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Japan vs Netherlands embodied the way teammates’ friendships can transcend borders

Fans might understand the pain of loss, but no one truly knows what the players go through at the World Cup - except other players.

Netherlands v Japan: Round Of 16 - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

There are moments in one’s life that make you reassess your life choices. When you break up with a significant other; when a job you really wanted does not end up being a good fit; when a beloved fur-baby dies, there are so many tragic happenings that we survive daily. One of those bittersweet events we are currently navigating through is the Women’s World Cup.

My friend Professor Laurent Dubois once eloquently wrote, “Soccer is also one of the most effective tools for mass human torture ever devised.”

I think about this quote very often. And never more so than in the Women’s World Cup round of 16 elimination match between my beloved Japan and the Netherlands.

This particular match-up between the reigning Euro and AFC champions was incredible. There was immediate attacking from the front line of Vivianne Miedema, Lieke Martens and the unflinching Shanice van de Sanden. Within the first 20 minutes, FC Barcelona powerhouse Martens flicked the ball with her backheel and placed it in the corner. It was her first goal of the tournament - magnificent. My heart dropped a little but since I was still reeling from Canada’s tragic early exit the day before, I told myself that because I appreciated both Nadeshiko and Oranje so much, this match would not be one in which I suffered emotionally. It wouldn’t be the first time I was so, so wrong.

True to form, Japan replied just before the end of the second half with a clinically gorgeous goal from Yui Hasegawa that even left the commentator unprepared. Yet one must always be prepared for Japan’s offense. Didn’t we learn anything from Her Royal Greatness Homare Sawa?

The match was probably the highest level of quality in this tournament we’ve seen, technically speaking. Incredible defending, proper use of space and a very polite understanding between the two teams that although they respect each other immensely - in particular Olympique Lyonnais teammates Saki Kumagai and Shanice van de Sanden - there would be one team to go forward.

Netherlands v Japan: Round Of 16 - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

There were cards, and pushing, and strong defending, and the officiating was solid. Nothing that could make us curse VAR as we (read: I) have been.

The second half began with Japan attacking constantly. A few brilliant and key saves from Sari van Veenendaal kept warding off Japan’s attempts to finish. This was everything we want in a match: excitement, fair officiating, technical strength, speed, implementation of proper tactical strategy. There were no flagrant fouls, no anger, no resentment towards the video assistant referee system.

I wanted both teams to win. Yes, I have had a longstanding love affair and incredible respect for Japan. And yes, the Dutch knocked out my favorite European squad, Denmark, and my favorite player, Nadia Nadim, from the tournament because the FIFA qualification process is shit. But both these squads are so formidable they can’t help but inspire respect.

The second half was almost finished; my knuckles were being cracked incessantly and my hair was being twisted in knots. I readied myself for extra time and did some very important box breathing exercises. But before I let my belly fill up with air for a third time, a last minute attack in Japan’s box lead to a call on Kumagai. A handball. In the box. In the last minute of the match.

My commitment to women’s football notwithstanding, this match was pushing my emotional and mental bandwidths to a place that I wasn’t sure I would recover from so easily.

In this moment, I couldn’t type; I had no messages on Slack or Whatsapp for the friends or Burn It All Down co-hosts I was watching with. My heart sank. For just a second, I hoped that VAR might come through. Maybe this controversial mess of a digital system could provide salvation! It might shine a light on the fact that Kumagai’s reaction was not intentional. It was only because, you know, she has limbs.

But the call went ahead. I was consumed by dread.

Ayaka Yamashita prepared herself for the save of her life. Lieke Martens stepped up and before I could start hyperventilating, Martens slammed it in the lower right corner of the net.

I slumped into the sofa a little shocked, emotionally frozen with disbelief. I began to feel that familiar sensation of heartache.

My reaction was to exclaim that I hate soccer. I would never watch again! I have survived many things but was I willing to afflict myself with this? Was I a masochist that I would expose myself and my babies to this type of torment? I was watching the match alongside Jihad, my 17 year-old daughter (a goalkeeper to boot), who just kept saying “damn!” under her breath and softly uttering her thoughts on the brilliance of the players while I flailed beside her.

Martens, who had previously not scored in this iteration of the Women’s World Cup, had two goals. She was voted Player of the Match. I watched the Dutch celebrate wildly. I remember the scenes from the women’s Euros when they ousted Denmark to claim the championship. They were jubilant and triumphant, deservedly so. Around them, the blue kits of the Nadeshiko dotted the pitch as they lay down or stood in sadness and wept openly.

I couldn’t speak. Then a camera panned to a specific happening on the pitch. There was one Dutch player who was not celebrating. Her face was consumed with emotion for another player. Shanice van de Sanden was holding and hugging Saki Kumagai. Kumagai’s face was buried into van de Sanden’s shoulder as she sobbed.

I could feel the sincerity that van de Sanden was showing for her Lyon teammate and friend. Tears filled my eyes, and my daughter patted my arm. I watched a moment that was unbearably sad transform into something deeply bittersweet. Kumagai’s devastation was palpable and van de Sanden’s reaction to her made me reflect on friendship, sisterhood, and how they come together on the pitch.

I know what it is to be helped through moments of difficulty by teammates, to be supported in the worst of times by your pitch mates. It didn’t make this moment feel less devastated or soften the brutally unkind exit for Japan, but the love that van de Sanden displayed reminded me that although there will be much more agony in football, we watch because of moments like this. It isn’t the winning. It isn’t the trophies. It is moments like this that are marinated in humanity.

I think about the players from all over the world, like Canada’s Christine Sinclair and the United StatesTobin Heath, who are teammates at the Portland Thorns. There may be excessive amounts of bitterness among supporters stemming from the USA versus Canada woso rivalry, but Heath, Meghan Klingenberg (and many of their USA teammates) have never had anything negative to say about the Sinc. Heath has said that she is lucky to have shared a field with Sinc and Sinc has said it’s an honor to do the same.

There are many solid and notable friendship across man-made borders that thrive off the pitch: Christen Press and Jennifer Hermoso are from the USA and Spain respectively but were former teammates in Sweden with Tyreso FF. Marta and Alanna Kennedy are friends and teammates at Orlando Pride who have shown tremendous respect and admiration for each other.

Brazil v Australia - Quarterfinal: Women’s Football - Olympics: Day 7 Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images

I asked some of my excellent colleagues at SBNation about other international friends in women’s soccer. The replies were heartening: Morgan Brian and Lydia Williams from the US and Australia, Amandine Henry and Lindsay Horan from France and the United States. There are many, and it makes a shaky heart feel full.

It reminds me of a Japanese tradition of Kintsugi: a traditional method of repairing broken pottery with gold. It shows the scars and the importance of how the piece has been gently and lovingly repaired, with a beautiful bonding agent. It helps heal.

The solidarity and love these players have for each other grows from a shared struggle against discrimination, work in anti-oppression, and most of all, their dedication to the sport they live and breathe. It is the golden bonding agent.

None of us can truly understand what it is they do, or the cost it takes to be at a World Cup. Only the players who have gone through it can know, so when we see them put aside everything to be there for each other, it fills us with hope and awe. This isn’t just a sport, it’s way more than that. They live it, and we feel it. And it makes soccer less...painful.

Despite my weaknesses, I trust in women’s football - not just the soccer goddesses but very much in the players. I must. Not only because they bring us the glory of the most beautiful game known to sport, but they challenge our thoughts about what the sport should be, and enhance our emotional reactions to its elations and disappointments. They help us re-examine and appreciate our relationships. They reinforce how unity on the pitch is not only necessary but required; country does not always go above club, and teammates and friends are just as important as a win. I love soccer, torture and all.