There was silence, blank stares and long faces all round as Norway left the FIFA Women's World Cup Stadium in Leverkusen, the scene of their crushing 2-1 loss to Australia in the final match of Group D. The defeat not only eliminated Norway from the FIFA Women's World Cup Germany 2011™, but also denied them a place in next summer's Women's Olympic Football Tournament.
"Conceding the goal so soon after scoring the opener was very hard to take, especially considering how hard we'd worked," Norway captain Ingvild Stensland told FIFA.com, hands on hips and with a look of disbelief still etched across her face. "The match was full of emotions. One minute we were up in the clouds, the next we were crashing down to earth with a bang."
Indeed, Elise Thorsnes' goal after 56 minutes sparked scenes of joy on the Norwegian bench, but the celebrations were extremely short-lived. The Matildas hit back almost immediately after the restart, with the irrepressible Kyah Simon side-footing home a Lisa De Vanna pull-back to square the tie. Norway's lead lasted just over a minute, and the equaliser proved to be the turning point.
Norway never managed to recover from the setback, with their attacking moves becoming ever more desperate and wayward as the match progressed. Lady Luck was certainly not smiling on the Scandinavians either, as Trine Ronning will no doubt attest. The experienced defender struck a superb curling free-kick in the 83rd minute, only to see it bounce back off the Australian crossbar. Just four minutes later, Simon popped up at the other end to score her second goal and seal Norway's exit.
"What can I say? It was a good strike!" said an almost speechless Ronning, before receiving a hug from coach Eli Landsem. Even Australia coach Tom Sermanni recognised his side's good fortune. "When I saw the ball come back off the crossbar I thought, 'it looks like today might be our day'," he said in a post-match press conference. For Ronning, however, disappointment was the overriding emotion: "It's very hard to explain what we're feeling today. We're out of the competition and we won't be playing at the Olympics."
Earliest exit ever
Norway won the FIFA Women's World Cup in 1995, and never before have they been knocked out of the competition at such an early stage. Their worst showing until now was at USA 2003, when they lost to the hosts in the quarter-finals. "Right now it's difficult to know exactly why we failed in this competition," said Ronning. "We need to go home and analyse what happened. We have to be honest with ourselves and recognise that we weren't good enough."
"There are many teams that have come on leaps and bounds in women's football," added the player. "That's good, but it makes everything more difficult. The level is much higher, and now there's no such thing as an easy match or a weaker opponent. Australia are a good example. They have grown and developed a lot. All we can do now is learn from this and wish them good luck for the rest of the competition."
Norway will no doubt see Germany 2011 as a missed opportunity, but they will soon be moving on to their next challenge. "We can't let our heads drop, we have to start looking forward," said Stensland. "The good thing is that qualifying for the Women's EURO 2013 starts in a few months. So getting to Sweden is our next goal."
"It's incredibly disappointing," concluded coach Landsem, reflecting on her side's exit. "We had high hopes of going much further, especially after the first match. But we'll now go home and work even harder. We'll be back, and we'll be even stronger."