10 lessons from the World Cup
Before this Women's World Cup kicked off, I swore an oath to sit through every single game, a vow which at the outset felt like a daunting endurance test akin to Morgan Spurlock's Big Mac-only diet in "Super Size Me."
In reality, the experience has been a delight. The first 11 days have been an ecstatic athletic celebration, a big-game spectacle in which competition has thrived and storylines have abounded, both on and off the field. It's been a refreshing change from the scenes of half-empty stadia and gritty play that marred the 2010 World Cup.
As we enter the business end of the tournament, here are the lessons we have gleaned from the opening round:
1. This is the most competitive and unpredictable Women's World Cup of all time
No team is devoid of weakness, a reality which augurs well for the medium term development of the competition. Even the minnows advised to brace for impact ahead of the tournament proved more organized, physical and competitive than expected. Especially Equatorial Guinea. Ranked 61st in the world, its pugnacious and spirited play defused the pre-tournament frenzy surrounding the gender of its players. The team even capped off its performance with some "innovative defending techniques" destined to become the stuff of legend.
2. Torn in the USA: Can the USWNT seriously threaten?
Three matches in, and the U.S. is yet to discover a sense of cohesion. The team staggered into the quarterfinals after a lackluster wake-up call against group-topping Sweden. The defense remains susceptible to pace, and the midfield, lacking a cutting edge without the injured Heather O'Reilly, appears incapable of maintaining possession. But it is the casual carelessness of the forward line that remains a major cause for concern.
Amy Rodriguez has been incessantly charitable with the goal at her mercy. The Beverly Hills-born striker combines the face of Elisabeth Hasselbeck with the finishing instinct of Emile Heskey. The safest place for opposing teams to keep the ball during the first two games was on or around Abby Wambach's head.
Wambach did manage to score against Sweden. But the goal, which bobbled in off her shoulder, may turn out to have done more harm than good. The veteran now has cause to keep a starting role, masking the reality that with her Achilles aching, she has been shorn of power and pace. The U.S. with Wambach resembles Chelsea at season's end -- frantically feeding a slumping Fernando Torres, crafting countless openings, yet rarely threatening.
3. Marta: Do believe the hype
Marta is one player who has thrived, burnishing her reputation as the finest footballer ever to grace the women's game. The Brazilian has used her speed, balance and vice-like control to eviscerate defenses. Just 5-foot-4, she benefits from a low center of gravity and the occasional use of a crafty elbow to muscle bigger defenders off the ball. Her team, which faces the U.S. on Sunday, appears to be officially known as Marta's Brazil™.
After blasting a blistering 12 goals in 13 games, the five-time FIFA World Player of The Year is fast closing in on Birgit Prinz's all-time Women's World Cup scoring record of 14. Marta's prolific scoring suggests all girls in the U.S. should learn to master the game using crumpled up plastic bags in place of a real ball, as the Brazilian was reputed to have done in the wastelands of Dois Riachos.
4. Big guns firing blanks
Wambach was not the only superstar with leaden boots. Colombian starlet Yoreli Rincon, Sweden's heralded Lotta Schelin and England's Kelly Smith all failed to find the back of the net. The Three Lionesses' playmaker reacted to an early substitution with the ultimate sign of frustration -- chucking her scrunchie against the English bench.
But it has been the uncharacteristically sluggish play of Germany's Prinz that has dominated the headlines. Influential daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine" featured a photograph of the gifted striker on its cover beneath the damning statement, "Vom Symbol Zum Problem" (From team symbol to problem). The tournament's all-time leading scorer has been reduced to the role of spectator, skulking on the bench like a teacher's pet bewildered and ashamed to find herself stuck in the corner. It remains to be seen if she will start again.
5. Women don't flop
Along with her nimble-limbed athleticism, Marta has unveiled a less attractive side to her game: The tendency to play-act and feign injury, a skill ripped straight from the men's realm which has threatened to turn her into a wrestling heel in the eyes of boisterous German crowds. Her behavior has been all the more visible as the tournament has been blessedly free of such gamesmanship.
A well-timed scientific study by German sports scientist Martin Lames explored the phenomenon and revealed that after every foul, attention craving men writhe around on the field in agony an average of 30 seconds longer than their female peers. There you have it: Scientific proof that men are the sport's drama queens.
6. The three-peat looks worth a flutter
All of the favorites have obvious weaknesses. The Americans are uncoordinated, the Brazilians positionally avant garde and the Germans appear defensively vulnerable on set pieces. But in the opening round, defending champion Germany displayed the most ambitious tactics and the ability to pull them off. Its first touch seems defter, its organization tighter and its defense more physically gifted.
Even the distractions surrounding the benching of Prinz have revealed a hidden strength -- the depth of the German squad. The experienced Inka Grings stepped in seamlessly to assume the leading role, while the feisty Alexandra Popp offered menace from the bench.
7. Goalazo glut
The women's game may be known for occasional moments of goalkeeping madness, but just one round in this World Cup has witnessed more eye-popping goals than the Jabulani-scarred 2010 men's tournament which preceded it. Inarguably, the goal celebrations that ensue have been choreographed more creatively.
Ellen White's imaginative lob against Japan is a contender for the finest goal scored in an England shirt since 1998, when Michael Owen lacerated the Argentinean defense in Saint-Etienne. O'Reilly's long-range fury gave the American team the SportsCenter moment it craved, and Erika's delicate chip and vengeful volley will send a shiver down the spines of viewers in the American video room ahead of Sunday's quarterfinal clash with Brazil.
8. It's all about the team
The way a goal is cause for collective team jubilation, involving even the substitutes, is an invigorating change from standard operating behavior in the English Premier League. That's where even the most eye-popping Chicharito goal is guaranteed to be received with cold-eyed glares by a sulking Dimitar Berbatov and petulant Nani on the Manchester United bench.
9. Will there be a World Cup bounce?
The frenzied crowds and admirable global television ratings may prove that the Women's World Cup has established itself as a worldwide event, but it is unclear where that leaves the women's game until the 2012 Olympics and the next tournament in 2015.
The opening World Cup game may have been a 74,000 sellout at Berlin's Olympic Stadium, but the players will return to professional leagues with meager average attendances of just 600 in England and below 4,000 in the U.S.
Three French players posing topless alongside the tagline "Is this how we should show up before you come to our games?" reeks of desperation, conjuring an image as unwanted as Diego Maradona's threat to go naked during the 2010 World Cup, though for very different reasons.
10. Don't miss these humdingers
• July 9, noon ET, France vs. England: My heart says England; mind and rest of body screams France.
• July 9, 2:45 p.m. ET, Japan vs. Germany: Germany to scrape by in a squeaker.
• July 10, 7 a.m. ET, Australia vs. Sweden: A bar brawl will see Sweden win and prepare for customary semifinal exit.
July 10, 11:30 a.m. ET, U.S. vs. Brazil: For Bob Ley's sake, I pray the U.S. progresses or else he is in for some long, lonely afternoons on top of "Big Blue" next week.
Roger Bennett is the co-host of Off The Ball and appears on Futbol Frenzy on "Morning Joe" every Monday. He can be reached via Twitter: @rogbennett