It was my first time at Parc des Princes when I saw Japan and Argentina open their group play at the 2019 World Cup. My friend Jessica Luther (of Burn It All Down) and I arrived and saw women wearing kimonos, children getting Argentina flags painted on their faces. I was elated at my first time seeing the Nadeshiko in person. I have loved, loved, loved the Japan women’s national team since the beginning of football goddess Homare Sawa’s career. I will never forget her match-winning goal at the finals to trounce the United States in the 2011 World Cup.
Or the purest badass moment when she picked up the 2011 FIFA women’s player of the year in this GODDAMN GORGEOUS KIMONO.
I stan Olympique Lyonnais as well and love Saki Kumagai so the excitement was at an all time high. Japan are a team that approach football as a beautiful and precise craft. They are clinical in their passing, and they are intentional in their attacks. They are the sharpest players in women’s soccer. As I sat among some 25,000 people in Paris, I was eagerly waiting to see the roll-out of this legendary team.
But moving to head Japan off at the pass was a country that, despite just developing their first domestic women’s league, was also a country of mighty, passionate resistance: Argentina.
After learning about Argentina from Latin American history professor Dr. Brenda Elsey, I have started to sincerely and ardently root for Argentine women’s football. Jessica and I both wore kits of the Albicelestes and I will name drop goalkeeper Gaby Garton as a friend (WhatsApp friends totally counts; I messaged her to let her know we were supporting the team). After the incredible misfortune, mismanagement, and mistreatment of the Argentine women by their own federation, it is so important to see them take control of their own destiny and soar.
With a combination of grit and grace, Argentina held up incredibly in their defensive form to dull the knives of the Nadeshiko, who outpossessed them 61% to 39% but were unable to make anything of it. Japan’s highly skilled attackers could not infiltrate the Argentine danger zone and finish on crosses, or shoot to their usual perfection. As we watched from the stands, countless times Risa Shimizu or Emi Nakajima’s passes up front were either blocked or disrupted by the Argentine back line. Argentina possessed a very intentional presence and command on defense. Goalkeeper Vanina Correa had several clutch saves and was fiercely protected by Agustina Barroso, Eliana Stabile, Virginia Gomez, and Aldana Cometti. If “parking the bus” is a common tactic, Argentina didn’t simply park, they created a monumental parking lot. This tactic to stop Japan was a very simple plan that worked very well.
One of the strongest players to emerge so far from this first round of group games is Argentina’s captain Estefania Banini, although that should be no surprise if you’ve paid attention to her club play. Banini was named player of the match and, in her #10 jersey, is a powerhouse on the pitch. I saw Banini either whip repeatedly through a few Japanese players or get stuck up the line because she had FIVE opponents on her. She is truly and majestically lethal; Japan’s approach to shutting her down showed in the three yellow cards they received, all for fouls on her.
But if they were united in defense, attacking was overall not a forte of the Argentines because whenever they approached the 18 yard box, their power waned. There were only two shots on goal, and of their five shots total, only a few had any power behind them.
Japan finished the match with a 0-0 draw. After the final whistle blew, I watched striker Sole Jaimes drop to her knees and raise her hands to the sky. The moment was not lost on me. Her gratitude to whichever God she worships for keeping Japan at bay was powerful. Japan are World Cup winners and have a breadth of experience; they out-passed, out-possessed, and out-shot Argentina. And Argentina still came away with a point.
I don’t expect that the comments were necessarily great in Japan’s locker room. I’m sure they were frustrated, and the three yellow card bookings were indicative that Japan was not as prepared defensively as we expected. But no team is infallible, and no team is a lost cause. This is perhaps the most poignant thing that the football goddesses might want us to understand.
Most of the time opponents must change their style of play to match Japan. But last night was fascinating from a technical perspective as Argentina were still able to play their game going forward. Tactically, they were told to shut down the offense and my god, they did.
That first-ever World Cup point has a galaxy of contextual meaning - Argentina women’s national team has had a very difficult time getting a fraction of the support they deserve. In spite of the difficulties from their own federation, they are at the World Cup, and have shown they are nobody’s easy group points. From not even qualifying in 2015 and 2011 to going toe-to-toe with the 2015 runners-up. This is mighty. In the words of GK Gaby Garton, “It’s an honour to be part of the change.”
I can’t lie. Seeing Japan score and celebrate in jubilation is something that feeds my soul. But as a fan, a player, and someone who desperately wants women’s football to grow and thrive, the match yesterday was perhaps, a sign of not only where things should go, but how far we have come. Japan did not slice Argentina apart as expected; instead, what played out was a hopeful and solid shift in what we consider possible. Had you told me that Argentina would challenge Japan, I would have replied: “Need to see it to believe it!”
Well, I saw it. And it was fabulous.