Cinderella vs. Jane Eyre in Soccer Final

Abby Wambach scores against the French

Sports Saturday

Suddenly America finds itself enthralled with women’s soccer, a noteworthy occurrence since it happens so rarely.  Tomorrow the national soccer team goes up against Japan, and far more people will be watching than one would have anticipated two weeks ago.

It’s all because of the remarkable quarterfinal victory over Brazil, who have the world’s best player and who are, after all, Brazil. Following a red card and at least one botched call (the ref allowed a failed penalty kick to be retaken for unknown reasons), the Americans lost their lead and had to play a woman down for close to an hour.  Yet despite conceding a goal early in overtime, they scored a miraculous equalizer in the 122nd minute with only seconds left.  (A game plus overtime takes 120 minutes, but three minutes had been added on to make up for Brazilian stalling tactics.) Then the U.S. won the penalty shootout in decisive fashion, making all five of its shots and seeing its magnificent goalie, the wonderfully named Hope Solo, go full extension and knock away one of the Brazilian attempts.

But the U.S. isn’t the only team with a good story.  As remarkable as its journey has been, America was the favorite going in.  The Japanese, on the other hand, have amazed everyone, especially when they scored the upset of the tournament—a 1-0 victory over reigning world champion Germany.

So which narrative will prevail tomorrow? I see two at work, Cinderella and Jane Eyre.

Japan as Cinderella

Japan fits the Cinderella narrative.  First of all, it comes from a society that has experienced great adversity, what with the tsunami and the nuclear power plant meltdowns.  Indeed, following each game the Japanese team rolls out a large banner thanking the world for its support through those crises.

The Japanese are also the smallest team in the tournament.  They were dwarfed and outmuscled by both the Germans and the Swedes and no one expected them to win.  Yet while it doesn’t appear that they belong at the dance, they are as pretty a team as there is. By this I mean that they play a beautiful Barcelona-style soccer. (Their Japanese nickname is “Nadeshiko,” meaning “beautiful flower.”)  Because they are susceptible to getting pushed around, they have to execute pinpoint passes to have a chance.

Commentators fully expected the Japanese to lose because they lack a real scoring threat.  But the clinching goal against Sweden, putting them up 3-1, came off of a stunning shot.  Japan had beaten Sweden’s offside trap so that a player was one on one with the Swedish goalie.  The goalie charged out and managed to clear the ball but as a result was far off her line.  Picking up the clearance close to midfield, Nahomi Kawasumi lofted the ball over her head and into the goal.  As many noted, not many players, male or female, could pull that shot off.

The ball fit the foot perfectly and Cinderella was home free.

America as Jane Eyre

The United States, ranked #1 though it may be, has had its own challenges.  First of all, it has labored in the shadow of the glamorous 1999 team, which won the world cup in a penalty shootout.  That event memorably revealed to the world the sports bra (at least to those of us unaware of its existence) when Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt in celebration.  Other legendary players from the team include Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, now announcers.

The 2011 team has been like the plain or gawky sister who is the heroine in a number of British novels. Unlike the Brazilians it lacks a brilliant one-on-one playmaker, and unlike the French (who it defeated in the semifinals) its technique is not stellar. Yet this team has a determination that one comes to admire the more that one gets to know it. Other teams may be beautiful.  The Americans simply refuse to give up.

The U.S. is the plain Jane Eyre to the dashing Blanche Ingram, the down-to-earth Lucy Snowe to the petite Pauline Home (in Villette), Jane Austen’s sensible Elinor to the ravishing Marianne, the sharp-tongued Kate in Taming of the Shrew to the sought-after Bianca. She may not be gorgeous, but those who appreciate quality recognize her worth (Rochester, Paul Emanuel, Edward Ferrars, Petruchio).

Playing (as one commentator put it) 10 against Brazil’s 12 (the 12th player being the ref), the U.S. didn’t see itself as a victim but simply played harder after receiving the red card and giving up the retaken goal.  France ran circles around the Americans as Louisa Necib, described as a female Zinedine Zidane, distributed the ball in flawless fashion so that the French pounded the American goal.  And yet the Americans pushed and pushed and finally broke through. Somehow they found another gear.  “Who cares for you?” Jane Eyre asks at her moment of greatest crisis and then answers, “I care for myself.”

So which narrative will prevail tomorrow? Will Cinderella crawl out from her ashes and win the prince with her beautiful footwork? Will plain Jane show us that heart and fortitude count as much as fancy moves and announce at the end of the day, “Reader I married him.”  We don’t know which story it is and so don’t know the ending.  Join the millions who will be watching the game to find out.

Additional Notes

Roger Bennett of ESPN has applied another work of literature to tomorrow’s contest.  Speaking of Japan he writes,

The “short little ladies” defending the American battering ram may resemble a reenactment of Gulliver’s Travels.

One other note: although, as an American, I have been rooting for the United States, I also fell in love with the beautiful and imaginative style of soccer played by the French.  I also was intrigued by the way that the French coach regularly draws on literary quotations to inspire his team, employing such writers as Albert Camus, Jean de La Fontaine, Marcel Pagnol, Guillaume Apollinaire (my father’s research subject), Charles Baudelaire, Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull), Antoine Saint-Exupery (The Little Prince), and Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho.  He also has shown his team Robin Williams’s Dead Poets Society and Al Pacino’s Any Given Sunday. He sounds like a French version of basketball coach Phil Jackson.

Of course I wanted to know exactly which works and passages by these writers he has used, but my internet search came up empty.  A number of the poets and works suggest that he tries to get his players to be adventuresome (Saint-Exupery) and imaginative and creative (Bach, Camus). Maybe he reads them LaFontaine’s “The Grasshopper and the Ant” to get them to practice harder.  In Dead Poets Society, the boys learn to march to the beat of their own drummer and to confidently deliver a loud Whitmanian yawp, so maybe he uses that film to cultivate leadership and individual initiative. He may show them the Pacino film to convince them that on “any given Sunday” anyone can win—which the French, by advancing further in the tournament than anyone predicted, proved could happen. I’m open to any further connections you might see.


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