Germany's effort thus far raises questions
FRANKFURT, Germany -- German women's soccer players and coaches are all over television, their pictures are on ads all over train and bus stops throughout the country, and they've sold out the two largest stadiums hosting games in this World Cup.
Through two games, they haven't lived up to the hype.
Certainly the results have gone their way -- 2-1 over Canada in the opener, 1-0 over Nigeria here Thursday -- but those victories haven't been convincing.
Canada could have taken an early lead, given that Christine Sinclair buries more than half the time and that the forward hung around to make the game interesting down the stretch -- even after defender Babett Peter broke Sinclair's nose with an elbow the referee failed to see.
France, Germany's next opponent, looked far better against Canada by comparison, hardly allowing Canada a touch on the ball in a 4-0 rout earlier on Thursday.
In this giant spaceship of a stadium on the outskirts of the city, German players slipped and made sloppy passes throughout a scoreless first half. The restless crowd chose to vent its frustration at the officials whenever possible, or to make multiple attempts to start a wave that always ran out of momentum upon hitting the media tribune and VIP section.
Coach Silvia Neid saw no need to shake things up for the Nigeria game, leaving Birgit Prinz in the starting lineup as she pursues her quest to be the first player to score in five World Cups. But Prinz labored, lacking the speed or touch to take advantage of an early opening, then clearing a Nigerian corner kick straight to a Nigerian player in the middle of the half. She played only seven minutes in the second half before being pulled in favor of Inka Grings.
"Our passing wasn't good and neither was our movement," Neid said. "We just kept playing the ball to the other team. It was more of a scrap than a good game of football, but that had a lot to do with the level of expectation upon us.
"We're still the favorites in this tournaments and that's the way we want it to stay."
Germany still won the midfield battles, leaving goalkeeper Nadine Angerer little to do. And yet Angerer looked uncomfortable in collecting a rare ball played her way midway through the half. Then she failed to collect a free kick soon after Germany scored, leaving her defense to clear the danger.
In this match, the difference in raw talent levels was simply too great for Germany to go scoreless.
A few minutes into the second half, Simone Laudehr drew a foul to the side of the Nigerian box. Celia Okoyino da Mbabi, the sparkplug in Germany's offense, sent in a free kick that started a scramble. Substitutes Grings and Alexandra Popp took whacks at the ball before it fell to Laudehr, who had a clear opening and drilled it for the game's lone goal.
The German defense turned in a solid performance. But holding this Nigerian team scoreless isn't much of accomplishment -- France didn't allow Nigeria a shot on target. And after a brief flurry of activity following the goal, Nigeria simply crumbled under the pressure, shanking passes well wide of its targets.
And yet Nigeria still maintained hopes of producing a shocking result until the final whistle, with Angerer needing to fling herself bravely into a mass of players to punch the ball clear on a Nigerian corner kick. The final kick of the game belonged to Annike Krahn, named player of the match, who hooked the ball away from onrushing forward Amenze Aighewi in her own box.
Germany unquestionably has embraced this tournament and the team. The peak TV viewing audience for the Germany-Canada game was 18 million, nearly one-quarter of the country's population, FIFA announced. More than 4.7 million people in Germany watched the USA-North Korea match.
And the crowd mixes sportsmanship and a keen knowledge of what's going on with the tournament. In Frankfurt, the crowd of 48,817 applauded each Nigerian player's video introduction, and German and Nigerian fans shook hands and smiled after the final whistle.
When Nigeria coach Eucharia Uche was introduced before the game, much of the crowd whistled in derision. Uche has been in the news for a recent New York Times interview in which she denounced homosexuality and said she removed lesbian players from the roster. A gay pride flag also was visible near one corner of the stadium. (Uche, under pressure from FIFA, denied making such comments, though the Times story was not the first to include such talk.)
So this crowd is following all the tournament news, not just the German scores. With that fervor must surely come high expectations and a lot of questions. Why is Prinz still starting? Why were players stumbling and sloppy?
If Neid is feeling the pressure, she's doing a good job of hiding it. She patiently answered questions through the postgame media conference and laughed with the 10th and final question.
But the stakes will be higher and the margin for error slimmer in their final group stage match against France, which will need only a draw to win the group and a more favorable matchup in the quarterfinals. Losing the group to their western neighbors might make the German morning TV shows a little less cheerful.