Brazil, USA face familiar battle for bronze
It was a case of Thailand 2004 revisited for Brazil and USA in Thursday's semi-finals, with the big two again falling at the penultimate hurdle.
The pair will once more be battling for third place when they meet this Sunday at 16:00 (local time) in Moscow's Lokomotiv Stadium on the final day of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006.
"I'm tired of crying my eyes out," lamented Brazil captain Renata Costa as she struggled to come to terms with defeat to Korea DPR. And no wonder. The experienced midfielder has played in all three editions of the tournament, tasting defeat at the semi-final stage on each occasion. What is more, she was also on the losing side in the matches for third place at both Canada 2002 and Thailand 2004.
It might be of scant consolation to the downcast Brazilians, but their American counterparts know exactly how they feel. "I'm so disappointed but at the same time very proud of what we've achieved," commented USA keeper Val Henderson after watching her side lose on penalties to a Chinese side they had dominated. "I don't think the best team got through to the final."
Before they can pack their bags and wave goodbye to Russia, both sides still have another game to face, one that Renata Costa is approaching in typically determined mood. "Unfortunately we failed to make the final, but the tournament's not over yet," she said. "We've got to fight hard to finish third. We need to pick ourselves up and battle for the bronze medal. We're going to forget about the semis. That's gone now, and we need to concentrate on our next opponents."
Those opponents have every intention of doing the same thing, as Henderson warned: "We've got to focus on this last game. We played so well in the semis and created lots of chances, but we had no luck when it came to putting them away. We'll just have to do better against Brazil."
The two squads both feature four survivors from the third-place showdown at the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok two years ago, when the USA prevailed 3-0 thanks to goals from Kerri Hanks, Megan Rapinoe and Angie Woznuk.
Of the surviving Brazilian quartet, Aliane, Renata Costa and Maurine should all feature, although with Barbara in such fine form between the posts, goalkeeper Thais is likely to see the game from the bench. Auriverde coach Jorge Barcelos has kept his faith in a settled line-up so far, only making changes when forced to by injury or suspension.
It remains to be seen whether the American foursome of Amy Rodriguez, Jessica Rostedt, Stephanie Lopez and Stephanie Logterman will renew acquaintances with Brazil in Sunday's game.
Unlike his opposite number, USA coach Tim Schulz has been shuffling his pack throughout the tournament, with every player, including the three goalkeepers, having played at least 90 minutes. All of them, that is, except the baby of the squad, Casey Nogueira, who enjoyed only 45 minutes of action against Congo DR.
"I've got a 21-player squad," explained Schulz, "and although my goal was to win the tournament, this competition is also about bringing players on. You have to give the girls a chance to play and test them, so that they gain experience. Perhaps the journalists can tell me what my best eleven is?"
With a well-balanced, attack-minded squad at his disposal, Schulz admitted that his main concern in the build-up to Sunday's game is preparing his side mentally after the crushing disappointment of losing a match they plainly deserved to win. "I'll cry with the girls, I'll feel sorrow with the girls and we'll share the same pain and suffering," he said. "It's not life or death, though, and we must press on - that's the nature of the human spirit. All I can say is that we will be ready."
His counterpart Barcelos is faced with a similarly daunting task: "It's very difficult to lift players' spirits after a defeat like that, particularly when they're so young. All the same, they're very professional and we'll be making sure they're in tip-top condition for Sunday so we can win the bronze."
Auriverde lacking spark
The Brazil coach put that defeat to Korea DPR down to an untimely lapse of concentration, and knows his side will need to be on their guard for the full 90 minutes against a USA team that has fired in more shots on goal than any other team in the tournament.
Of the four semi-finalists, the Americans are also the second-highest scorers behind the Koreans, having notched 11 goals whilec conceding a mere three.
The unusually shot-shy Brazilians have struggled in front of goal so far, amassing a meagre total of four goals and conceding the same number, a surprising statistic that Barcelos was at pains to shed light on: "Our objective here was not to score lots of goals but to try out a variety of tactics and techniques, and to use our players in different positions and roles."
Putting the facts and figures to one side, the outcome of the weekend's encounter could hinge on which of the two sides has the greater desire to salve their wounded pride and claim that final place on the podium.
It was left to the philosophical Schulz to sum up the emotions aroused by the beautiful game: "Sorrow can have a refining influence and that's why we all love this game so much - because it can make you laugh, make you incredibly happy, but it can also make you feel like we are feeling right now."
The question is, will it be his girls or Barcelos' who are smiling on their long journey home? All will be revealed on Sunday.