(As featured at the excellent Kick Off Asia)
Football has been described as many things. A multi-layered strategic contest in which smaller tactical games play themselves out across the pitch; warfare on a standardised battlefield, kit a replacement for military uniform, teams and supporters loyal to flag, insignia and anthem, managers assigning duties as would a general with his troops, military language synonymous with sporting vernacular; tribalism, cult, myth and religion, indoctrination into rites sacred or profane, fan(atics) singing songs in veneration of idols and gods past and present, superstitious rituals practised and performed to exacting standards day after day, week after week. It can be said also that it is a game of moments. An unforced, misplaced pass, an ill-timed tackle, a failed attempt to punch clear, a substitution and a tactical switch, a swing in momentum, these moments collectively may come to define the match, but singularly – and sometimes, admittedly, unfairly – equally they may come to define a player.
The thirteenth minute. A pass infield from the right touchline, Wendie Renard beaten by the fleet-footed Shinobu Ohno, cautioned for the challenge as the forward turned. Aya Miyama driving the free-kick into the penalty area from distance. France’s goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi collectively nervily under pressure. A moment noticed.
The 31st minute. A pass infield from the right touchline, Wendie Renard beaten by the fleet-footed Yuki Ōgimi, fortunate not to be dismissed for the challenge as the forward turned. Aya Miyama driving the free-kick into the penalty area from distance. France’s goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi failing to punch clear under pressure. 1-0 to Japan, the moment realised.
Sonia Bompastor makes an unforced error, misplacing her pass. Elise Bussaglia, required to make a challenge, makes the challenge unfairly on Yuki Ōgimi. Aya Miyama shapes to drive the free-kick into the penalty area from distance, but feints and angles her cross to the edge of the six yard area. Bouhaddi, less confident at collecting crosses remains static on her goal-line, the ball headed into the corner of the net by Mizuho Sakaguchi. 2-0 to Japan. 52 minutes remain.
Two changes are made in quick succession by France manager Bini Bruno. The captain Sandrine Soubeyrand exits, Camille Abily on in her place, and then Eugénie Le Sommer enters for Gaëtane Thiny. A tactical switch, an attempt to change the momentum as sixty minutes elapse, an echo of defeating Japan 2-0 in a warm-up fixture is heard when central defender Renard assumes a more advanced role. The pressure on Japan’s defence mounting, their central midfield partnership of Homare Sawa and and Sakaguchi waning.
A quarter of an hour is left to play as Le Sommer, her skill, pace and athleticism not adequately matched by Yukari Kinga, her movement untracked by the full-back, runs across the defender. 2-1. A moment of change, momentum changing. Le Sommer glides past Kinga. An ill-timed challenge by Sakaguchi inside the 18-yard box and Quetzalli Alvarado can take no action other than pointing to the penalty spot.
Bussaglia, who had taken the captain’s armband following the exit of the substituted Sandrine Soubeyrand, has it within her control to fundamentally change the outcome of the match. Wave after wave of unrelenting pressure due to be rewarded with a second goal in three minutes. This spot kick to equalise against tiring, hesitant opposition. Japan buckling, wayward, aimless, lacking in composure, playing poorly, defending too deeply. The balance of power changing, France almost certain to go on to win the contest and secure a place in the final. A chance at Olympic gold. A chance to send the world champions into the bronze medal match. Her focus, her concentration, her stare, only directed at the ball on the penalty spot. No glance at Miho Fukumoto, treading on her goal-line. A run up of three short steps. A goalkeeping diving the wrong way. Side-footed. Side-footed wide of the right upright. Sakaguchi’s clumsy and unnecessary challenge forgotten, consigned to irrelevance, an historical footnote. Strikes on Japan’s goal continue, but the momentum is lost. Bussaglia is the player defined by that moment.
Alvarado blows her whistle to end the match. Homare Sawa, the Nadeshiko’s and arguably Japan’s greatest ever player, is in the final of the Olympic Games. Sawa, with one final act to play in the limelight of the global footballing stage, a chance for an gold medal, one more opportunity to provide a defining moment in her illustrious career, the type of moment as yet unknown.
Through a gesture seemingly unnoticed by supporters united by either joy unconfined or the pain of loss, and as her colleagues celebrate their success, Japan’s captain Miyama walks over to Abily to take a place beside her on the turf, and tries, likely in vain, to provide some comfort in defeat. Some kind words for a former club teammate dealing with the heartbreak and the manner of their exit. A sincere attempt to reach out and help the opposition through considerable pain. Friend and foe. Consoling the inconsolable. A simple, generous, decent act, a sign of great spirit. Football is defined by moments. On occasion, though very rarely, those moments can transcend the sport itself.
|Match Statistics||Match Statistics|
|On Target||3||On Target||11|
|Yūki Ōgimi||32′||Eugénie Le Sommer||76′|
Eugénie Le Sommer