U.S. plot revenge
The painful memory of defeat in the semi-final of the last FIFA World Cup has been haunting the American team, and coach April Heinrichs more than most. In Heraklion on Monday 23 August, her two-time world champions will have ninety minutes to banish thoughts of that failure for good. And their clash with an excellent German eleven looks, at first, like a perfect rematch of the 3-0 reverse in Portland last year. But there is much more at stake. It's a last hurrah for the core of America's golden generation. And a chance to see how good the new crop really is.
The question of how badly the American women want revenge refuses to go away, though. With the sensitivity for which she is held in esteem, Heinrichs tries to defuse the issue: "Of course we all remember that semi-final in 2003! We've studied it too and just as well - you have to keep looking at your performances. But, it's so easy to get stuck in the past. None of us can predict the future."
It would indeed be easy to dwell on that disappointment, a real slap in the face for legendary players like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain whose dream of retaining 'their' trophy was extinguished on home turf. A few days later, Germany overcame Sweden and walked off with the spoils. The US team would love to return the compliment. "My opinion now is that that World Cup semi-final was the greatest game in the history of women's football," reflects Heinrichs. "And I'm certain this Olympic semi-final will be just as spectacular."
Her plan to upset the Germans sounds a little simplistic: "We'll have to keep them under constant pressure to deny them control of the ball." That's what she's letting on at least. The truth is that Heinrichs knows Germany like the back of her hand, having watched, re-watched and analysed their system so many times that perhaps only the German coach can claim to have a better grasp.
During this Olympic tournament, Heinrichs has seen Germany firsthand against Nigeria and China. Strangely, witnessing the 8-0 thrashing of the Asian champions up close has given her confidence: "It's true that the Germans look impressive when you consider the overwhelming score-line. But the game could easily have ended 1-0. When they went behind, the Chinese pushed forward to get an equaliser and were punished on the counter-attack. After the second and third goals went in, they pretty much gave up. But that can happen when you've got a young team."
As for her own charges, Heinrichs is quick to point out how blessed she is with a rich seam of talent, running deeper than the starting eleven. "All eighteen girls here understand their role, whether they start on the pitch or the bench. Those who miss out have no problem with that, and I know they'll seize their chance when I ask them to," she declares proudly.
The New Generation
In the bigger picture, the US team stands on the verge of a major upheaval. Joy Fawcett, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain - vital pieces of Heinrichs' puzzle - are all set to retire from international football. For these icons of American sport, the Olympics are the final challenge and one they must conquer to avoid departing with sour goodbyes.
Not that the players themselves admit to such thoughts. "The fact that this is our last competition doesn't affect our motivation," insists team captain Julie Foudy; "we give everything we've got whatever the tournament." They prefer to focus on the benefits of experience as tension mounts in the final stages. "We've played in a lot of competitions so we know the pressures, and I think we put up with them pretty well!" jokes Foudy, with a playfulness that proves her point.
It is also instructive to note that when the old guard are relegated to the sidelines, as has happened to Brandi Chastain, the deep-rooted winning mentality is as strong as ever. "It's not easy for Brandi, that's for sure," notes Heinrichs, "but all the girls are behind the team, Brandi especially. She's remained totally focused despite not seeing a lot of the action. And every time she walks out on to the pitch, she helps us with her flawless ball retention."
The last chance for the luminaries is the first real test for America's new generation. Shannon Boxx, Abby Wambach and Lindsay Tarpley will soon be the nucleus of the US team, and they would like nothing better than to announce their arrival with Olympic gold.
One thing's for sure: Heinrichs isn't losing any sleep over the transition. At just 20 years old, Lindsay Tarpley has caught the eye of the manager who brought her on in the group matches and installed her in the starting eleven for the quarter-final: "She's played very well. She's always behind her team-mates, she's brimming with confidence and she's developed a lot physically. Basically, she fits right in."
The plaudits for 24-year old Wambach are being sung even louder. Having scored three goals in the tournament so far, her progression since the FIFA World Cup has been phenomenal. "She embodies the American approach," raves Heinrichs. "She knows what she's good at and works on her weaknesses. She wants to get better all the time. 2003 was a great year for her, but right now she's hungrier than ever. Technically or tactically, she's always on the lookout for ways to improve her game."
When you add Aly Wagner (22) and Shannon Boxx (27) to these emerging stars, not forgetting Kate Markgraf (28) in defence, the handing over of the baton promises to be smooth. For now, though, it will take both the experience of the senior players and the zeal of the youngsters to come away from these Olympics as champions. Next time, the desire for revenge may well be German.