2015 Women’s World Cup, after day 8: Understanding the biggest upset in tournament history

I’m not a clever man, but throughout this month’s Women’s World Cup, I’ve been entertaining myself with a phrase I’m sure I picked up from someone else: getting soccered. Dominate a game only to go down by a freak goal? You got soccered. Have a better plan but the other team’s star does something unstoppable? You got soccered. Offside call gets blown, bad penalty gets called or that red card comes out for no reason? Congratulations, you got soccered. Low scoring games can be defined by aberrations. In other words, shit happens.

In yesterday’s first game, shit really happened to France, and the result was one of the two biggest upsets in World Cup history. Despite a performance were Les Bleues outshot lightly-regarded Colombia 21-3, the Group F favorites would end the day in third place, their 2-0 loss rekindling doubts about whether Philippe Bergeroo’s side can finally break through in a major competition.

Those doubts resurfaced in earnest mid-way through the first half, when Colombia’s only shot on target beat Sarah Bouhaddi to leave France down at intermission.

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Cue a stellar game from Colombia goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda. Cue six blocked shots by Colombia’s defense, some terrible officiating …

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… and Bouhaddi living up to her reputation as one of the most erratic goalkeepers in the world …

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… and Colombia had its first win in World Cup history, the 2-0 result leaving Group E’s expected last place finishers in first place through two matches.

But focusing on group standings would ignore the forest for the trees. Now seven editions deep on Women’s World Cups, no team as lightly regarded as Colombia – 28th in the world; having only qualified for one World Cup; winless all-time in finals, with only one goal in four games – has even beaten a favorite.

Just look at the rosters. Four Colombians are playing college soccer in the U.S. Two more are playing in minor leagues, below the U.S.’s top division, the National Women’s Soccer League. With the exception of star creator Yoreli Rincón, the rest of Colombia’s players are attached to Colombian clubs that don’t compete in a regular league. Even Rincón’s place at Torres in Italy finds her outside the world’s elite competitions.

Contrast that with France. Seventeen out of the team’s 23 players play for two of the best clubs in the world: Olympique Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain. The rest play for other clubs that are competitive in the French first division. Almost all of them have experience in UEFA’s Champions League. Almost all of them have experience with France teams that have made deep runs in major international competitions.

On Saturday, though, there was something more powerful than all of France’s talent and experience. The game itself – swayed by its infrequent goals; often defined by the unlikelihood of scoring more – happened. The slim odds that a team could hold out, hope for the first goal, and let the virtues of a packed penalty area take over came to fruition. Colombia, embracing that long shot’s hope, scored the first major upset of the competition.

It’s hard to find parallels to this in other sports. Perhaps in boxing, when a puncher finds that rare opening to level a champion? Even then, that’s an act of instant aggression. That puncher doesn’t have to level the champion, wait for him or her to come to, then defend their lead over the next 14 rounds. Colombia’s win would more akin to a basketball team, in the pre-shot clock area, hitting a 40-foot shot, getting the next rebound, and holding out for the next 39 minutes. Even then, if you don’t make Colombia a mid-major college team facing a team of professionals, the analogy doesn’t really work. Soccer, it seems, doesn’t lend itself to nice comparisons with other sports.

Within the women’s game, it’s the biggest upset since, well, the last World Cup, when the biggest shock in six finals took place in Wolfsburg, Germany. There a titanically-favored Germany, two-time defending world champion favored to claim a third-straight crown, was taken to extra time scoreless by Japan, a team that’d never reached a knockout round before. But in this quarterfinal, the underdogs were actually controlling the ball, finishing the game with 54 percent possession. And in the 108th minute, forward Karina Maruyama finally put that possession to good use, giving Japan the 1-0 win that would help propel the team to its first world title.

Back then, there was a feeling we’d entered a whole new world. Was Germany, after eight years on the throne, finally waning? Was Japan’s win a sign that the second level of teams, so often filling out the numbers, were ready to sneak up on the world? We were finally entering an era of World Cup soccer where powers beating bigger powers, “Brazil throttles the U.S.,” wasn’t our biggest shock. It felt like one era of World Cup soccer had come to an end; to be replaced with what, we weren’t sure.

Colombia’s win feels the same. It’s this new, unpredictable present we hadn’t imagined. It snuck up on us. Instead of the staid, predictable group stage we imagined two weeks ago, we’ve got something entirely different. We’ve got competition.

Perhaps that’s why, instead of harkening back to Women’s World Cup’s past, Saturday’s match reminded so many of the 2010 Men’s World Cup, when a Spanish team that’d gone in as a favorite after winning Euro 2008 faced Switzerland in its first match. But the Spaniards couldn’t break through Ottmar Hitzfeld’s set up, one that remained intent on staying deep and trying to hit its opposition on the counter attack. When, seven minutes into the second half, Gelson Fernandes made that plan a reality, Spain’s title hopes were dealt a blow. Switzerland, despite being outshot 24-8 and keeping only 37 percent of the ball, won 1-0.

Two matches later, the Swiss were out of the tournament. Spain, however, won their next six and went on to claim its first world title. The match, as memorable as it was, ultimately became a warning against reading too much into one result. Sometimes, soccer just happens.

When it does, you have to look at the bigger picture. In this case, that picture has good news for both sides. For Colombia, its team has a landmark victory, one that was a deserved as it was hard fought. But for France, there’s little to be discouraged about. The lopsided shot numbers hint the team is still on course.

Finishing remains a problem, and worries that this France team has not made a major final might now carry more weight, but yesterday’s game was still soccer at its most randomly brilliant. Neither Spain nor France can overcome that power.

Elsewhere

  • Even before Colombia’s victory, Saturday’s match against England was a near-must win for Mexico, whose failure to take three points from the Colombians on Tuesday left it with a slim window into the knockout round. Unfortunately for Las Tri, second half goals from Fran Kirby and Karen Carney pushed Mexico to the bottom of Group F, its 2-1 meaning a game three win over France is a must.

  • On a day of standout celebrations, Andressa Alves’s was one of the best. Minutes after one of this tournament’s more cynical attempts to draw a foulhttps://twitter.com/richardfarley/status/609820732269400064…the 22-year-old took advantage of Ainhoa Tirapu’s misread, beating the Spanish goalkeeper in the 44th minute for the game’s only goal.

    https://twitter.com/richardfarley/status/609823915981078528

    In a matchup of two of the tournaments’ biggest stars, Marta and Verónica Boquete, which gave us little more than this joust …

    https://twitter.com/richardfarley/status/609825207709122560

    … Brazil posted a convincing 1-0 win, its 2-0-0 start leaving it as one of two teams still perfect through two rounds.

  • Perhaps the best part of Alves’s goal? The celebration:https://twitter.com/richardfarley/status/609824355531509761

    In the day’s nightcap, however, Karla Villalobos did Alves one better. After her 89th minute equalizer against South Korea made it 2-2 …https://twitter.com/richardfarley/status/609885084712370176… the Costa Rican reminded us that even the most mundane results at a Women’s World Cup can be career-defining moments.

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Who’s going through

With two rounds in the books, it’s time to start looking at scenarios, something we’ll do group-by-group starting tomorrow. But ahead of the final game of group play, it’s worth looking back at the history of this very weird, very forgiving 24-team format to recognize some thresholds. How may points does a team need to feel really good about making the knockout round?

Three, it seems. Well actually, four. FIFA has used the 24-nation, 16-team knockout round format at 17 different tournaments: three times in the men’s World Cup; 10 times at U-20 World Cups (and its predecessor, the Youth World Cup); and four times at the U-17 World Cup. Go through all those group stage results and you see a wavy line drawn between “3” and “4.”

  • No team with five points or more has even been eliminated at group stage.
  • 5 percent of the time, four points has been enough, while
  • three points is slightly better than a 50-50 endeavor: 58.1 percent.
  • Only twice has a team collected less than three points and advanced to a knockout round.

Here’s an ugly graph:

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If you’re going to be relying on three points to get through, better make sure goal difference is on your side. Otherwise, four points is the mark you should be shooting for.

In case you missed it …

Marta is still very good. Where we once thought Colombia’s Lady Andrade would be the day’s biggest showoff …

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… Marta decided to wreck Spain’s Priscila Borja.

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RIP Priscila. We’ll remember this aggression. You did no harm.

Today

The World Cup gets its second off day, with simultaneous kickoffs for groups’ final games meaning teams need to hit the road. Teams in Group A are breaking out of Edmonton, heading for Montreal and Winnipeg, while Group B breaks out of Ottawa in favor of Winnipeg and Moncton.

Where we stand

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