A Women’s World Cup of change, of unexpected early departures and tantalizing arrivals, has completed its upending of certainty and tradition.
No former champion remains in the tournament with two rounds to play.
Gone prematurely are the United States, with its four world championships, and Germany, with two. Ousted is Norway, the 1995 victor. And now Japan, the 2011 winner, has exited in the quarterfinals with a 2-1 defeat to Sweden on Friday in Auckland, New Zealand.
Of course, it would be highly inaccurate to consider Sweden an arriviste. It has participated in all nine Women’s World Cups, finishing second in 2003 and third three times. But it has never won a major tournament and longs to be a first-time champion.
Sweden will face Spain in the semifinals after smothering Japan’s versatile attack through the first half with a high press. It built what seemed to be a secure lead early in the second half by scoring twice indirectly on its specialty — set pieces.
Japan, which had scored 14 goals in its first four matches and seemed to be the best team in the tournament, did not manage a shot in the first half. It created furious chances in the second half but will long regret a missed penalty kick in the 75th minute.
Sweden’s victory, Spain’s first trip to the semifinals and Japan’s exit seemed in keeping with the spirit of this World Cup with the tournament’s biggest-ever field, the highest attendance at this stage and the most receptive embrace of the newly-risen and revealing ambitions of teams like Colombia, Jamaica, Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco.
Finally, FIFA can begin to say with some legitimacy that the Women’s World Cup suggests an event of global, not merely regional or entrenched, possibility. The other side of the draw is a similar reflection of that growth: Australia will face France, and England will play Colombia.
On Friday, Sweden pressed high through the first half to suffocate Japan’s attack. When it possessed the ball Sweden was patient, making short passes to maintain possession and looking for a long ball to take advantage of its height and aerial skills.
Its first chance came in the 25th minute, when forward Stina Blackstenius shed the Japanese defender and captain, Saki Kumagai, and broke free on goal but shot wide from 10 yards.
In the 32nd minute, Sweden’s set piece mastery delivered a goal. Six of its 11 goals in the tournament have come directly or indirectly from set pieces — four from corner kicks. On Friday night, midfielder Kosovare Asllani’s free kick rattled around in the penalty area and the defender Magdalena Eriksson kept the play alive with three jabs at the ball. Finally, it fell to her fellow center back, Amanda Ilestedt, who scored from just inside the six-yard box.
In the 42nd minute, Asllani threatened with a blast from the top of the penalty area as the Japanese goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita pushed the ball into the right post. Fortunately for Japan, the ball then rolled harmlessly across the face of the goal.
As the second half opened, Yamashita pushed another shot just wide from the charging Johanna Kaneryd, giving Sweden a corner kick. Fuka Nagano handled the ball, and after a video review, Sweden was awarded a penalty kick. Filippa Angeldal slotted the ball low and to the left, giving Sweden a 2-0 lead.
Sweden had defeated Japan by 3-1 in the quarterfinals of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. But this was a different Japanese team, more resourceful and adaptable, able to possess the ball or sprint ahead in counterattack. “Now they’re very quick, very fast,” Eriksson said before the match. “When they get an opportunity to go forward they do so and finish a lot more quickly now. They go straight to the goal.”
It was not Japan’s individual scorers who felt most threatening, but rather the ruthless, speedy and synchronized team buildup in attack, Eriksson said. “I think the whole team is the threat,” she said. “You have to be ready that runs can come from anywhere, and they will never stop, and they’re really good at combining together and moving off each other.”
Desperate, Japan began to create chances in the second half, and in the 75th minute, it won a penalty kick when the substitute forward Riko Ueki was taken down in the area by Sweden’s Madelen Janogy.
But Ueki’s shot clanged off the crossbar, and her header on the rebound looped high over the bar.
In the 87th minute, Japan finally scored on a rebound by Honoka Hayashi after a failed clearance by Sweden. But even 10 minutes of added time were not enough for a tying goal. Japan was gone.
And a first-time Women’s World Cup champion waits to be crowned.
Jeré Longman is a sports reporter and a best-selling author. He covers a variety of international sports, primarily Olympic ones. He has worked at The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Dallas Times Herald and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. More about Jeré Longman
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