Of course I don’t have a photo of the North Korean women’s U-20s so here’s the trophy. (Canadian Soccer Association)
Next week, the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup kicks off in Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, and Moncton. The first match comes on August 5 at 5 PM Eastern, when Finland and North Korea cross swords at Toronto’s BMO Field. Canada kicks off three hours later against the Black Princesses of Ghana.
The hosts are drawn against Ghana, North Korea, and Finland, a worryingly deep group but one that lacks a superpower. That’s by design: teams are seeded by their rankings except for the hosts, who are automatically “A1″: therefore, the place in Canada’s group that would otherwise have belonged to a world-class side instead goes to Canada. Thanks, FIFA! But not too much, as the absence of a Germany or a France just means Canada could finish from first to fourth without turning too many heads.
The three teams who Canada will face in the group stage from August 5 to August 12 are mostly enigmas to the soccer public, so here is a look at this surprisingly dangerous troika. In the coming days I will also give my opinion on Canada’s own roster, as well as a quick glance around the rest of the tournament, and as I will be attending all the group stage matches I hope to have something there as well.
Conveniently for us armchair pundits Canada’s group include two teams nobody can ever be an expert on, allowing us to make vague prognostications without risking any specifics that might make it look like we don’t know what we’re talking about.
Take one of the favourites, North Korea. This country, you may have heard in the news, is somewhat secretive. Information they release is not always reliable. The high level of patriotism in what I’m sure is a totally fair and free press leads to articles about former Dear Leaders shooting 34 on their first-ever rounds of golf, when more sober analysis suggests such a result is unlikely. I’m sure the journalists laughed about it over their rice gruel the next morning. “Do you believe we printed that?! Oh, well, can’t run a retraction, the power’s gone out again!”
Even confronted by outside witnesses and television cameras, North Korea’s women’s youth teams are very good. In the last U-20 Women’s World Cup, Japan 2012, the Norks slapped fifteen kinds of hell out of Group C. They ran the table, 3-0-0, including a 2-1 win over Canada that was North Korea’s game from the captains’ handshake. A 9-0 win over sadsacks Argentina set a tournament record, but in the first knockout round they had the bad luck to run into the United States, who had barely escaped in second from a nasty group. Even the eventually-tournament-winning Americans needed extra time to bounce North Korea 2-1, probably the stiffest test they got in the whole knockout stage. This spring at the U-17 Women’s World Cup the North Koreans drew Canada and we were somewhat flattered by the point, though North Korea had an iffy tournament. We have seen a lot of North Korea and have not prospered by the acquaintance.
In U-20 Asian qualifying last year North Korea finished second out of six teams and qualified easily. A loss to South Korea and a draw with the strong (but disappointing) Japanese would have saddened the eternal shades of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, but the glorious Juche ideal was pushed forward by a win over hosts and champions China and a 6-2 bollocking of the decent Australians, the tournament’s largest victory over anyone who wasn’t Myanmar. Ri Un-Sim scored three goals; Canadian fans will recognize her from the 2012 U-17 Women’s World Cup where her brace sent Canada down in flames in the quarter-finals. (I am really sick of North Korea.)
The 2012 team is a big influence: fourteen of twenty-one players on this year’s roster were with those U-17s who went all the way to the final before losing to France on penalties. These players include Silver Ball winner Ri Hyang-Sim and forwards Ri Kyong-Hyang and Kim So-Hyang (who scored a memorable brace against Germany); I guess they haven’t been purged but, frankly, if you replaced all the players with someone completely different nobody would be able to tell. It’s North Korea; these women are a mystery to the world.
Why does North Korea do so well? With 95% of participating nations being mediocre or worse, and funding generally low, you can make an impact in women’s soccer by investing only a few thousand starving peasants. Also, the Norks play dirty; their senior women are disqualified from the 2015 Women’s World Cup for industrial-strength doping. Though not yet proven in soccer, that classic trick of the trade among shadier countries in youth competition, passport fraud, is familiar to Pyongyang: they got their gymnastics program banned for a hilariously transparent case. Bear in mind, their senior women have never risen to the heights implied by their rampant youth, with only one trip out of the group stage in either the World Cup or the Olympics.
Cheating or no, whoever isn’t afraid of the North Koreans isn’t paying attention. Though Canada outranks North Korea at the senior level, 7th versus 11th, and has won the only game ever played between the two senior sides, our young ladies are winless in three tries against the Nork youth. It’s impossible to get meaningful information on the team beyond past results, but past results are in North Korea’s favour so, by hook or by crook, we have to assume they’ll be formidable.
North Korea is my provisional pick to win the group. The Juche spirit marches on!
In women’s soccer Finland is, and there’s no other way to put it, kinda crappy. Their best-remembered player is sturdy forward Laura Österberg Kalmari, who went out with WPS because she couldn’t make a living at the game. If you know any of their current senior players it’s probably Sanna Talonen, not merely their leading active scorer but a 2008 Vancouver Whitecap. They’ve never qualified for a World Cup, never made an Olympic Games, probably would have done both on any other continent but, alas, are stuck being another sorta mediocre European team, interesting only for the obsessives. Canada actually has a surprisingly mixed record against the Finns but has won both of the last two times out, took our only ever youth meeting (at the 2006 Women’s U-20 World Cup), and is basically better.
So what, you might be asking, in Christine Sinclair’s holy name are they doing here? UEFA qualifiers were back in August 2013 and the unseeded Finns had to start from square one: they topped Group 7 with a perfect record in the first round, including a 2-1 win over Spain. In the second round they were again perfect, though a group of Iceland, Portugal, and Northern Ireland was not quite the World Cup. In the third round things got serious but the Finns were up to it, getting a vital 1-0 win over Nordic rivals Norway and drawing Germany and a collapsing Sweden to earn an implausible trip to the Women’s U-20 World Cup. In the knockout stage, to determine the continental championship, England crushed the Finns 4-0, but by then plane tickets for Canada had already been handed out.
I know, right? Sweden was burning up like a Buddhist monk but four points of six against Norway and Germany is good work. Finland conceded four goals from the nine group stage matches, a tidy sum bested only by Germany and France. The Finnish attack, while in no danger of setting any records, is well-balanced. Juliette Kemppi, Adelina Engman, Nora Heroum, and Natalia Kuikka all had more than two goals through qualifying, with Engman leading the way on seven (two from the spot) and Kemppi leading in open play with six. Engman, Kemppi, Heroum, as well as Riikka Ketoja and Emma Koivisto, are already senior internationals. Heroum has a remarkable twenty-six senior caps (more than, to pick a name, Kadeisha Buchanan) and Engman four goals. In fact, in their most recent senior international (a World Cup qualifier against Austria) Finland’s eighteen featured five players from this squad: Koivisto, Ketoja, Heroum, and Engman started while Kemppi was an unused substitute. Famously youthful Canada played five U-20s in their most recently senior international against Germany, but that was a lowly friendly. In short, Finland’s young guns are getting as much of a work out against grown women as anybody in the world, and some are already making their names.
Once before, Finland made a U-20 Women’s World Cup: they snuck into Russia 2006 and spent three games getting creamed: they lost every match, their one goal for was an own goal, and they conceded 12, including the indescribable humiliation of losing 8-0 to Nigeria in a city that’s a two-hour flight from Helsinki; the only reason Switzerland took the Wooden Spoon was Switzerland’s much tougher group. It probably goes without saying that debacle did not herald a golden generation for the Finns, though a few players, most notably captain Maija Saari, are still hanging around.
This year’s side looks far more imposing. They’re a more experienced lot, they’ve shown more quality against decent countries, and only the England result suggests that they’re still the same old sloppy side. They shouldn’t be competing for medals, but Finland looks sneaky. I don’t trust them. If we charge into their forests confident of a quick victory their Molotov cocktails are going to rain down on us like a hurricane of fire. The back of the envelope suggests that they’ll be in the three-way dance for second in the group, but Canada probably has the advantage thanks to home advantage and a strong team defense… probably. It could easily go the other way and we should desperately hope it doesn’t. Canada versus Finland on August 8 might be the climactic game of Group A.
African sides at this level are enigmas, unseen teams with unknown players bobbing onto the world stage every couple years, without even an obsessive insider to feed us the scoops. These teams receive little exposure at home and seldom play abroad, so bar flying across the ocean and walking to the park, World Cups are the only chances we get to see them. And there’s little incentive for the would-be expert to plumb too deep because (let’s be frank here) we expect these teams to be terrible. Only once has an African team made a serious impact at the senior level: in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, Nigeria shockingly got out of their group took Brazil to the brink in the first knockout stage, coming back from 3-0 down but losing 4-3 in extra time with only ten women on the field in what’s still remembered as a classic game. They are the only African side ever to advance out of the group stage in a Women’s World Cup; they also advanced from the group stage at the 2004 Summer Olympics but just about everyone did. Nigeria did have a good show in the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup, but Ghana got thumped in a strong Group D.
Along with Nigeria and (lately) Equatorial Guinea, Ghana is one of the only three African nations worth considering. You will understand this is strictly relative. Ghanaian head coach Bashir Hayford got into the papers saying he “wanted to win the Cup.” Well, good luck to you, sir: me, if I were you I should be pleased to win a game.
Normally it’s helpful to consider these smaller countries by how they did in qualifying. In Ghana’s case this is a waste of time. The 2013-14 African U-20 Cup of Nations for Women (catchy!) consisted of home-and-away ties until only two teams were left. Those two went to Canada 2014 straight away without the indignity of a final. So Ghana got a first round draw against Guinea-Bissau, who withdrew. In the next round, Ghana faced Uganda, who had previously whooped South Sudan 22-0 then seen Egypt withdraw. Uganda withdrew. As a result Ghana found themselves in the final qualifying tie against Equatorial Guinea without having so much as played a game: the Black Princesses won on penalties after a 1-1 aggregate draw and that’s all it took.
Ghana has been in the Toronto area for more than a week now, playing friendlies against local U-20 and U-21 women’s teams. They’ve compiled an undefeated record, with wins over G-S United and Burlington Bayhawks and a draw with North Mississauga Panthers. Ghana played four friendlies against Nigeria in June with a record of 1W-1D-2L; that suggests that they’re about level with their African rivals and therefore should be group makeweights. Their roster contains a few famous names, in that they have players named “Appiah” and “Boateng”, but none of these U-20s appeared at the most recent full pre-U-20-World-Cup senior national team camp in April.
So you see the problem in assessing Ghana. Their qualifying run was, with the best will in the world, a complete joke. They’ve gotten good results against local rep teams and were a half-step behind their biggest African rival. Their players are all-but-anonymous and haven’t made a mark on the hardly-world-class senior squad. What the hell do you want me to say about them?
Yet it’s as true in soccer as in ancient Rome that ex Africa semper aliquid novi. What if Ghana and Nigeria have improved relative to the world? How would we know? At this spring’s U-17 Women’s World Cup Ghana made some noise, winning the group against extremely tough opposition in Germany, North Korea, and Canada. It took penalties for Italy to prevail in the knockout stage; earlier that afternoon Canada had lost to bloody Venezuela. Nigeria ran the table in their much weaker group then got throttled by Spain in the first knockout round. That’s two stirring performances from traditional makeweights, though no Ghana U-17s were named to the U-20 roster. Were the African U-17s a pair of flukes or the sign of much-improved youth setups?
The thing is, it wasn’t Ghana’s first good U-17 run. In the 2012 U-17 World Cup Ghana finished second in a tricky group, then scored one of the tournament upsets by beating Japan 1-0 in the quarterfinal. Having claimed that enormous scalp, they lost 2-0 to eventual champions France but bagged the tournament upset by knocking off Germany 1-0 in the third-place game, putting paid to the most technically proficient country in women’s soccer. It was serious balling and though only eight of the 2012 U-17s return to the 2014 U-20s, with team scoring leader Jane Ayieyam one of those absent, they still boast a largely returning midfield including Priscilla Okyere, who scored three goals in Azerbaijan 2012 and was named Sports Writers Association of Ghana female soccer player of the year. A worrying sign for Canada, who will need to show attacking pluck against a side that knows how to win upsets and doesn’t concede many goals.
And, like North Korea, Ghana hasn’t got a reputation for playing fair. Ivory Coast pundit Mamadou Gaye, when asked who’d win the 2011 men’s U-17 World Cup, famously answered that any of the African teams could do it “because at that level we like cheating on our age.” The president of Ghana’s football association admitted in June that they had engaged in age cheating, but specifically said the women’s program was clean. On the women’s side there is much less money to be made, keeping out the for-profit academies often linked to fraud, but when combined with Ghana (and Nigeria)’s disproportionately good youth teams compared to their adults it’s a big question mark.
I still have Ghana favourites for the bottom of Group A on the grounds of lesser competition, high squad turnover, and Canada’s home field advantage… but anyone who gives you a certain answer is a liar or a fool. It is certainly possible for these young ladies to spring an upset on the hosts, as better teams than us have found out against some of these players.
(notes and comments…)