Theune-Meyer praises progress
© Foto-net

When the conversation turns to experts on women's international football, it is never long before Tina Theune-Meyer is mentioned. As Germany coach between 1996 and 2005, she led her teams to numerous major titles, culminating in victory at the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003.

Four years on and Theune-Meyer is an active member of FIFA's Technical Study (TSG) Group at China 2007. It is a role that is allowing the 53-year-old a close-up view of Germany's attempt to retain their title under the guidance of Silvia Neid, Theune-Meyer's former long-term assistant who took over the job two years ago.

In the break between the first round and the quarter-finals, Theune-Meyer took time out to talk to about the latest trends and developments in the women's game. Tina Theune-Meyer, four years ago you led Germany to the world title. Now you are watching it all again from a distance. What is the biggest difference between the two jobs?
Tina Theune-Meyer:
The biggest difference is undoubtedly in the close collaboration between the TSG and the national coaches that have got involved. I enjoy watching the games from a 'more relaxed' position, observing and analysing the performances of different teams with different styles over the course of the whole tournament. I was too close to it all as national coach and I had to plan on a day-to-day basis. I have gained a greater understanding of the big picture in my new job.

The group phase has just concluded at China 2007 and there has been plenty to talk about. How impressed have you been by the competition here in China?
I've found it absolutely fascinating. The atmosphere in the grounds has been fantastic and I've been impressed by the way so many fans have applauded and cheered the skills of both teams on the pitch. The players have been given such great support from the fans and the Mexican waves have added to the atmosphere. It must be a marvellous experience for the players. And there have already been some tight matches in the group phase with exciting finishes and some magnificent goals. It's exactly what top-class sport should be about.

Have you identified any specific new trends here in China?
The players know exactly what to expect in a World Cup competition. That in itself shows that there is now far greater emphasis on thorough preparation. Many teams now work with a large pool of advisers and trainers. The medical experts have been joined by psychological coaches and nutritional experts. The whole approach is more analytical and scientific. This trend was already under way four years ago, but you can see how much it has evolved in this tournament. The teams are at the absolute pinnacle of fitness and the players are very composed and determined. I've been impressed by the great attention to detail.

Which tactical improvements have you been able to identify?
Both tactically and technically, the Koreans, the Norwegians, the English, and even the Australians, have all taken a massive step forward. I've been fascinated by the moves towards positive attacking football. I have enjoyed watching teams play as cohesive units, passing the ball and varying the pace, while still allowing strong individuals to shine. I'm particularly glad to see that, despite the increased athleticism in women's football, it is still the individual class of, say, the Brazilians, that pays off in the end.

Would you say that the world-class goalkeepers in women's football have it harder than their male counterparts?
No, I don't think so. Keepers like Norway's Bente Nordby, the American Hope Solo or Brazil's Andreia are all at the top of their game. England's Rachel Brown, Denmark's Heidi Johansen and Germany's Nadine Angerer have all put in very good performances. But one thing is for sure - having a good keeper is an essential ingredient of success in women's football. It means the whole defence plays with great confidence and composure and can bring the ball forward into attacking positions more easily.

Do you still see players like Abby Wambach, Birgit Prinz or Marta as the elite of the women's game or are new stars about to outshine them?
Well those three you mentioned are clearly world-class. At the World Cup four years ago I would pick out players like Bettina Wiegmann, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Viktoria Svensson, Malin Mostrom, Birgit Prinz, Maren Meinert and Silke Rottenberg. But yes, we now have players like Kelly Smith from England, Renate Lingor and Kerstin Garefrekes from Germany, Ingvild Stensland and Solveig and Ragnhild Gulbrandsen from Norway, Formiga, Daniela and Marta from Brazil, Ri Un-Gyong and Ri Un-Suk from Korea or Charlotta Schelin from Sweden. They are all playing at the very highest level too.

And which players can we expect to hear from in the future? Would you pick out one particular talent?
There's a lot of talent out there. Australia have brought on several exciting young players like their striker, Lisa De Vanna, and midfield playmaker Collette McCallum. Nigeria's Christie Georgie has stood out in defence and reads the game so well that she never needs to make a tackle. The Korean Kil Son-Hui has excellent close control. Of the German players, I think Melanie Behringer, Simone Laudehr, Linda Bresonik and Fatmire Bajramaj all have great futures ahead of them. And so do Canada's 18-year-old forward Jodi-Ann Robinson, England's Karen Carney and Ghana's Anita Amankwa. The young players are very confident nowadays. But the tougher the competition, the more time they will need to play consistently well on the world stage. That means 50, 75 or even 100 appearances at international level.

How has women's football developed in recent years?
In a very positive way, there's no question about that. I'm most excited to see that people really enjoy watching the women's game. More and more people whose opinion matters are expressing their enthusiasm and offering public support to the women's game. More fans are buying tickets or tuning in to live internationals on television. It's amazing how quickly it has come on. In 1999 Sepp Blatter called on governments and associations or sponsors to place the game on a more professional footing. This is already happening in many countries. The players' attitude to the game has certainly changed radically. It's no longer an issue to talk about female international players. And playing at international level puts women on an equal footing with any other top athlete. It certainly wasn't like that a few years ago.