Commentary

Dispatch from Rennes: Brief beauty edges an ugly, cynical display

Germany’s coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg declared a few weeks prior to the World Cup that she wanted her side to play “creative, passionate soccer.” Her first attempt to realize those ideals in the opening game of Group B collided head-on with a Chinese team determined to negate them with borderline brutal tactics. That the two-time world champions ended up winning anyway was a victory for soccer over cynicism.

After a goalless, doctor-interrupted first 45 minutes in which Germany dominated, but where its careless defense handed China the half’s three clearest chances, Voss-Tecklenburg reacted by bringing in midfield reinforcements. Never mind that it was the squad’s youngest player, Lena Oberdorf, just 17 and still finishing her high school exams. Her presence in the middle of the field meant there was less of the creation, but more of the passion. Less of the promising attacks down either wing, but also fewer errors, and virtually no second-half opportunities for China.

Ironically, Oberdorf came in for Carolin Simon, one of several German players who required treatment in the first half after a number of late Chinese challenges, and who was unable to continue after the break. Clearly, Coach Xiuquan Jia’s plan was to intimidate his opponents, soften them up, and then bring on his star player from the bench, Shuang Wang. She duly appeared at halftime, but had no effect because Germany’s plan had changed too. If it was going to get a result, it would have to beat it out of this game, rather than conjuring three points through beauty and style.
 
Yet it was a moment of class that took the three points, just one second of inspiration in between the tussles, the tugging, the ankle-tapping and the yellow cards – four for China, and one for the Germans, and that was a show of lenience from referee Marie-Soleil Beadouin. Guilia Gwinn’s strike from just outside the penalty area through a crowd of red shirts was a decisive moment of proper soccer that looked down on what had by then – by device for China, through necessity for Germany – become a dour, sour struggle.
 
Initially, the contest looked like it might be as one-sided as last night’s opener between France and South Korea. Germany dominated the early stages, looking far more inventive than the passive Chinese, opening up play both down the flanks and through the middle. Sarah Daebritz shot just wide in the third minute, Simon hit the bar from what looked like more of a cross than a shot, Kathrin Hendrich’s close-range effort was blocked, and captain Alexandra Popp headed just over from a probing Simon cross. Yet the Chinese almost scored on the break after a wayward pass from the Sara Doorsoun. Li Yang hesitated too long before Sara Doorsoun herself covered back to deflect the shot wide.
 
Despite that chance, China looked uncomfortable on the ball, rash in the challenge, and void of attacking ideas. Shanshang Wang saw yellow for clattering Dzsenifer Marozsan as early as the 12th minute. Simon went down after what may have been an off-the-ball stamping, but the VAR made no call to Beaudouin’s earpiece. Yet China could easily have taken the lead twice more just before the break. First Li Ying hit the post after the German back-line was caught out a second time, Almuth Schult saving from Rui Zhang’s follow-up header. Then in stoppage time Yasha Gu wasted a fine chance when she crossed instead of shooting. Germany’s defenders looked suddenly unsure of where they should be standing.
 
On this performance, however, Germany remain one of the large cluster of favorites, even though China never let them find too much rhythm. Marozsan looked sublime with her probing long balls, but only in patches. Daebritz delighted with her footwork in midfield, but often held on to the ball for too long, or failed to look for Kathrin Hendrich on the overlap. Svenja Huth had a bright first half, keen to take on opponents, but faded after the break before being subbed out.
 
This is a team that is still getting to know its coach, only appointed in November. Having doggedly negotiated this ragged encounter, the Germans could emerge stronger for the experience. “It was hard, not pretty, but it might be the start we need,” was Voss-Tecklenburg’s verdict. Popp, another player who required treatment in the first half, complained of late tackles and feet being stamped on.
 
It’s hard to see the Chinese contributing much to the tournament if they continue to try and kick the opposition back to the locker room. They committed 19 fouls, compared with seven by Germany. It was a blatant spoiler’s tactic, aimed at stealing a single, cynical point. No player stood out except for Li Yang, by virtue of her missed chances, and Shanshan Wang for just one lovely pass that opened up the German defense for Yang’s best opportunity.
 
Jia’s rotten plan failed, as such plans should. The tournament will be all the better for his team’s ugly loss.

3 comments about "Dispatch from Rennes: Brief beauty edges an ugly, cynical display".
  1. R2 Dad, June 8, 2019 at 6:48 p.m.

    GREAT write-up! Aside from the absence of VAR on that call, also curious on more of your thoughts about the overall referee performance. Only saw the first half but thought lenience encouraged more poor challenges.

  2. Ian Plenderleith replied, June 9, 2019 at 5:41 a.m.

    I think the referee did her best to manage the game, but wasn‘t prepared for the Chinese players ignoring her pleas for better conduct - she should probably have shown at least two or three more yellows in the first half. Foul recognition wasn‘t bad overall, but she also let one or two challenges pass that took your breath away. Tough game to officiate - it‘s hard as a ref when your verbal warnings bring about no change in the players‘ behavior. You could see the German players talking to her a lot about the foul play, and with good reason. Hope there‘s a strong referee to protect those deft Spanish dribblers when they play China (or anyone else).

  3. beautiful game, June 8, 2019 at 8:32 p.m.

    Worst C-NT ever. Not one player able to do anything constructive. IMHO, PK awarded against Chinese defender was more incidental than intentional with the follow-through kick. Only Lalas supported VAR review. 

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