Fierce, unapologetic, charismatic – the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup has been a game-changer for the sport. So, it is hardly a surprise that the United States Women’s National Team, crowned champions, would embody that spirit. As a month-long spectacle came to fruition at Lyon on Sunday, the finale served more of the delectable football spectators have come to expect from this past month.
The Netherlands fielded a similar line-up to that against Sweden, with Anouk Dekker coming in at the centre of the defence to push Merel van Dongen into the substitute’s bench. Local hero Shanice van de Sanden again found herself on the bench as young Bayern Munich centre-forward Lineth Beerensteyn was rewarded for her consecutive excellent displays with a start in the finals. Megan Rapinoe waltzed back into the side while Samantha Mewis was preferred to Lindsey Horan in the centre of the park for the United States.
The contrast between two teams could not have been any more glaring – while the United States gunned for their fourth winners’ medal, the European champions were playing in only their second ever FIFA World Cup. Yet all differences dissipated at kick-off as both teams put on a show in a bid to clinch a World Cup historic to them in their own respective ways.
The Dutch were absolutely spot on with their tactics as they stifled the United States’ gameplay with relative ease. The attacking trio of Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath barely got a look-in as the Netherlands took a leaf out of Sweden’s playbook from the semi-finals. A compact backline with a midfield which refused to take any unnecessary risks meant the United States could not impose their direct style of play early into the game. That the United States would attempt to bulldoze their opponent with quick goals and establish their supremacy in the first half itself was an oft-repeated storyline over the past month, but the Oranje Leeuwinnen simply did not offer them that liberty.
Morgan, in particular, was closely marked around the Dutch penalty area. The Stars and Stripes superstar still managed to dribble her way in and threatened her opponents’ goal. Twice, Sari van Veenendaal had to come to the rescue. On one occasion, she was assisted by the woodwork as a clever move by Rapinoe had unleashed Morgan in the six-yard box, while on another, van Veenendaal came up with an excellent low save to her left to tip a powerful shot from the United States’ No 13 just wide off the goal, proving why her Golden Glove win was a thoroughly deserved one.
As the second half progressed, the game slowly opened up, yet the Netherlands did not falter until the 60th minute when Stefanie van der Gragt’s high boot found Morgan instead of the ball and VAR decided that a penalty was in the offing. Rapinoe took the measure of the spot-kick and as she inched up both van Veenendaal and the goal, suddenly there was no doubt in anyone’s mind regarding which way the match would tilt hereafter.
The left winger has been the face of this star-studded USWNT, dispatching teams with her skillset on the field and taking on repressive ideas from the dark ages regarding gender equality and gay rights with her political stance off it, her unabashed opinions and candour always shining through.
“Every team would be very lucky to have Megan Rapinoe. She willingly takes on that pressure, when we need her she shows up. That’s just a quality she has that is innate, you can’t teach that. Whenever we call upon her, she very willingly steps up to that limelight and she owns it and she thrives in it,” Rebecca Sauerbrunn declared about her teammate.
Rapinoe's penalty followed by her iconic celebrations did propel the USA towards a second consecutive FIFA World Cup, but Rose Lavelle sealed the victory with a marvellous solo effort just eight minutes later. Latching on to a ball thirty yards from van Veenendaal’s goal, she eluded two Dutch defenders to slot in an exquisite finish.
The 25-year-old has been a revelation in France, one of the many breakout stars this summer. Heralding from a rich pool of female football players in the US, she is perfectly poised to carry forward the mantle.
As it will be carried forward in the Netherlands as well. From a nation which did not have any top-division league football until 2007, the Dutch have come a long way bad incredibly so. If 2017’s European triumph put them on the map, this summer has shown that they are here to stay.
“The growth (of women’s football in the Netherlands) is ridiculous," said Danielle Van de Donk. "If I look at women’s football and the hype, it’s amazing. I think that’s what I’m most proud of, that we got so much respect from the Netherlands," the midfielder added.
The right mix of exuberant talent and relentless composure, the Dutch will be a force to reckon with in years to come. For now, however, Rapinoe and Co continue to be the Golden Girls, their charm and allure lending the collective voice of women in the sport a strong backbone.
Updated Date: Jul 08, 2019 10:31:30 IST