World champions relishing USA duel
Fabulous sun-kissed beaches and the deep blue sea mean the beautiful island of Crete is more often associated with lazy relaxation than the pulse and energy of top-class football. But things are set to change on Monday evening when the Pankritio stadium in Heraklion plays host to a mouth-watering Women's Olympic semi-final clash between reigning world champions Germany and two-times gold medallists USA. The match pairs the two favourites for this year's Olympic title, with the Americans bent on revenge in a first rematch since the FIFA Women's World Cup 2003 semi-final.
Germany coach Tina Theune-Meyer and her team were delighted with what they found after arriving on Crete on Saturday afternoon. "We've had a really nice reception here, there were crowds waiting to greet us outside and we were given a typical local welcome drink," the coach said. The Germans have previously been quartered in the Olympic village in Athens and at a hotel in Patras.
Monday's match is a true clash of the titans between sides who have got to know each other well over the years. Germany and the USA have met 21 times with the Americans out in front on 14 victories, although at the present time German lie top of the FIFA world rankings with the USA second. The match between the two best teams in the world represents a second-last competitive outing for legends Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, key figures in the women's football boom and the USA's inexorable rise who are set to call time on their illustrious careers after the Games. "I reckon they're planning to go out with a bang," Theune-Meyer confided to FIFA.com, "it'll be a very emotional match, a bruising and competitive encounter. Both sides will be playing to the limit, and there are some scores to settle from last year's semi."
The coach has carefully considered her preparations for Monday's showdown, allowing her squad plenty of time off after their arduous quarter-final against Nigeria. The German camp reckons the world champions need all the recovery time they can muster, as the match with the Americans is the ultimate physical challenge.
Playmaker Renate Lingor will be especially grateful for the break and a chance to rest her bruised body. The new Germany number ten, successor to legendary midfield powerhouse Bettina Wiegmann, was tightly marked by the Nigerians and never found her rhythm. "I don't know if it was because of the fouls, I think they basically put a player on me the whole time. We wanted to open up the play, but they were treading all over us the whole time," the player commented.
The technically strong Lingor was keen to put the Nigeria match and her own disappointing display behind her as soon as possible. "Even when we did find space we never took command. I don't think we played well, I know I didn't play well, but it's done and gone now."
Naturally, the coach is anxious to avoid a repeat against the Americans. "My players have to go looking for the ball and taking the initiative, otherwise we're basically doomed," Theune-Meyer declared.
Reigning world champions and current world number one Germany are many observers' favourites, but the coach is under no illusions as to her opponents' strength. "They've won all their games and they breezed through the group, although they've had to play one game more," the 50-year-old explained, "but they're super fit and they'll easily cope."
Motivation is not a problem when the USA provide the opposition. "The USA are wonderful opponents, it's easier to play them than against other teams. They've been the dominant force for years," Theune-Meyer reasons. The Germans are far from no-hopers, however. "We haven't started thinking we're a truly outstanding team, we think we had a very good tournament last year. We know we have our strengths, but we'd never be so arrogant as to claim the number one position."
Messages of encouragement have begun arriving from home. "Maren Meinert sent me an SMS saying: 'The Yanks are running scared!!!'" Lingor reported after hearing from her former team-mate. Meinert starred in last year's FIFA Women's World Cup success but hung up her boots after the tournament. "At the World Cup, Maren kept on driving us forward. She was a truly superb motivator, she made us believe in ourselves. I think what she's trying to tell us is we simply don't need to be afraid of them," Lingor reflected.
However, fear seems the least of the Germans' problems. "From the very start we said we wanted to go for gold, so we've always known we'd have to beat the USA in the semi-finals," Lingor said, looking forward optimistically to the match, "I think we're in great physical shape and we could yet shift up a gear." Summarised the coach: "I have a good feeling about it."