'Standards will continue to rise'
Prior to the last weekend of the FIFA Women's World Cup 2011™, two of the leading personalities in global women's football joined FIFA.com for an exclusive joint interview. Former USA coach and 2004 Olympic gold medallist April Heinrichs, and Germany's winning coach at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2003 Tina Theune, are both members of the FIFA Technical Study Group (TSG) for the 2011 finals.
Heinrichs and Theune analysed the latest tactical developments, named the outstanding players, revealed the winner of the Hyundai Best Young Player award, and discussed the wide range of tactics and formations deployed at the tournament.
FIFA.com: How would you assess the mood and atmosphere at the matches in Germany? April Heinrichs: This is a genuinely enthralling tournament, there’s no doubt about it. The Germans have been working day and night for many years to achieve these tremendous crowd figures. It was very smart to visit all the other countries well in advance of the tournament and promote the event. It's all added up to a really diverse audience for this Women's World Cup.
We've also seen some really top-class football, haven't we? Heinrichs: The world has been treated to spectacular women's football and magnificent teams at this tournament in Germany, where I've personally watched some of the best football I've ever seen. More than anything else, there's been a real variety of formations and playing styles. Take the Japanese, with their outstanding passing game, and the French, who almost without exception moved the ball with just two touches per player. Then there's the USA and their dynamic, direct style of play. We've never had such a wide range, and it's never worked to such good effect before.
Games are now changed in fractions of seconds, and that makes the difference. The world-class players of today and tomorrow need to be ready for that.
Tina, has the world elite in the women's game grown larger? Tina Theune: Definitely. The close results and the large number of tense games prove that the women's game has taken another step forward, and that there are more top teams than before. Especially at the quarter-final stage, where there was basically no match where you could safely predict the winners beforehand. Three of the games went to extra-time, and two to penalty shoot-outs. Many matches have been very hard fought, with the result in the balance until the end. In the past, USA, Germany and Brazil dictated the trends, but other teams have stepped up to the role now and go looking for the ball, even when the match is tight. In terms of defending, many teams have perfected their tactics when not in possession. They use flexible pressing and switch from defence to attack in an instant. Japan keep it really tight when they have the ball, and that means they don't have to switch things round very much if they lose possession, because their positioning is superb in any case. This is the right moment to increase the field for the Women's World Cup 2015 from 16 to 24 teams.
Do you think Japan are inspired by the skilful attacking game perfected by Spain and Barcelona? Theune: Maybe Barcelona were inspired by the Japanese . I think these are all cases of very good work over the last 10 to 15 years, which you now see in the way the players have been coached.
Which players have most impressed you at this tournament? **Theune: I'd say Homare Sawa. She hunts down the ball, she's the fulcrum of Japan's build-up play, and she scores goals too. She's definitely one of the most complete players around.
Heinrichs:** England's Jill Scott made a very good impression, as did Elise Bussaglia and Gaetane Thiney of France, and Sweden’s Lisa Dahlkvist. It's not only been the strikers, who are always in the spotlight anyway, it's been the holding midfielders who pull the strings and who’ve left the most lasting impression. Sweden's Caroline Seger was strong too. I liked Anonman of Equatorial Guinea, who was magnificent. And as for the Japanese, we at the TSG have taken special note of no fewer than nine different players, which says everything about their quality.
The world has been treated to spectacular women's football and magnificent teams at this tournament in Germany, where I've personally watched some of the best football I've ever seen.
The TSG has already settled on one award. Who is the Hyundai Best Young Player, and why? Theune: We reviewed all the candidates and focused on the players who were crucial to their teams. We've settled on 16-year-old Australian Caitlin Foord, because she made a really important contribution to the team.**
Heinrichs:** Coach Tom Sermanni showed great faith in her, playing her both in right midfield and at right-back. She has the potential to become a trademark modern wide player, strong in defence but very attack-minded.
We'd like to try a little game of changing places. April, what did you think of Germany at the tournament? And Tina, how would you assess USA? Heinrichs: Okay, listen up Tina! . Naturally, I've followed the German team very closely for many years now, and I've watched their ascent from one of the best teams to the very best team in the world. And before this World Cup, I too thought they'd make it to the final. They were knocked out in the quarter-finals, but they remain a technically and tactically strong unit, with a very good team philosophy, and top-class players in every position. But their opponents produced much improved defensive displays and made it difficult for them. There were no gaps, and they broke up the play early. And we have to mention the extraordinary pressure on Germany in front of their home crowd. I believe that had an impact on their performances. Theune: The USA team bears all the hallmarks of the coach. I think you see that in USA's flawless positioning and in their accurate and wide-ranging long passing, particularly from defensive midfield where they have Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd. On top of that, you have this impressive team spirit, which is so typical of the USA women. USA have always believed in themselves right until the very last seconds. That points to extraordinary mental strength and depth of character.
How will the tournament impact on women's football over the next few years? Heinrichs: The appeal of the game will continue to increase, and standards will continue to rise. We should remark on the importance of associations quickly grasping the need for long-term planning. Associations who fail to invest right now aren't just treading water, they'll lose ground compared to the others. Theune: I think it will be increasingly important to develop players capable of acting and reacting at pace. Physical strength simply isn't enough any more. Intelligent football will be the deciding factor, by which I mean the details such as a good first touch and anticipation, but also skills such as dealing confidently with difficult situations and initiating good moves. This will all be increasingly important. Games are now changed in fractions of seconds, and that makes the difference. The world-class players of today and tomorrow need to be ready for that.