That old, familiar feeling crackled and fizzed into the warm night air as 20,000 fans streamed out of Elland Road last Friday. England had just dismantled the reigning European champion. A major tournament, on home turf, was only a few days away. The weeks ahead seemed to glisten with promise.
England, by now, should know just how dangerous that feeling is. June is nothing but treachery and illusion. It is when July arrives, bringing with it the piercing light of high summer, that all of that faith and hope have an unerring tendency to curdle into disappointment and regret. Those flags, brandished so proudly, invariably fall limp in the heat.
There are certainly reasons to believe that this year will be different. An abundance of them. England’s women’s team, without question, arrives at Euro 2022 as a genuine candidate to win its first major international honor.
Its strengths are so many and varied that it almost seems disparaging to point out that it has home-field advantage and can expect the backing of raucous, capacity crowds. No player would dare say it, but if England emerges triumphant from the European women’s championship that begins next week, it will not be because of the passion of the public but the talent and experience of the squad.
Its Dutch coach, Sarina Wiegman, knows her route to glory; she led her homeland to this title five years ago. It has a team packed with players who feature regularly in the world’s best competitions. It has a recent track record of traveling deep into the final stages of tournaments.
“Watching those last 30 minutes, teams will be very worried,” Mark Parsons, the coach of the Netherlands, said after his side was picked apart at Elland Road. “England will be favorites for the tournament.” He is right. There is a convincing argument that Wiegman and her players not only can end the next month triumphant, but that they should.
The problem is that the same applies to quite a few of England’s opponents in the tournament. A similarly compelling argument could be made for Spain, a team constructed around the stars of Barcelona’s all-conquering side and one that boasts at its heart Alexia Putellas, widely regarded as the finest female player on the planet.
The Netherlands, too, should not be taken lightly, despite its defeat in Leeds. It has been only three years since — under Wiegman’s command — the Dutch were competing in the World Cup final. Vivianne Miedema, Lieke Martens, Danielle van de Donk and the rest have hardly regressed since.
It is not quite a year since a Swedish team, bristling with experience, was competing in the Olympic final. Though it missed out on gold against Canada, the manner in which Peter Gerhardsson’s team swatted aside not only Japan, but also Australia and the United States during its run should serve as a warning.
France’s aspirations seem to be limited not only by the fallout from what is best referred to diplomatically as the Aminata Diallo affair — it is hard to avoid the suspicion that another Knysna moment lies in wait, though in the rather less glamorous surrounds of Rotherham — but also by the curious decision of its coach, the imposing Corinne Diacre, to omit two of her finest players. Eugénie Le Sommer and Amandine Henry will be notable by their absence.
Norway, by contrast, is bolstered by a returning force. The presence of Barcelona’s Caroline Graham Hansen alone would have been enough to make the Norwegians a threat. That she can now call on Ada Hegerberg, the forward seeking to make up for lost time after missing almost two years of her career through injury, may be enough to turn Norway into a contender.
It is true of all major tournaments — whether contested by women or men — that part of the charm lies in an unpredictability rooted in the comparative rarity of meaningful international soccer.
Meetings of established, or expected, powers between finals are infrequent, and so it is difficult to interpret the teams’ merit in relation to one another. Both Argentina and Brazil, for example, will arrive in Qatar later this year among the favorites to deprive Europe of the (men’s) World Cup for the first time since 2002.
Both are in rich veins of form. Both have considerable momentum behind them. Yet how much that means, what it is worth, is obscured by the fact that they have faced European teams on only a handful of occasions since 2018, all of them in the vanilla, faintly desensitized surrounds of the exhibition game.
That is true of this summer’s Euros, too, of course: England’s 5-1 victory over the Dutch may or may not be a true guide to the sides’ strength, but it seems relevant that the Netherlands rested some of the standout players at Parsons’s disposal — Miedema included — and had enjoyed substantially less training time than the English. Neither of those will apply should the two teams be reunited in the final at Wembley.
The effect of those missing showdowns is magnified, though, by the fact that so little women’s club soccer is broadcast, certainly in comparison to the men’s game. As readers of this column have previously noted, the perception that England’s Women’s Super League is the strongest domestic tournament in Europe has arisen at least in part because there is no broadcast deal for its equivalents in Spain or France or Germany.
England’s squad, as Wiegman has observed, is undoubtedly brimming with talent. A clear idea of how that compares with the strength in depth of, say, Spain is both possibly irrelevant — tournaments are not always won by the most gifted team — and somewhat elusive. Even performance data does not necessarily provide a complete picture because players’ statistical output depends entirely on the context in which they are operating.
As women’s soccer grows, that should start to change and bring with it multiple material benefits. It would certainly be a shame if the insularity that afflicts the men’s game — mentioning no names, England — was adopted in a sport that has experienced its starburst in a far more connected world.
For the time being, though, perhaps it is best just to enjoy its effects: a major tournament that offers the hope of legitimate uncertainty, one that could conceivably be won by almost half of its constituent teams — Denmark: we forgot Denmark — and one that, as tournaments used to do, will not reflect an established hierarchy but serve to define it.
Freeways. Pebble Beach. Hollywood. In That Order.
Gareth Bale has won the Champions League five times. He has three Spanish titles to his name and just as many European Super Cups and Club World Cups. He was once the most expensive player in the world, as long as Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t listening. He has, to his name, either the finest, or the second-finest, goal scored in a Champions League final.
He has scored more goals for his country than any player. He has been the central figure in restoring Wales to the ranks of soccer’s elite nations: ending its wait for a place at a major finals in 2016 and then, less than a month ago, qualifying for its first World Cup in more than 60 years. He is still only 32.
It is hard to explain, then, why it is that both Bale’s departure from Europe and his arrival in Major League Soccer, with Los Angeles F.C., have been so comparatively low-key. Bale’s stock should be higher than Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s, say, when he landed in North America. He is closer to his prime than Andrea Pirlo was when he came to New York. His résumé is, if anything, better than Frank Lampard’s was when he made the same move.
The most obvious explanation is that the last three years of Bale’s decade at Real Madrid have been underwhelming, at least on a personal level. He has been little more than an optional extra at the club since his decisive intervention in the 2018 Champions League final. He has, for reasons that have not always been entirely clear, been cast as a villain by the club itself.
It is a shame that dispiriting coda has come to obscure, to some extent, quite how much Bale has achieved, quite how high he has soared. His has had, by any metric or measure, a superstar’s career. He is certainly the greatest coup secured by an M.L.S. team since Ibrahimovic, and possibly since David Beckham. It is tempting to wonder if it will be only after he retires that we come to realize it.
A New Idea? Boooooooo.
Regular readers will know by now that it is the considered opinion of this newsletter that soccer does not handle change very well. All sports cherish their traditions, the mores and the practices that lend them their lore and their magic, but few are quite so resistant to the relentless march of progress as soccer.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the idea — announced this week by the F.I.G.C., Italian soccer’s governing body — of settling the Serie A title not by goal difference or head-to-head records but through a winner-take-all playoff has not exactly won universal acclaim.
In truth, it is hardly a sweeping revolution. The new measure will come into force only if the teams that finish first and second end any given season with the same number of points. Yet that has done little to soften the blow of what seems, to many, a wanton break with tradition, a tacky novelty and, worst of all, the unwelcome intrusion of Americanism into the sport.
This, some have warned, will prove to be the thin end of the wedge. Before you know it, there will be playoffs for the Champions League places, every game will last three hours and for some reason everyone will stop using contactless card readers and insist on paying for things using a PIN.
The thing with traditions, though, is that they have to start somewhere. The last time the two leading teams in Italy could not be separated was in 1964, when Bologna and Inter Milan both ended the season on 54 points. Italian soccer did not have an established tiebreaker, so the game’s authorities had to improvise. Their solution? A winner-take-all playoff. Maybe it was goal difference and head-to-head records that were the intruders all along.
We start this week with another entry in the ledger marked “two nations, separated by a common language.”
“Why do English papers refer to players getting paid however many thousand pounds per week,” Jerome O’Callaghan asks, though he is by no means the first. “An annual amount I could understand, but this weekly thing is very vague. Do I take that weekly amount and multiply it by 52? Why the obsession about weekly paychecks?”
This is one of those conventions that I’m happy to admit I’ve never really thought about; it is just the Way Things Are Done. I cannot be entirely certain — and I’d welcome other analyses — but my instinct is that it is an echo of the era in which players were treated like industrial workers.
Until the 1960s, their pay was capped at £20 a week; the fact it was measured by the week, I suspect, was because that is how most factory employees were paid. Even after the so-called maximum wage was abolished, the tradition stuck: Players’ salaries, from that point on, were understood as and presented in weekly amounts.
“I’m wondering if you have any comment on the serial snubbing of Son Heung-min by the P.F.A. in their award nominations,” Glenn Gale wrote. “I’ve read articles claiming various explanations (he scored many of his goals late in the season and so on). One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is any suspicion of bias against him as an Asian player. Is this the proverbial elephant in the room nobody wants to mention?”
I’ve always shared that suspicion, Glenn: It has seemed to me for a while that Son is overlooked a little because of the fact that we ascribe star quality much more easily to players from certain countries than we do others. We wrote about it, in fact, a few years ago. In this case, I wonder if perhaps the more pressing issue is that everyone on the Tottenham team is seen as a supporting actor to Harry Kane; it may be that which prevents Son from getting his due credit.
And finally, a succinct one from Shawn Donnelly, presumably prompted by the Bale news. “Does anyone in England watch M.L.S.?” he asked. Some people must — the league has a broadcast deal here — but, like anything that is not the Premier League, the numbers are most likely quite small because England remains a very insular soccer culture. There aren’t vast audiences for Serie A, either, for example.
The better news, perhaps, is that in terms of awareness, M.L.S. has made major strides. That can be attributed, in part, to the fleeting presence of the likes of Bale, Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney and the rest, but more significant is the (relative) success of players like Miguel Almiron. The medium-term future of M.L.S. is as a league that players come from, after all, rather than a place that, when they hit a certain age, they go to.