The FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup is approaching its climax with the two semi-finals taking place on Thursday. FIFA.com caught up with April Heinrichs, a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group and USA’s national team coach between 2000-2005, to discover the TSG view of what has taken place so far.
FIFA.com: Germany 2010 is generally considered to have been a successful tournament so far. Is that also the view of the TSG?
April Heinrichs: Definitely. We have been extremely impressed with the speed, agility and quickness of the players in this tournament. Overall the physical qualities and psychological maturation is higher here than we have seen at previous youth World Cups. So the players are making that transition from girlhood to womenhood that much quicker and we are seeing players here who will soon step up to the senior level. Germany has two or three and Nigeria three to five players, if not more, who are as good as their full national team players. As the game develops the players are older and older at this level and more mature at this level. Teams are not picking a 16 or 17-year-old because they don’t have any 20-year-olds but because the 16 or 17-year-olds are good enough.
What are the positive trends you’ve noticed at Germany 2010?
Firstly, it’s good to see the possession-orientated teams advancing. With the exception of Japan and Korea DPR, the teams most adept at possession comprise the four semi-finalists. Germany can play direct when they want to but that’s by choice because they can slice you open like a hot knife through butter, with one direct but purposeful ball. Nigeria can also be direct but with dynamism. The reliance on possession reflects the psychological maturity and also indicates the preparation the teams have gone through before they arrive at the tournament and in that regard we are pleased because we are seeing some pretty fine football here. And the players have been rewarded for their excellent football both in the attendances and the way the fans have responded to their play.
What about the two semi-finals on Thursday? How interesting are those match-ups?
It’s very exciting that we have three new semi-finalists which can only be positive for the game. And I think what is really fascinating is that if you pick any one of the four teams and pair them with the team that is most similar to them, that is the match we have. The Korea Republic are technically gifted and agile working with the ball, and are an extremely competent group of women who really deserve to be in the semi-finals. Both teams will have the ball a lot in this game and what is interesting is that Germany are not accustomed to periods when they don’t have the ball. They may have to spend time chasing it and that can be exhausting. So suddenly Germany could be under more pressure than they’ve been before.
I have to be a little bit more circumspect talking about Colombia because I haven’t seen them live but they look incredibly competent and like to dictate the play. Both Colombia and Nigeria share a possession-orientated style and they will not deviate from that. But there are a few unknown aspects to this game. Will Colombia continue to rise as the pressure increases? Will Nigeria be able to recover from their greatest win in women’s football and still retain their composure? And how well will they do under pressure, the real pressure that does not come into play until the semi-finals?
Nigeria are the best team I have seen from that country in ten years of watching them at world events. They have all the classic qualities of Nigerian teams: great tackling and physical presence and unbelievable speed but they are more disciplined as well. They are physically superior to any team in the tournament and they are really sold on their roles and their commitment to that role. There doesn’t seem to be a superstar in the team and there’s a sense that they abide by that old saying: ‘none of us is smarter than all of us’. Against the US, the second half was where the story of the game turned and Nigeria showed they could adapt and learn quickly.
Is there anything different you’ve noticed about the coach’s role at this tournament and the impact they have on their teams?
What I’ve noticed is that the coaches have demonstrated a better knowledge of their players in advance of the tournament. Quite often we've seen a coach start with one line-up, and then make many changes for the second game and then again for the third. There has been less of that at Germany 2010 than ever before so coaches are not using the tournament to identify their best players and their best system of play. And as a consequence of this change, teams are getting better during the course of the tournament. Germany, for instance, have always been a country that barring injuries and yellow cards will finish almost with the same line-up as they started the tournament and other teams are following their model.
Finally, a quick word about other teams, such as Japan.
Japan didn’t qualify for the quarter-finals but there was evidence here that they have improved again and that they’ll continue to improve. I watched one of their training sessions and it was at a very high level. Japan were the Asian champions at U-19 level last year just as England were in Europe and Brazil in South America at U-20 in 2010. The fact that none of them advanced is a sign of greater parity within confederations.