Germany is the champion

Members of the German team go on a victory lap with their national flag after defeating Sweden in the FIFA women's World Cup final at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California. -- Pic. AFP-

IT was an event, which had everything a football tournament needed to be a grand success — attacking from all fronts, going for breaks without fear and playing to win instead of playing not to lose. And, ultimately, that's what helped Germany emerge the proud winner of the FIFA women's World Cup 2003 in the United States earlier this month. The fortnight-long showpiece, which was moved to the United States from China at short notice after the outbreak of SARS in April-May, was a thrilling affair all the way. The final of this edition saw a climax every bit as exciting as the 1999 summit clash had been.

Four years on from the famous penalty-kick ending in favour of the U.S. against China, the October 12 final, which had pitted Teutonic power against Scandinavian flair, was an enthralling affair. The Germans deservedly claimed a golden goal 2-1 win over a brave Sweden in front of a near capacity crowd at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Los Angeles. Sweden, which had recovered so well after its opening match defeat to the host country, was the crowd favourite before Germany powered its way to victory through substitute Nia Kuenzer's golden goal, just eight minutes into extra-time.

In fact, it had been quite apparent that Germany would be hard to beat. Particularly after it had come out so strongly, aided by the brilliance of its frontline of Birgit Prinz, Maren Meinert and Kerstin Garefrekes, to top Group C during the preliminary phase. Paired along with Canada, Japan and Argentina, Germany had wins in all its three league matches. It shut out Canada 4-1, Japan 3-0 and Argentina 6-1. Canada was the other team to qualify from this pool, finishing second with six points.

Meanwhile, the reigning champion and favourite, the U.S., too, had an easy ride in Group A. It won against Sweden (3-1), Nigeria (5-0) and North Korea (3-0). Sweden managed to overcome its early loss and sneaked into the quarterfinals with a hard-fought 1-0 win over North Korea and a 3-0 victory over Nigeria. In Pool B, it was Brazil, which stole the thunder as it mowed down South Korea (3-0) and Norway (4-1) before drawing 1-1 against France. Norway was next best as it trounced South Korea (7-1) and France (2-0).

An air-borne Nia Kuenzer (second from right) of Germany heads in the golden goal in the final. -- Pic. AFP-

China, expectedly, was the winner of Group D but was far from impressive as it allowed itself to a 1-1 draw against Australia after getting past Ghana and Russia with identical 1-0 margins. Naturally, it came as no surprise then as China was left stranded by its enthusiastic Canadian rival in the quarterfinals. A finalist four years ago, China was unimpressive almost all along after veteran Charmaine Hooper beat Han Wenxia to a long cross to give Canada the lead as early as in the seventh minute. The forward-turned-defender stayed forward after a free-kick and raced in unmarked as Diana Matheson knocked a ball from deep on the left.

The U.S. was slightly luckier as it came past Norway 1-0. Once again, it was a dominant performance from Abby Wamback, which saw the host through to the round of last four after Mia Hamm's missed penalty. Germany, in sharp contrast, was ruthless against Russia (7-1) with a second-half goal avalanche and another remarkable showing from Prinz and Garefrekes, both of whom finished with a brace. Despite a late fight-back and a goal from the youngest player of the tournament, Elena Danilova, Russia was hardly in the picture otherwise as Maren Meinert, Sandra Minnert and Pia Wunderlich had done the early damage with a goal each.

The ever-improving Sweden also looked bright as it got past Brazil 2-1 and booked a place in its first semifinals since 1991. After Marta's penalty cancelled out Victoria Svensson's picture-perfect header, it was Malin Andersson's superb swerving free-kick early in the second-half, which saw Sweden through to the semifinals. However, Sweden was fully stretched against Canada in the round of last four before two goals in the final 11 minutes from Malin Mostrom and substitute Josefine Ogvist helped the team claim a come-from-behind 2-1 win over its opponent, which had taken an unlikely lead through Kara Lang's 65-minute goal.

Canada came out as expected and drove a long blast deep into the Swedish end right from the kick-off and was able to give its opponent quite a few anxious moments all through the barren first-half. The final session started almost as disjointedly as the first had ended. But it was not long before Canada made Sweden to regret its many lapses through Kara Lang, who hammered a free-kick past Caroline Jonsson after Jane Tornqvist had knocked down Christine Latham 25 metres away from goal. Lang blistered the shot towards the post and Jonsson simply could not hang on.

Sweden, despite the setback, continued with its misfirings until Mostrom finally ended the drought by picking up a perfectly placed through ball and ripped it into the back of the Canadian net. Buoyed by the equaliser, Sweden pressed forward in almost irresistible fashion and its hard work was finally rewarded when Oqvist knocked in a ball off the left post for her side's second goal. Canada was finally conquered but even in defeat it was in no way disgraced.

Germany faced no such problems as it once again came out with a plan and shocked the United States 3-0. In what many thought as the match of the tournament, a Kerstin Garefrekes goal on the quarter-hour mark was doubled by Maren Meinert and then tripled by Birgit Prinz deep into the injury-time as Germany sent the U.S. on its tearful way out. The U.S. attacked constantly but was lacking in the final touch, while Germany did all it needed to in a solid giant-killing performance.

The United States' Mia Hamm (left) is seen with teammate Brandi Chastain at the end of their third place match against Canada. The U.S. won 3-1. -- Pic. AFP-

Little wonder then that the team was rewarded quite fabulously for its efforts when Renate Lingor's corner was met by the rising Garefrekes at the near post. Under very little pressure, the midfielder nodded the ball off the underside of the American crossbar. Shocked by the early goal, the U.S. did come out of its tentative shell but all the good work from Cindy Parlow, Abby Wamback and Mia Hamm failed to bring about the much desired equaliser before the first-half ended.

The U.S. came out determined to throw everything at the European champion in the second-half. But once again it was unable to get past the sturdy German defence, despite many chances coming its way. The pattern of play continued into the injury time as well before Germany, always dangerous on the break, added two more. Getting on to the end of a fine Prinz pass, Meinert, all alone in the box, slotted home to crush an American dream before the tournament top-scorer herself walked in alone and slipped the ball home to seal the night with her seventh goal of the competition. It was a sensational win and what more, also earned Germany a deserving revenge over the U.S. for its loss in the quarterfinals four years ago.

The United States, of course, did earn a consolation by getting the third place with a 3-1 win over Canada. Shannon Boxx, Kristine Lilly and Tiffeny Milbert found the net for the home team and Christine Sinclair got the lone goal of the match for Canada. And in the final, the American sentiment was expectedly against Germany as the crowd dressed in blue and yellow openly supported Sweden.

But then, Germany was never unduly bothered as it quickly negated Hanna Ljungberg's lead goal and then played a waiting game before Nia Kuenzer came up with her knock-out punch. Indeed, the sight of retiring captain Bettina Wiegmann lifting the trophy above her head and the confetti raining down on the jubilant German side, celebrating its deserving victory, only proved once again that women's football has certainly come of age.