A near-capacity crowd at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California was treated to a match for the ages as Germany downed brave Sweden 2-1 with a golden goal that put a dramatic finishing touch on USA 2003. The crucial goal came just eight minutes into extra-time, when second-half substitute Nia Kuenzer rose to slam home with her head and see Germany rise to the top of the female footballing world.
The first half largely belonged to the Swedes, and Hanna Ljungberg's brilliant slotted goal in the dying moments of the half was all they deserved. But the second half was the German's as they levelled early through Maren Meinert, took the clash to extra-time and finished the job shortly thereafter to leave the courageous Swedes soaked in tears. The match got off to a predictably nervy start with both sides feeling the other out cautiously.
The European Champions began to assert themselves, mainly on the counterattack. With Kerstin Gerefrekes running well down the right flank, Sweden central defender Jane Toernqvist had to be at her very best to keep out the dangerous service (14').
Swedish striker Victoria Svensson earned herself a half chance, when livewire Ljungberg's battle saw the ball fall to her on the 6-yard line. Only the timely tackle of Kerstin Stegemann kept the scoreline tangled at one apiece (23').
And again Svenssson looked the most dangerous player on the pitch. Her long-range shot had Best Goalkeeper Award-winner Silke Rottenberg scrambling, but it went wide in the end (25'). The Germans continued to hit back on the counter and Bettina Wiegmann's low cross, was barely cleared away for a corner just before Prinz got to the ball (26'). Malin Andersson again nearly put the Swedes up. Firing a left-footed half-volley from 25 yards, Rottenberg was again diving to her right. But the try sailed just over the bar and out (30').
Once again on the counter, Wiegmann picked out Prinz coming down the left. But the big striker could only pull her shot wide of the far post as the match began to flow end to end (31').
Prinz was looking in fine fettle. Collecting a pass from Pia Wunderlich, she tried to bend her shot from the left into the far corner, only to be denied at the last by a brilliant sprawling save from Caroline Joensson (36').
The Swedes eventually managed set the Final ablaze as Ljungberg raced through, collected a brilliant piercing ball from Svensson, and coolly side-footed past the advancing German keeper (0-1, 41'). Prinz missed a chance to draw level right at the death of the half. Stegemann's low pass came straight across the goalmouth, but the tournament's top scorer failed to get her toe to the ball (45').
But after the interval, it took only seconds for the Germans to equalise. Prinz turned provider, and Meinert collected the ball in acres of space and fired past Joensson to put Germany level (1-1, 46').
After being caught cold, the Swedes began to look a touch deflated and the Germans took control. Prinz nearly grabbed a goal for herself as she came inches from meeting a Gerefrekes cross right in front (54').
Wiegmann then went close after the Germans had a penalty claim turned down. After Garefrekes went to ground, Wiegmann kept her head and was only denied by the diving Joensson (58'). And the Germans just kept on coming. A fine header from Ariane Hingst was only just turned away by the heroic Joensson once more (60'). Prinz failed to put the rebound away.
The Swedes continued to fight to find their first-half form, but it was all one-way traffic for the Germans. Wunderlich missed a sitter at the far post when Prinz's perfect ball picked out the midfielder, but she somehow conspired to slam over the bar (62'). And Stegemann hit just over from distance only seconds later (63').
The German pressure continued to mount as the second half wore on, but they were denied once again by the brilliant hands of Joensson. Wiegmann's ball picked out Meinert who fired for the top corner. But the Swedish keeper had her gloves on the right way around on this day (74').
And then, with time winding down and Germany seeming inevitable winners, Svensson enlivened her team, beating two German defenders at the corner of the box with a wonderful bit of approach work. But, from a tough angle, she was unable to put the ball into the back of the net (80').
Ljungberg had her head in her hands just seconds later as she missed a clear chance to take the lead. Frida Oestberg's cross to the far post, picked her out all alone, but the diminutive striker mishit the ball with no defence near her. Oestberg managed to get a head to the wayward strike but could only put it into the side-netting (81').
Almost as if to make amends, Ljungberg began to press the Swedes into attack. Racing past Hingst and Minnert on a mazy run, she hammered her shot into Rottenberg's chest (83').
Ljungberg had one last chance before the final whistle to end regulation time. Svensson's cross from the right had the brave striker lunging. The ball went wide, and she came up wincing in obvious pain (86').
And Svensson got one more chance too. But her drive from 20 yards sailed just wide. (88').
The chances kept coming as the half wound down. But the crucial goal was not to be as the finals headed into their first extra-time session.
The Germans looked the brighter side as the period began to take shape. And when Nia Kuenzer's got on the end of Lingor's inch-perfect free-kick, the super-sub rammed her header over the brave keeper and into the back of the net for the golden goal winner (2-1, 98').
It was a dream ending for the defender and for the Germans.
After the dramatic encounter, Bud Light Player of the Match and retiring captain Wiegmann summed up the encounter this way: "I think today was a great game. We saw everything that a soccer game needs. There were a lot of chances, toughness, it was close, and well fought, but in the end I think it was a lucky goal for us. I think we played a great second half of soccer and created a lot of great scoring chances."
Swedish coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors was left with a different feeling but the same sentiment, though she was positive about the future.
"We have some young players, but they have a lot of experience now and I feel that will benefit us greatly in the future," she said. "There are some young players at home that we can bring in in the coming months to better prepare for the Olympics, and I feel that our goalkeeper played a wonderful game, and overall, through the whole tournament, was very impressive.
"You have to have a goalkeeper on top of her game if you want to do well in this tournament and ours was on top of her game, as was the German goalkeeper. It must have been a very exciting game to watch, and most people have told me that it was one of the best games that has ever been played."