Women's football on the up, says TSG
The FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006 proved exciting and unpredictable to the end, with Korea DPR crowned worthy champions after their thumping 5-0 final win over China PR. The five goals scored in that dramatic climax also helped make up an impressive grand total of 106, all of which were spread over 32 matches and three weeks of high-quality action.
Interested observers throughout were the representatives of FIFA's Technical Study Group (TSG), two of whom - Tatjana Haenni, FIFA's women's football officer and the head of its TSG for Russia 2006, and Tina Theune-Meyer, coach of Germany's FIFA Women's World Cup-winning squad in 2003 - spoke exclusively to FIFA.com to give their impressions of the tournament and its players.
FIFA.com: Were the TSG satisfied with the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006? What in particular stood out at the tournament?
Tina Theune-Meyer: We saw a whole host of very talented players, including some incredible individuals such as Korea's Hong Myong Gum and Kim Kyong Hwa , China's Ma Xiaoxu , Brazil's Fabiana and USA's Danesha Adams. There was a lot of potential on display, and sooner or later many of them will make the step up to full international level. On the sidelines as well, we saw a lot of experienced coaches looking after the teams. There was, however, only one female coach , which is obviously not ideal, but the male coaches were all highly qualified and had all proved themselves within their respective federations.
Tatjana Haenni: Everything concerned with the various teams at this tournament was very professional. The delegations were bigger, with all the countries having their own trainers, goalkeeping coaches, media representatives, administrators and medical staff. This was definitely an improvement on past competitions. What would be even better was if the various national associations tried to integrate more women and former players onto their staff.
No European team made it through to the last four. Is this down to the fact that the UEFA European Women's U-19 Championship was held shortly before the tournament?
Theune-Meyer: That must have been at least part of the reason. The teams who ended up getting the furthest were the ones who had the best preparation for the tournament, such as China, USA and Korea DPR. Teams like Germany and France have the potential to get to the semi-finals, but they had little time to prepare. When you also factor in competitions like the European U-19s , then you can't ask too much of the players. It's not the ideal way to get ready for a tournament, especially if you're hoping for some success. But there are some very good leagues and cups in Europe and there are a number of international teams and competitions, and the amount of football they play is a good problem to have. The Chinese and the Koreans don't have this issue, though, and I think the international calendar needs to be improved to make sure that all teams have the chance to prepare for tournaments as best they can.
Do you think that it is significant that two Asian teams, Korea DPR and China PR, reached the final?
Haenni: I think that the top six to eight teams all played high quality football. Just because the European countries had to play two tournaments in a row does not necessarily mean that they would have been better than the rest. It's not as simple as that, but if you are looking for reasons why they did not get through to the last four, then you have to bear it in mind. I think that the Asian teams have really come on in leaps and bounds. Not only did they have ideal preparation for the tournament, but they also have the right conditions to develop the game within their countries. They had the right amount of warm-up matches and training camps and got some team spirit going. New Zealand are another good example of this. They weren't among the top teams, but their preparation was highly focused and they have made sure that they have the right means at their disposal back home.
Theune-Meyer: Tactically, China and Korea DPR are very mature teams. They are very compact in defence and play well as a team within a very modern formation which all the players understand. Teams that have well organised defences, like USA, China and Korea, will always be there or thereabouts. Germany, for example, had a few problems at the back and looked a bit short of practice. The same goes for Nigeria, who were always looking to attack and consequently had one or two problems at the other end of the park.
What are the main differences compared with the previous tournaments, Canada 2002 and Thailand 2004? Did the fact that it is now an U-20 competition have an effect on the standard of play?
Haenni: What is interesting is that the average age of the players - 18 years old - was the same as at the U-19 World Cup in Thailand 2004. The standard of play has come on enormously in the last two years and teams are a lot further along.
Theune-Meyer: Some of the players are more mature and already have international experience. They tend to stand out from the rest, as they play with more confidence and maturity. They would not look out of place in full international teams.
A total of 106 goals were scored - does that indicate that there was a lot of attacking football, or simply that some teams are a lot stronger than others?
Theune-Meyer: The high scores tended to show that once a team got into a decent rhythm against lesser opposition, there was no stopping them. Germany and Nigeria were good examples of this.
Haenni: What was also noticeable was that teams like Switzerland and Finland tried to play good football. Even after a 4-0 defeat, they could have tried to shut up shop, but they carried on playing their football, which helps the players to progress, even if it sometimes leads to heavier defeats.
Theune-Meyer: …it helps them for the future, though. If I just try to keep the score down, then I'm not helping my players to develop.
What was the predominant style of play at the tournament?
Theune-Meyer: The teams who made it through to the semis were the ones with the more mature players. They knew how to close down space, keep it tight at the back and then break at the right moment. The best teams played very fast, aggressive football, winning the ball then using short passes to turn defence into attack.
How important was the tournament with regard to next year's FIFA Women's World Cup? Which players from Russia 2006 will also be involved in China?
Haenni: A lot of people said that Russia 2006 was just a warm-up for China 2007, but to me, they are two completely different tournaments. At the Women's World Cup, the average age of the players will be 25-26, whereas here it was only around 18. These young players have a lot of potential, but they've still some way to go. It should be a great World Cup, because women's football is really coming on and the games are getting quicker and more fun to watch. I think that each of the teams in China will have a few young starlets in their ranks.
Theune-Meyer: When you have an U-20 World Championship the year before a Women's World Cup, it's a good way of seeing which players are ready to make the step-up. It's already a different level from the European and American leagues. It's a tournament with 16 international teams, and countries can play up to five or six games. What is really good for the World Cup in China is that there was an all-Asian final here at the U-20 World Championship. That's a great way to start the World Cup season, and it will also provide an additional challenge and source of motivation for the Asian teams.