World Cup fever in Winnipeg

People who attended the first-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup matches to be held in Winnipeg came away with a memorable experience. To put it bluntly, it was downright fun, and Manitobans enthusiastically welcomed the world.

Soccer may not be high on the bucket list of many Canadians, but being in the stands to witness the most popular sport in the world was well worth it. The Women’s World Cup also may not have the same cachet as the men’s equivalent, but that was never in evidence among the fans — soccer enthusiasts and newcomers to the game — at Investors Group Field.

I saw Monday’s slate of matches between Germany and Thailand and China and New Zealand. The pre-game predictions were that the first was a complete mismatch and the second would be a closer contest. No one seemed to care. They were there to get a taste of World Cup fever and be throughly entertained by the play on the field and the action in the stands. Thousands of visitors came to Winnipeg for the event, and their enthusiasm spread like a contagion.

Germany, as the No. 1 ranked team in the world, was heavily favoured to dispense with the Thais. The Thais, who come from a nation with just 1,000 women soccer players and no league in which to hone their skills, unlike the Germans, were 4-0 losers, but that didn’t tell the whole story behind the match.

The Germans fielded a team with several starters sitting on the bench, expecting to easily win the match. Still, the Thais held their own for much of the first half based upon having 10 players back to overwhelm the German attackers and only one player forward. It was a tactic meant to stave off embarrassment against an opponent that had already scored 10 goals against the African-side from Ivory Coast. It worked for a while — a surprisingly long stretch — but the strength of the Germans was very much in evidence from the opening whistle.

What really made the difference for Thailand was goaltender Waraporn Boonsing, who made several spectacular saves. On a team with a chance to win the cup, she would be a world-beater. A total of 36 shots were smacked in her direction with 16 on goal, and with the exception of four, she redirected some balls over the crossbar, leapt in acrobatic ways to shunt the ball off to the side, or smothered others in the midst of a pack of attackers. In the first half, her stellar goaltending led to the Germans only scoring once.

The goaltending of Boonsing continually brought the over 26,000 spectators to their feet in applause. Thailand as the heavy underdog at least made the game entertaining until the Germans unleashed their scorers in the second half. Not even Boonsing could keep the Germans from the scoreboard under such relentless pressure.

Chinese flags were unfurled for the second match by a contingent in three sections of the north end zone, who were all clad in red. They chanted, “China! China! China!” throughout the game, only being hushed into silence when the New Zealanders made a rush downfield.

It was an extremely entertaining match that went right down to the wire, keeping spectator’s eyes rooted to the action on the pitch. This match wasn’t without its controversies — one involved a penalty call and the other involved the Chinese side’s coach.

The New Zealand team needed a win to advance to the round of 16. They took the lead at the 28th minute mark, but in the 41st minute came the controversial call by Hungarian referee Katalin Kulcsar, who ruled that midfielder Betsy Hassett had touched the ball in the penalty area, so China was awarded a penalty kick. I hadn’t seen the infraction while concentrating on the infield action. And like many in the stands, I was dumfounded by the call, as were the Kiwis. As it turned out, the ball had struck the New Zealanders’ chest, not arm, so it wasn’t a foul. But that’s soccer. Such calls in the heat of action on the field and in a melee of players occasionally occur. With just one referee on the field, it happens. Canada was earlier the beneficiary of a similar controversial call and beat China 1-0.

With a successful penalty, the two teams headed into the locker room at half time tied 1-1. China went ahead 2-1 in the second half, but the gutsy New Zealand side refused to give up. They tied it up.

In the waning minutes of the game, New Zealand was pressuring forward to get the goal they needed to win and advance. The ball went out of bounds and Chinese coach Hao Wei intentionally held on to it and then seemed to push the New Zealand player who was attempting to quickly throw the ball into the field of play.

Everyone in the stands knew that it was a tactic to kill time on the clock and ensure the Chinese emerged with a tie which would allow them to advance. And the Hungarian referee arrived at the same conclusion, ejecting the Chinese coach from the match.

There are “bad boys” in soccer.

In added time, New Zealand still pushed forward, but were thwarted. China advanced and the team, nicknamed the Ferns, was going home.

Canada, which tied 1-1 with The Netherlands in Montreal, also advances to the round of 16 from Group A.

There was obvious frustration by New Zealand coach Tony Readings when he refused to shake the hand of the Chinese coach after the match.

When controversies arise, the “beautiful game,” isn’t always so beautiful.

One difficulty at the stadium for fans between games was experienced in just wanting to have a suppertime meal. In the extremely crowded concourse, ordering a meal of choice was a game unto itself.

Why? No one knew what the vendors were selling. Under FIFA rules, all logos for the food concessions were removed and replaced by the generic, “food and beverages.” Unless you were able to get close to see the menu — extremely difficult in the crush of people — you were left wondering what would be served when you arrived at the order window.

In my case, I came to a concession that was serving hamburgers, chips, etc. When we arrived back at our seats, my brother-in-law, Don Svendsen, who came to the games with me, remarked that the his cheeseburger tasted a lot like a Salisbury House nip. Well, surprise, surprise, that was true, since it was from a Salisbury House concession stand lacking the company signage. Despite this, food vendors reported that they did a booming trade. In fact, food sales volume was significantly higher than what is common for a football game.

The pity is that Winnipeg will not be hosting games for the knock-out rounds. While other cities have been criticized for lack of attendance, fans were plentiful for all the local matches. Even at the meaningless final match between Japan and Ecuador — won 1-0 by Japan — there was over 16,000 in attendance.

The Women’s World Cup was a big event on the world stage and Manitobans recognized it as such. The strong volunteer base also says a lot about Winnipeg’s ability to host other world-class events in the future.