Spain 3-1 South Africa; Penalties help see Spain to victory after stunning Kgatlana opener

Spain 3-1 South Africa; Penalties help see Spain to victory after stunning Kgatlana opener

Two penalty goals from forward Jennifer Hermoso, and a third from 20-year-old Lucia Garcia, were enough to ensure Spain didn’t suffer an opening game loss to World Cup newcomers South Africa after an early shock in Le Havre.

Prior to playing in their first ever Women’s World Cup match, South Africa coach Desiree Ellis stressed the seismic differences between the quality of their domestic football league and the standards on display in these finals.

However, just 25 minutes in Thembi Kgatlana pulled off a magnificent strike to give Banyana Banyana a shock lead against their Spanish opposition.

Unfortunately, a handball given against captain Janine van Wyk gifted Hermoso the chance to level the scores, before a VAR decision deemed South African full back Nothando Vilakazi to have followed through on her opponent after a clearance.

Hermoso dispatched again, before Garcia wrapped up the game with a pacy run in the closing moments, rounding goalkeeper Andile Dlamini and slotting home to make it three to Spain in the Stade Oceane.

The Spaniards had come into the game with the greater expectations on their shoulders, with a more developed domestic game and star striker Hermoso expected to shine.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps then, Spain did indeed dominate the opening ten minutes or so of the contest. Maria Leon, Spain’s central defender, fired a free kick from the edge of the box just over the top as the European nation continued to try and capitalise on their early control.

Crucially though – as South Africa had always targeted to do so – they kept the scoreline goalless.

That allowed the South African players to settle into the game and grow in confidence, before launching the first of their blistering counterattacks. Prior to kickoff, the raw athleticism of the South African players had been highlighted as their best weapon, and they demonstrated why to the highest degree.

Barrelling forwards at a blistering speed, those in bright yellow jerseys managed to fashion a chance before earning a free kick right on the edge of the Spanish box.

Full back Vilakazi stepped up and absolutely thundered an effort towards the top corner of Sandra Paños’ goal, and it looked set to strike the target but for a crucial header from Leon. From the resulting corner, Paños’ gloves were stung direct from the in-swinging delivery.

Spain had been warned of the dangers on the counterattack, and so it came as little surprise to see Kgatlana and her teammates bombing forwards once again not long later.

A heavy touch looked to have ended the chance, as Spanish defenders flooded back, but it was slipped through to Kgatlana on the edge of the box and after one touch inside she unleashed a stunning chipped effort at goal, perfectly gliding over the fingertips of Paños and into the far corner of the net.

It was an incredible strike, and an unbelievable way for Banyana Banyana to net their first ever goal, in their first ever game, at the Women’s World Cup.

Spain attempted to come back into the match, and still maintained more possession of the football, but after the goal the confidence was flowing with South Africa. Every time they got the ball, the African nation looked long to capitalise on their significant pace advantage, and every time they looked incredibly dangerous.

Kgatlana and her fellow strike partner Ode Fulutudilu repeatedly bullied the Spanish defenders and fashioned dangerous opportunities.

In the closing seconds of the first half, Spain almost fashioned an equaliser after a speculative effort from some way outside the box by full back Marta Corredera, whose looping effort required South African goalkeeper Dlamini – who isn’t the tallest figure in goal – to be aware but she saved well.

A double change at half time demonstrated the frustration and need for a different method from Spain, and once again in the second half they took complete control of the ball – but struggled to fashion the necessary final chance to level the scores.

South Africa nearly added a second when Fulutudilu nipped in with her great pace and burst towards the touchline, beating Leon. Getting a good cross in from the byline, some poor Spanish defending saw it through to Kgatlana but she could only direct it against the scrambling Paños.

Despite the scare, Jorge Vilda’s side continued to boss the ball about the pitch. However, they still had to rely on an intervention from the referee’s whistle before they could get back into the game.

Courtesy of the new rules over handball, South Africa captain van Wyk was penalised for a handball that Hermoso dispatched, sending Dlamini the wrong direction.

That sparked the Spanish revival, and moments later they thought they’d equalised when Montpellier midfielder Virginia Torrecilla outjumped the onrushing South African goalkeeper, but the linesman quickly and correctly flagged her for offside.

It didn’t take long to break the deadlock, though, and again the officials had a hand in it all. Vilakazi hooked clear a ball and, as she fell backwards, followed through with the clearance – catching her opponent high in the groin.

A nasty challenge, certainly, it didn’t look intentional but those officials in the VAR room felt it enough to warrant a check. Once the on-field referee had seen the footage too, there was another penalty to Spain and a second yellow to Vilakazi; the tournament’s first dismissal.

Dlamini guessed the right way this time but couldn’t stop Hermoso turning the score around and breaking South African spirits.

With tired legs and broken hearts, the South African defence struggled to contain Spain’s late resurgence, letting sprightly 20-year-old substitute Garcia break in behind. Knocking the ball past the onrushing Dlamini, the Athletic Bilbao star simply couldn’t miss and converted Spain’s third – perhaps flattering the Europeans on the scoreline.

Spain kept pushing until the final whistle, but couldn’t find any more. At the sound of full time, they knew they’d done enough to finish top of the group after the first round of matches – though that first half against South Africa will have left coach Vilda with some definite concerns.

For South Africa, they ultimately walked away from their first Women’s World Cup match empty-handed, but can hold their heads up high. It was an incredible, spirited performance and one that deserves the highest praise.

Ultimately, a mixture of unfortunate luck with decisions going against them in the box and a lower level of fitness (as to be expected given the disparity in domestic football between the two nations) proved just too much of a hurdle to overcome.

For debutants in this tournament, they showed exactly why South African women’s football deserves to be on the highest stage.

France 4-0 South Korea; Les Bleues look confident as Le Sommer, Renard & Henry star in stunning opening win

France 4-0 South Korea; Les Bleues look confident as Le Sommer, Renard & Henry star in stunning opening win

The 2019 Women’s World Cup kicked off in the Parc des Princes in Paris with a confident 4-0 win for hosts France against South Korea, with centre back Wendie Renard netting twice.

Forward Eugenie Le Sommer had opened the scoring for France, before Les Bleues’ other central defender Griedge Mbock Bathy saw a goal disallowed following a VAR check.

Renard made full use of her significant height advantage in the box to score twice before half time from set pieces, before late in the second half French captain Amandine Henry netted a superb fourth.

South Korea looked nervous from the first moments of the game, especially in defence, and France’s superior movement took advantage of that to full effect.

Continually Marion Torrent and Delphine Cascarino combined out wide to burst past the South Korean defence, whipping dangerous balls into the box. Similarly, Le Sommer and full back Amel Majri did the same on the opposite wing.

The opening goal of the 2019 Women’s World Cup came from exactly that style of move. Pace out wide caused South Korea problems and Le Sommer pounced on the defensive disorganisation to drive home the crucial first goal on home turf.

Nerves continued to press South Korea, seen clearly when they spurned their chance to create some pressure on the French box from a corner straight out of play into the side netting of Sarah Bouhaddi’s goal.

France thought they had a second from a beautifully worked set piece, in comparison, not long after. A short take saw it played out wide of the box and swung from a deeper angle, before Renard headed it back across the South Korea box towards defensive partner Mbock Bathy.

The Olympique Lyonnais defender, who was sporting quite a significant knee brace, struck home an effort from an awkward height acrobatically, only to then find it ruled out by a lengthy VAR check.

Much to the frustrations of the partisan French crowd, the VAR check took several minutes. However, when a final decision was made, and the visual graphic shown, Mbock Bathy did indeed have a foot beyond the last defender and the call to disallow the goal was correct.

It didn’t matter for too long though for the host nation, as not long after France had another set piece and this time simply opted to stick the ball onto the head of Renard.

The towering centre back, one of the tournaments tallest players at 6ft 1″ and standing nearly half a foot above her South Korean opponents, found little challenge in guiding the ball past opposition goalkeeper Kim Min-Jeong.

That height proved potent once again from another set piece late in first half stoppage time, as Renard powered a strong header into the back of the South Korean net once again. The goal came from France’s 10th corner of the first half, and Renard had been a danger at almost every one where a good delivery had been made.

South Korea looked to create at least some chances in the second half and the introduction of young starlet Kang Chae-Rim, a 21-year-old making just her second senior international appearance, sparked a few rare chances for the team in white.

Kang showed determination in making space and a rare run towards the French box, putting in a good cross but there was nobody there to meet it. Shortly after the youngster, with number 23 emblazoned across the back of her shirt, was involved again, firing over after collecting the ball near the edge of the French box.

Renard made a mistake late on to allow South Korea through in a one-on-one chance with Bouhaddi but Lee Min-A saw the pressure get to her and spurned the chance wide poorly.

Even despite the occasional South Korean chance in the second half, France never looked in danger of relinquishing any ounce of control on the match and late on in the match they rounded off their dominant opening match display.

Captain fantastic Henry picked up the ball midway inside the South Korean half and drove towards the box, cutting inside and stroking home a beautiful, curling effort into the far corner of the net.

The smiles and celebrations, dancing with her teammates, showed the joy and emotion that was being felt all around the stadium in Paris as Les Bleues showed why they have gone into their home tournament as joint favourites with the USA.

A late flurry of desire came from the South Korean players, but ultimately – much like most of the match – they simply couldn’t find enough creativity to make significant distance up the pitch, having started entrenched so deep from the constant French pressure.

It was a brilliant opening display from the host side, who demonstrated to frightening degree the talent and attacking desire that coach Corinne Diacre has at her disposal and lay down a real marker to the rest of the top-ranked sides in the tournament.

This is France’s tournament. They have spoken many a time about wanting to follow in the men’s side’s footsteps and lift the World Cup come tournament’s end.

Well, against an albeit shaky South Korean side, they showed they certainly have the quality to do so.

They were always one to watch going into the tournament, but big sides sometimes falter under pressure. Sometimes the expectations can weigh too heavy on the minds of players and cost teams expected to do well. Some sides simply cannot match what is expected of them before the tournament begins.

Diacre’s France do not seem to be one of those sides.

Why the 2019 Women’s World Cup could be the turning point for women’s football?

Why the 2019 Women’s World Cup could be the turning point for women’s football?

None more so than leading up to this summer has women’s football been in football fans’ attentions. Media coverage, the quality of players, even record attendances – everything seems primed heading into these World Cup finals in France for it to make that final push to be accepted on equal footing to the male counterpart.

As the world prepares for the opening clash between France and South Korea in the Parc des Princes in Paris, a spotlight is once again being shone upon the female side of the most popular sport in the world.

Four years ago, as Canada played host to the premier women’s football tournament, approximately 1.35 million people attended the 52 matches on show.

France’s offering is expected to see a similar or better turnout according to Fifa, but it is the TV viewing figures most noteworthy. The world football governing body expect the numbers to easily surpass the 750 million people who watched the event four years prior.

Back in 1995, in Sweden, just 4,500 people attended each game and a total attendance figure for the tournament ran in a little over 112,000 people. There was little coverage of games.

Certainly, women’s football is starting to grow by greater and greater numbers each iteration of the tournament, and year by year. This year’s competition in France will likely be the biggest spotlight so far for the sport, and as such its greatest stage to show off the true talent, pedigree and passion on offer in the women’s game.

Women’s football still falls woefully short in commercial backing when compared to the men’s game, and while some of that comes down to a lack of audience in domestic leagues compared to the men’s game, tournaments like the World Cup are offering advertisers and sponsors that vast audience.

There will be some of the finest stars on display in France this summer and there will be plenty eyes watching the action.

Sadly, though, there will not be all the top stars. Norway’s Ada Hegerberg – the first ever recipient of the female Ballon d’Or and the highest-paid female footballer – will not be present. Hegerberg made the personal decision to boycott the World Cup, walking away from the Norwegian national team in 2017 after becoming increasingly frustrated by what she deemed a “lack of respect” for female players.

Despite being the highest-paid female player, the 23-year-old Olympique Lyonnais striker earns only around $450,000 (£354,000) a year.

While that’s not a figure to be sniffed at, it is 325 times less than Barcelona star Lionel Messi – one of men’s football’s greatest current players – earns in the respective annual period.

Similarly, prize money still falls well short for women’s football as it currently stands.

The 2019 tournament will see a record $30m (£23.6m) in prize money – which is double the prize pot from 2015 – which is progress, but ultimately the winner’s $4m (£3.1m) share is still just 50% of what each of the 16 men’s teams eliminated in the group stages (the earliest stage) took home last summer in Russia.

Clearly, there are issues remaining in women’s football and while the wheels of progress are turning, they’re doing so still at a sluggish pace.

That is why France 2019 has the potential to be quite so significant for the female side of the sport. With the world’s eyes on the game, and with the quality of the players undeniably at its finest, it is truly a chance for these women’s national teams to prove just why those responsible for the commercial boom in football to pay attention equally to both genders.

There will always be more money in men’s football, for many years to come, due to its more established popularity and therefore easier financial returns, but tournaments like France have the potential to demonstrate just how much potential exists in the women’s game.

While there would undoubtedly mean a smaller initial reward financially for investors, there would also be a lower price of entry, and unlike the men’s game – which is already at its peak as the global superpower of sport – there is still so much space to grow.

Investors who join now can reap the ever-increasing rewards for many years to come, and women’s football is only going in one direction right now; upwards.

France has the opportunity to be the turning point for women’s football. Canada, four years ago, started the process of truly legitimising in the image of those key decision-makers and money-holders that there was true investment to be had in the women’s game.

Now, the country of the men’s World Cup holders, could leave it’s mark on the game of football once again by propelling the women’s game upwards into the bright future it deserves, and will one day reach, one way or another.

Women’s football is here to stay and to continue to grow and improve. A magnificent tournament hosted in one of Europe’s top football nations could be the moment those who watch the men’s game already finally sit up and take notice.

That is the legacy France 2019 has the potential to make of itself.

The curious case of Alphonse Areola; The World Cup winner who could have represented someone else afterwards

The curious case of Alphonse Areola; The World Cup winner who could have represented someone else afterwards

Winning a World Cup is the greatest accomplishment a player could ever achieve with their national team… but what about then still being able to go on to represent a different nation entirely?

It sounds like a ludicrous proposition. A surely impossible one, right?

Yet, French goalkeeper Alphonse Areola could have done exactly that. The Paris Saint-Germain shot stopper found himself in a situation so bizarre that it had likely never happened before, and is unlikely to do so again.

Areola was a part of the France squad assembled by Didier Deschamps that took Russia by storm in the 2018 World Cup and lifted the trophy come the final whistle in Moscow on 15 July.

He was third choice goalkeeper, behind Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandanda, but was part of the 23-man squad all the same. Areola is part of the celebrations with the squad, and took his turn lifting the famous trophy aloft.

And yet, there remained one incredible catch. He had never made a senior international appearance for France.

Despite having received his first call up in October 2015, the Paris-born goalkeeper had always taken his place on the bench, watching on as Les Bleus achieved their success.

That meant that Areola – given that both his parents were of Filipino heritage – was still entirely eligible to represent the Philippines at international level. Even after having won international football’s highest accolade with an entirely different nation; France.

Now, obviously, Areola was not likely ever considering a dramatic late switch to the Philippines. The 26-year-old had his eyes and heart set on a place between the sticks for France, and was certainly a good enough keeper to justify it.

However, it’s just a fun and wildly unusual situation to consider. Had it been a nation whose national team is of a stronger calibre to the Philippines, a fellow World Cup contender say, and Areola could have legitimately – entirely in keeping with the rules of FIFA and international football – won World Cups with two entirely separate nations.

That would possibly be the greatest story in international football.

As it is, Areola did not opt to make a shock switch across continents to play for the Philippines and instead his patience paid off. With a thigh injury ruling out Lloris, Areola made his senior international debut for France in the UEFA Nations League (putting an end to this possible scenario) and put in a man of the match performance.

He has since earned a second France cap and is playing fairly regularly in Ligue 1 this season for Paris Saint-Germain, with the future looking bright for the France star.

However, how things could have so incredibly different had he done the unthinkable and begun representing a nation different to the one he won the World Cup with.