textbook fashion, as Renate Lingor's pass to the box perfectly found Kuenzer's head, and it was finished in a way that gave Joensson no chance to make a save.
It was just another example showing how strong Germany's attack was. One small unlucky break, missed assignment, or, as Sweden would say, poor call is sometimes all they need to break your heart. Just ask the Americans.
Fortunately for the other nations around the world, we have seen the last of this German juggernaut. At least how we know it. Meinert is pulling a John Elway, and walking into the sunset after winning her title. It was decided before the Cup, and her stance didn't shift after it.
"I'm done," she said without hesitation. "I'm thirty years old and I want to start a new life."
That life will include working with children in after-school programs back in Germany. The same goes for Wiegmann, who reiterated her wishes after winning player of the match honors and playing one of her best matches in her 14-year international career.
"I thought a lot about playing in the World Cup, and I will retire after this," she said. "It was my last game today, and I feel that it was a good time for me to retire after winning the World Cup and finishing on top at the end of my career."
Reflecting on the match itself, Wiegmann said: "We saw everything a soccer game needs."
Attacking from all fronts. Going for broke without fear. Playing to win instead of playing not to lose.
Ultimately, that's why Germany is going home with the trophy. And why it's also no fluke. If anything was proved over the last eight days, it is that the best team in women's soccer is the one that won on Sunday in Southern California, not the one that was ousted last weekend in Portland.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.