First-round fallen learn valuable lessons
In an inaugural FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship defined by a heartening sense of long-overdue parity, four sides had to die as the competition was sliced down to a trim eight following the wrap up of a scintillating, goal-littered group phase.
Though the losers will surely feel they could have done better, even the homeward bound have helped raise the proverbial bar in what has thus far proven a wildly successful and highly competitive tournament. As the women's game begins to earn respect and recognition in some of football's more patriarchal environs, each squad at the tournament has made great strides in the name of the women's game.
Lone African delegates Nigeria, North America tricksters Mexico, Asian second-place qualifiers Chinese Taipei and European upstarts France are all heading for home, but only after earning the respect of their opponents, the organisers, scores of supporters, and the sometimes sceptical and fickle band of football fans back home.
Minnows from the word go, Chinese Taipai were thrown headfirst into a baptism of fire in Group C. Along with the heavy tournament favourites the United States, up-and-coming Australia, and tough-tackling England in Victoria's Centennial Stadium, Chinese Taipei were always looking to the World Championship as a learning experience.
After edging past a number of fancied Asian teams in qualifying, just reaching the inaugural tournament was considered a massive achievement for the Taiwanese. Though they failed to earn a point in Victoria, and their lack of experience and chemistry was sometimes all-too apparent, they brought colour and moments of brilliance to the competition.
Cheered on by a bevy of Taiwanese supporters chanting "Taiwan China" despite the lopsided score lines, and loads of adoptive support on Vancouver island, the young Asians managed a consolation goal and the respect of some sizeable names.
Following a final loss to the US, FIFA Technical Study Group head Fran Hilton-Smith of South Africa had some supportive words for the brave Asians. "Against perhaps the finest team in the tournament (US), Chinese Taipei played extremely well. They kept their shape, never gave up, and fought to the end … showing a great level of achievement."
Chinese Taipei coach Yao-Chuan Chang, came to recognise the tournament as an invaluable experience before heading westward for home, claiming, "(We) are improving with experience. It has been a learning process and we will continue to do our best."
Nigeria's young 'Falconets" too were forced to call it quits after earning a point in a highly demanding Group A - but showed a great deal of natural ability, speed, and a hint of future inspiration.
Canadian striker extraordinaire Christine Sinclair had some respectful words for the Nigerians following Group A's final match, admitting, "We have never played a team this fast … They caused us a lot of problems and we had to adapt our play."
Nigerian coach Peter Egudia also viewed the inaugural competition as a tremendous learning experience. "Our preparations were not as good as they could have been. We only arrived in Canada with three days to prepare, the climate was a problem … but we did or best and consider the tournament a great lesson."
Mexico, one of the two combatants from Group B to head for home early, were as purely talented a side as anyone had ever seen at this level. Sadly, indiscipline and fatigue were a bit of a blight on the North Americans' ambitions. Mexican coach Leonardo Cuellar had mixed emotions about the loss. "It is frustrating, but we are improving..."
The other Group B loser, France, managed to earn themselves three points from a win over Mexico and only missed a wild card ticket to the final round of eight by virtue of some Japanese heroics over Denmark in Edmonton in Group A's second-to-last match.
As with all competitions, some survive, while others falter. But in Canada 2002, even the first-round fallen can consider themselves winners.