With just six weeks to go before the sport's elite vie for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007, the 16 competing nations continue to fine-tune their preparations ahead of the big kick-off. For several of these, the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil provided the perfect opportunity to test themselves ahead of the showcase event in the Far East. Brazil, Argentina and Canada all took part with virtually the same squads they are expected to take to China, while the USA allowed their U-20s to fly the flag for them on this occasion.
Having followed the performances of the quartet in Rio de Janeiro, FIFA.com now brings you up to speed on Brazil and Argentina and looks at the possibility of a South American side making it to the final in Shanghai on 30 September.
Golden future for Brazil
With seven wins from seven games and 33 goals without reply, the unstoppable Seleção never looked like pocketing anything other than gold in Rio de Janeiro, where the team's talismanic No10 Marta also took the top scorer award with 12 goals.
The 21-year-old was once again pivotal to her team's success thanks to a combination of heavy scoring, pinpoint passing and general creativity in attack. The 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year lit up the Maracana with her dazzling displays and was deservedly inducted into the mythical stadium's Hall of Fame, where her footprints can now be seen alongside those of Garrincha, Pele, Zico, Romario and Ronaldo, among others.
Of course, Marta's magic was nothing new, nor was the ruthless efficiency of Cristiane, her principal ally up front and the tournament's second leading markswoman on eight. But there were several new sources of encouragement for the Auriverde at the Games, like the remarkable progress of Daniela Alves, or the precision of Rosana from dead-ball situations.
The left-winger showed her set-piece skills by scoring with wonderful free-kicks in her last two outings. At 25, the Neulemgbach (Austria) player says she honed her dead-ball skills by watching and imitating the men: "I study them to see how they do it. When you come to strike the ball, you need to do so with confidence, and in the knowledge that you're going to find the target. I'm striving to be like Ronaldinho, except with the left foot," she says with a laugh.
While Brazil's star-studded attack remains their most potent weapon, taking gold at the Pan American Games without once conceding a goal proves their defence is fast improving. "It wasn't something we really expected before the Games, but I'm thrilled nonetheless. It's an indication that we're doing well at the back and not just up front," said the team's goalkeeper Andreia.
And though coach Jorge Barcellos has every reason to be pleased with the performances of his charges, he was unhappy with certain aspects of their play during their semi-final win over Mexico. "We missed a lot of chances, were often out of position and showed our nerves. I told the girls to get on the ball and play with Brazilian spirit. We didn't come here to put on a show. If we're defending, then our players cannot make clearances with overhead kicks just to give the crowd something to cheer about," he says.
Yet the 39-year-old knows that despite mistakes like that, there are strong grounds for optimism, not just in terms of his players' talent, but also in terms of their strength as a group. "The team spirit in this group is really impressive. They did everything together (at the Games), which is why they deservedly took the gold."
The Seleçao's success at the Games goes beyond the purely sporting. After the failure of the men to take top honours, it fell to the women to provide entertainment, goals and a title to the expectant fans at the Maracana. The 70,000-strong crowd who thronged to the legendary venue for the final against the USA is further proof that the climate is changing. Women's football is winning a place in the hearts of the Brazilian faithful, who are becoming increasingly fond of this talented generation of players and their leader Marta.
Argentinaon the right road
Carlos Borrello travelled to the Pan American Games in Rio with a squad that included nine veterans of the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003 and six from the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006. The Albicelestes only missed out on a semi-final berth at the Games because of goal difference, after recording three wins and one defeat in their group games.
The coach admitted to FIFA.com he was disappointed not to have been among the medals, but insisted it had still been a very positive experience. "I'm very satisfied with our performance. We shouldn't feel bad as we went out after winning three games and losing just one. Moreover, we didn't play against any weak sides, but instead against teams who were all ranked between nine and 20 (in the world)."
"We are in good shape, above all because we continue to make progress. We have been finding consistency and improving, and that's fundamental. I like that we're making steady but firm progress. You have to take it step by step. We have a new generation of players and are a young team. In fact, I'd call us an U-20 side reinforced with several experienced players. That said, the youngsters also have experience and hunger, so it's an intriguing mix," remarks the coach.
Now back in Buenos Aires, where his side are continuing their
preparations for the FIFA Women's World Cup, Borrello feels
confident about the future of Argentinian women's football.
"I think the national team will be among the top ten in the
world within four years. However, that's not to say we
can't do well in China, especially with this group of players.
"They were even happy when they found out their opening game there was against Germany. Previously the girls wanted to get revenge on Brazil, now it's Germany, who will find it far from easy against us. These girls have real character and determination," he concluded.