If one image sums up perfectly the relaxed and friendly atmosphere that has typified the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007, it was the sight of the Norwegian and German teams at Tianjin Airport on Thursday. A day after facing each other in the semi-finals, the two teams killed time as they waited for their flights by talking among themselves, and chatting to journalists. The prevailing mood was one of complete calm, with all trace of the previous night's rivalry gone.
While the German players endeavoured to unwind ahead of the final by reading or listening to music, their Nordic counterparts did their best to make light of their disappointment, with coach Bjarne Berntsen left to wonder at what might have been. He told FIFA.com: "The mood is, understandably, a bit sombre, as we were all very disappointed by the result. It is even more annoying because we dominated the first half. By the break we had won six corners, while the Germans had not had any. And we created the best chances. Unfortunately, the first goal turned the tie on its head."
While bemoaning the undeniably unfortunate circumstances in which his side fell behind, Berntsen was also gracious enough to acknowledge that their conquerors boast tremendous collective strength - not to mention a centre-forward he considers to be peerless.
"I think our opponents brought their experience to bear," he said. "They are the current world champions and they have an impressive pool of talent at their disposal, including several players capable of changing the course of a game at a stroke. Take Birgit Prinz for example. She is, quite simply, the best player around in her position. And she is always there when they need her to produce a response."
Defensive trio earn praise
Berntsen's principal regret was that his own star players, such as Ragnhild and Solveig Gulbrandsen, were unable to exert their usual influence on proceedings. Nevertheless, he paid tribute to his side - and to an experienced defensive trio in particular - for a China 2007 bid that has left him full of optimism for the future.
"I think that our keeper, Bente Nordby, deserves particular praise, as do our two central defenders Ane Stangeland Horpestad and Trine Ronning. Along with Ingvild Stensland, these three players have given us a great solidity at the back. And my team is still young. I'm sure that we are going to make big progress in the next few years. I'd like to say that I'm extremely proud of my players. We have put in a series of great performances so far, even though the semi-final did not go as we'd hoped."
If Berntsen has one remaining wish, it is that his youthful side can see off a wounded but still powerful US side and achieve their pre-tournament goal of a place on the China 2007 podium.
He said: "We came to China with two aims: to finish in the top three and guarantee qualification for the (2008) Olympics. We have now booked our place in Beijing next year, so now we have to try and make sure of the bronze medal in Shanghai on Sunday. We mustn't allow our disappointment to cloud the fact that we are one of the top four teams in the world. Now we want to make it into the top three."