A thrilling short story

A thrilling short story

The Japanese womens team and Barcelonas classy bunch showed that size does not matter

It isn’t all about the money. It isn’t all about size, either. For all the billions that foreign investors, even governments, may throw at the game — and for all the profit that some crooked administrators may have been shown to rake into their own accounts — soccer’s true champions of 2011 were players motivated by something other than greed.

They were, once again, the marvellous men of FC Barcelona. And they were, for the first time, the indomitable women of Japan.

Barca’s movement, which is ballet in boots, beguiled Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley Stadium in London in May. And Barca overcame Real Madrid, its Spanish league nemesis, at the beginning, middle and end of 2011, home and away.

Japan’s ladies, meanwhile, are known as the Nadeshiko, a reference to the hardy plant whose pink flowers bloom despite the arid riverbed conditions in Kyoto. The team came through the country’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor horror to win the Women’s World Cup in Germany in July.

While the team members said it was too much to claim that winning a soccer tournament could give any real succour to a devastated nation, they knew they were a symbol of defiance.

There is, indeed, some symbiosis between the Barcelona boys and the Japanese girls. It has to do, in part, with size.

When Japan took on Sweden, Germany and the United States in successive rounds of the World Cup, it eclipsed three past winners of the event. The Japanese faced teams of greater physical stature, greater financial backing, and infinitely greater tournament experience.

They found different ways to beat each one, but the essence was summed up by a Swedish player, Nilla Fischer. “They have been through a lot, but they are a strong team,” she said. “You can see their togetherness. When one moves, they all move.”

One in particular led the movement, the team captain, Homare Sawa. “As players,” Sawa had said, “there is nothing much we can do for Japan. We want to do as well as we can for the country, and at the end of it all, we want to get a medal.”

A soccer player at age 12, a scorer in Japan’s national women’s team at 15, Sawa had spent the past decade as a star player in the women’s professional league in the United States. But at the World Cup, Sawa, now considered a veteran closing in on her 33rd birthday, was the playmaker supreme. She ran until she, and more often her opponents, could run no more. She passed the ball with vision. She inspired her team with vital goals at times when they were down. And for someone who stands a mere 1.64 metres, or barely 5 feet 5 inches, her leap to score in the air against opponents who tower above her, was, to use the word of some beaten Americans, awesome.

There will be something seriously amiss with the sport’s governing body, FIFA – something more, that is – if it fails to honour her as the women’s player of the year at its gala on January 9. What Sawa and her team did this year was expose a myth too readily repeated by men in her part of the world. It is the excuse that Asians are too small, too light, to win in the muscular international game.

That nonsense was debunked, once more by a Scandinavian, the Swedish women’s captain, Caroline Seger. “We’re supposed to have all the advantages,” she noted before her team’s match against Japan, “but I watched their game with Germany and I got stressed with how fast they moved the ball and used the spaces.”

Opponents might have similar stress when sharing the field with the men of Barcelona.

Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are not much taller than Sawa. And once again Messi and Xavi are on the short list for the FIFA men’s player of the year award, alongside Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ronaldo, however, is a big man. Sports scientists joined with filmmakers this year to make a documentary that shows just how well endowed he is with the height, weight and, particularly, the type of muscle to be the ideal soccer player.

One could almost feel sorry for Cristiano in his meetings with the mighty little men of Barcelona. In the most recent Real vs Barca contest, in Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium this month, Ronaldo, for all his physical presence, could not move quite like Messi, who burst with extraordinary acceleration through the midfield to burn off three desperate Madrid chasers, setting up a goal that turned the match.

Messi, of course, has the advantage of being on a better team. In fact, he might be a part of the best club team ever. That is not simply a journalist’s view. It is unlikely that Real’s coach, Jose Mourinho, will be heard to acknowledge Barcelona’s pre-eminence, but Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager these past 25 years, did not mince his words after his team’s defeat in May at Wembley.

“In my time as manager, this is the best team we’ve faced,” he said. “It’s not easy when you’ve been beaten like that, but no one’s given us a hiding like that. We have some very good players, and I’m challenged by what I’ve seen from Barcelona.”

The challenge is out there for Real Madrid, for the two Manchester teams now that Arab money drives City, and for the whole of the global game.

So this year in review has run out of space to discuss the betrayal of the sport by the men who purport to run it. For the moment, the less we remember about them, the better.

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