The atmosphere at the Women’s World Cup has become tense and serious. The play is getting faster and more physical, the tactics more fluid and daring. The promo videos for each game now include highlight footage from previous games, set to percussive theme music and a dramatic voiceover reminding us that the losers will be sent home. It gives each match a sense of fraught, narrative culmination. FOX sports announcers are asking urgent questions. How will Spain’s tippy-tappy short passes work against the more direct, “Total Football” style of the Dutch? Will Colombia’s tenacity and silky touches be enough against a blatantly great English side? Will Japan continue to play like the best team in the tournament, even against Sweden? And will the Swedish figure out how to score in live play, or are they too dependent on winning set pieces and being tall?
The stadiums are larger, fuller, and more color-coordinated. In place of goofy individual fans pointing at themselves on the jumbotron there is the immense, baroscopic noise of the crowd: roaring, booing, thickly unified chanting. Someone in the stands is playing a beat on a bass drum, like we’re all about to witness an execution.
Watching the game with a soccer neophyte and a newly declared Spain fan
“It’s crazy how big the field is.” “That guy [Netherlands coach Andries Jonker] is really Dutch looking.” “I like Spain’s jerseys better.” “Whoa. Whoa!” “Wow. That’s pretty—that’s pretty neat.” “Oh man, missed by a hairlength!” “I’m rooting for Spain for sure.” “What’s the deal with hand balls?” “God, look at the way they fucking sprint, that’s just crazy.” “I think being a goalie must be nerve wracking.” “Like, being a goalie must be so stress-inducing. You have to be able to regulate your—you need to have some special access to your cortisol.” “ “Soccer is fun to watch.” “Sorry, I just haven’t been sleeping well. Your guest room is too hot. Or small, or something.” [Soft snoring.]
The cheapest way a goalie can regulate cortisol levels is by screaming—at the midfield to get up, at the defense to get it together, at the other team’s peevy striker to fuck the fuck off. They can also be observed for precious seconds lying on their tummies with the ball snuggled tightly under their chest, practicing gratitude.
Well-resourced goalies have the privilege of relying on specialists: a medical team including sports psychologists, dieticians, massage therapists, and goalie-specific trainers who emphasize response time and plyometric development. For additional support they have a coaching staff that includes goalie coaches, defensive technicians, and defensive strategists, who work together with the tactical team to guide their goalies through specific game scenarios, which will be tailored to whatever opponent they’re about to face.
How do you react to being swarmed on a corner kick? How about a free kick from the top of the box, where the shot comes in low off a second ball, and you can’t really see because there’s a tangle of people outside the six? How about when a striker who likes her right foot breaks away down the left side?
When these scenarios aren’t being physically rehearsed with the rest of the team in practice, goalies are instructed to visualize them over and over—during meals, in the shower, on the bus. When they’re not doing that, they can study. Thanks to tactical analysis software, goalies have access to more information than ever about what certain players tend to do on free kicks, breakaways, and penalties. Sweden’s goalie, Zećira Mušović, has been pasting data sheet printouts to the outside of a water bottle and keeping it beside her while she plays. (She insouciantly consulted her bottle several times during the penalty shootout with the US, which may have contributed to the fact that two US players missed the frame entirely and a third slammed her shot off the post to lose the match.)
Australia’s team, known as the Matildas, won their round of 16 game against Denmark 2-0. While watching the match on TV I offered possessively intense compliments to Australian forward Caitlin Foord and formed the belief that her fellow Australian forward Mary Fowler will someday probably be the greatest player in the world. When Australian winger Hayley Raso got the ball I yelled “Raso!” and leapt up from my couch. When star Australian forward Sam Kerr jogged onto the field in the second half, making her first appearance in the World Cup after sustaining a muscle injury in a pre-tournament friendly, I beamed like a dog about to throw up grass. American soccer commentators have been saying that the Matildas are having a “1999 moment,” referring to when US won the World Cup on home soil courtesy of Brandi Chastain’s famous penalty kick. Instead of watching a claymation Brandi Chastain take her shirt off again in an ad for chips, I’m going to YouTube more goal-scoring compilation videos of Sam Kerr on my phone. Australia advances to play France in the quarterfinals.
The situation with the French manager
The head coach of “Les Bleus,” as the French team are known, used to be Corinne Diacre. Diacre has for years been feuding with many of her key players, alienating various club presidents and managers, firing assistant coaches for talking behind her back, and admitting to journalists that her communication skills need work. In February of this year, France’s captain and linchpin center back Wendie Renard quit the national team, citing Diacre as the reason in a pointedly vague statement about her desire to not be miserable anymore. More players followed, and the French Football Federation undertook an investigation. Their report concluded, in solemn, computer-translated French-to-English, that “the dysfunctions observed seem, in this context, irreversible.”
In March 2023, the federation replaced Diacre with handsome dork Hervé Renard—no relation to Wendie, who has graciously un-quit the team. It’s working out perfectly. He’s only had the job for a few months. He has never managed a women’s team before. That’s no problem, he says, because his input is completely unnecessary. “I get the feeling they’d be just fine without me.” When cameras go to Hervé on the sidelines, commentators make spontaneous sounds of enjoyment and approval (“Mm!”) and wonder aloud about how many shirts he packed (he wears an identical starched white oxford to every game).
While our houseguest slept, the Netherlands lost to Spain. England barely beat Colombia, the lowest ranked team ever to make it to the quarterfinals, in an exciting and exceptionally physical match. Japan, I am surprised to report, lost to tall Sweden. The Japanese were the only former World Cup champions remaining in the tournament, so whichever nation wins this year will be winning it for the first time. Australia won their quarterfinal game against France in the longest penalty shootout in World Cup history. (Australia’s goalie, Mackenzie Arnold, saved three French penalty kicks and called it “luck” in a soft-spoken press conference the next day.) Sweden will play Spain in the semifinals, and Australia will play England. It was confirmed by commentators that Hervé Renard, now sadly getting ready to leave, had packed 35 shirts.