Germany’s women stars must be feeling a strong sense of déjà-vu at the moment. Not for the first time, they approached the Olympic Women’s Football Tournament as hot favourites, only for their dream of gold to fade and die in the semi-finals. The reigning world and European champions’ 4-1 defeat to Brazil, their heaviest at a major tournament since the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, leaves Birgit Prinz and Co to contest bronze with Japan, defeated 4-2 by the USA in the second semi.
The unwritten law which states that the incumbent world champions cannot win Olympic gold thus refuses to be broken. It applied to the USA in 2000, to the Germans at Athens 2004, and to the same nation again this year in China.
"The team dug deep and gave everything, but it simply wasn’t enough," commented Germany coach Silvia Neid after the defeat in Shanghai, turning straight to the unfinished business still at hand: "It would be great to come home with a medal, but we don’t have it yet."
The play-off for bronze is certainly no formality for the Europeans. Japan were outstanding at times against the USA, and the final score undoubtedly flattered the North Americans. In a parallel to the Germans’ semi-final, the eventual losers took the lead when Shinobu Ohno netted on 17 minutes, but the USA turned the game on its head before half-time and never looked in any trouble after the break. "We made a fantastic start and opened the scoring, but then we made a few mistakes and the Americans took full advantage," summarised Japan skipper Hiromi Ikeda.
Japan made no headway against the impressive USA defence in the second period, prompting a lament from coach Norio Sasaki. "My players lacked creativity. We needed to step up a gear and tackle much more aggressively." USA coach Pia Sundhage was more generous in her praise for Japan’s efforts: "If you see how they kept possession of the ball, that could be a role model for women's football in the future.”
But kind words have never scored goals, and the Japanese will need to up their game again when they meet the Germans, a team they have never beaten. The Europeans won 3-2 at Atlanta 1996 with a line-up featuring current coach Silvia Neid and a fresh-faced 19-year-old by the name of Birgit Prinz. And speaking of Prinz: after notching her first goal of the tournament against Brazil, the striker has become the only player to score in all four Women’s Olympic Football Tournaments.
The teams now have two days to regroup ahead of Thursday evening’s clash at the Workers' Stadium. Germany checked into the Olympic Village in Beijing on Tuesday, where the Japanese have been quartered since the semi-finals. The bronze-medal showdown kicks off at 18:00 local time, when Prinz intends to do everything in her power to secure a medal: "We need to make sure we win the match for third place, because we know from experience that winning bronze is a lot of fun too."