The largest crowd ever to watch a women’s match in the United Kingdom will be hoping for a game as close as the other four Olympic finals when the United States meet Japan at Wembley tomorrow night in the women's football final.
The US, who have played in all of them, simply want to win it, which they have done on three of those previous occasions.
Since women’s football was introduced in 1996, every final has been decided by a single goal and the last three have gone to extra-time. The US won the inaugural event in Atlanta, lost to Norway four years later but beat Brazil 2-1 and 1-0 in the past two finals.
It is a formidable body of experience, balanced perhaps by the haunting memory of the World Cup final in Germany a year ago. Favourites to beat Japan, they were edged out on penalties after conceding a late equaliser in a 2-2 draw. That defeat constitutes a huge incentive for the Americans, as several of their players emphasised yesterday.
“It’s definitely redemption, but also a chance to show we’re No 1 in the world,” said Carli Lloyd, a midfielder who was one of three players to miss a penalty in the shoot-out last year. Abby Wambach, the 5ft 11 striker whose five goals at the tournament have given her an international total of 130 - almost a third with her head – added: “The way we lost the World Cup gives us even more passion and desire to perform.”
It was Wambach’s late penalty that rescued the thrilling semi-final against Canada, before she crossed for fellow striker Alex Morgan to head a winning goal three minutes into added time in extra-time with another shoot-out looming. The distraught Canadians believed Wambach’s experience was also instrumental in persuading the referee to add time for perceived time-wasting but she says the moral of the match was how much spirit the Americans possess: “We went down three times and we came back three times. That shows the resilience of this team.”
Clear favourites in most of their games, the US are used to sides trying to unsettle them physically, but that is hardly the Japanese way, for today’s smaller opponents are in no position to do so. That is why the Americans enjoy playing against them – World Cup final excepted – and why, Wambach says, no aggravation will scar the final: “We have such respect for each other that I can almost guarantee none of that will happen. It’s all about the soccer and we’re gonna see some amazing soccer.”
Japan were also involved in a dramatic semi-final, and would have lost a two-goal lead against France had Elise Bussaglia not put a penalty wide. Physically inferior to most opponents, they play possession football but may struggle to contain Wambach if the Americans adopt a more direct game, as their Swedish coach Pia Sundhage hinted, to maximise the threat of Wambach and Morgan. “Keeping possession is important, but mix it up too with finding the two forwards up top,” she said. “When you look at these two, that’s a threat.”
Japan’s coach Norio Sasaki, a wily man with a dry sense of humour, accepts that the World Cup defeat has given today’s opponents an incentive. The question for his team, he says, is: “How much stronger can we make our desire? I think they will be very much motivated to avenge the defeat so we need to strengthen our own desire to win.”
Canada, who knocked out Great Britain, play France for the bronze medal at Coventry this afternoon. The men’s bronze medal match is at Cardiff on Friday between Japan and South Korea, Brazil meeting Mexico in the final at Wembley on Saturday afternoon.
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- Stephen Carter