SportsPulse: After a Twitter tirade from the president and the USWNT facing its biggest test of the World Cup, Megan Rapinoe and company had a performance for the ages.
LYON, France — France won the World Cup.
No, not the tournament. Everyone knows by now Les Bleues were eliminated by the Americans. But the enthusiasm and passion the team sparked in a soccer-crazed country that, for too long, has ignored the women’s game, was significant.
“You may have lost the Cup, but you’ve certainly won the hearts of the French,” Kylian Mbappe, perhaps the most popular athlete in France these days, said on Twitter.
While tournament organizers did a poor job of promoting the tournament, the lack of signage or any other evidence that it was going on in some cities was not an accurate reflection of interest in France. There were sellout or near-sellout crowds for every France match, and the atmosphere at Parc des Princes for the quarterfinal was electric.
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French fans wave flags during their quarterfinal match against the United States. (Photo: Michael Chow, USA TODAY Sports)
There were record TV ratings, with more than 50 percent of French viewers tuning in for both the round of 16 game against Brazil and the quarterfinal against the U.S. Newspapers and broadcasters devoted the same kind of coverage to Les Bleues as they traditionally do to Les Bleus.
“It is a failure on a footballing level. I don’t think we should shy away from that,” France coach Corinne Diacre said after the game. “But I hope we have attained something else tonight, and hope we have won over the hearts and minds of the public. I hope this will help the women’s game go further.”
Here are the other winners and losers from the quarterfinals:
The U.S. goalkeeper was impressive against France, particularly in the second half, when Les Bleues owned possession.
She made four saves, including leaping to tip a Valerie Gauvin header over the crossbar and stopping another dangerous shot in the 89th. The only goal allowed was off a Wendie Renard header on a set piece, and few goalkeepers – past or present – would have fared better. At 6-foot-2, Renard was the tallest player in the tournament, which makes the angles of her shots nearly impossible to defend.
The performance should quiet Naeher’s critics – for a few days, at least.
Naeher has the unenviable task of following Briana Scurry and Hope Solo, two of the greatest goalkeepers the game has seen. Quiet and reserved, Naeher doesn’t have Scurry and Solo’s swagger or intimidation factor, which have led many to question her. Yet she’s unbeaten in the World Cup, and that should count for something.
The losing streak is over!
Sweden’s come-from-behind, 2-1 win Saturday was its first victory over Germany at a major tournament since 1991. The Swedes had gone 0-10-1 against Germany during that span, including a loss in the 2016 Olympic final.
Germany also beat Sweden for the 2003 World Cup title.
“We are tired of hearing about this damn German ghost,” Sweden’s Magdalena Eriksson said before the game.
They won’t have to hear about it anymore.
EUROPEAN OLYMPIC QUALIFYING
Neither France nor Germany, which just happens to be the reigning Olympic champion, will be at the Tokyo Games next summer.
Why? Because Europe’s Olympic qualifying process is stupid. And the Olympic field, at 12 teams, is too small.
Each regional federation gets to pick how it wants to award its Olympic spots. CONCACAF, of which the United States is a member, has a qualifying tournament, which will be sometime early next year.
But UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, awards its three spots based on World Cup results, and England, the Netherlands and Sweden locked them up by making the semifinals.
Britain doesn’t usually have an Olympic soccer team because no one federation oversees all of the countries in the kingdom. But England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales agreed last fall to field a united team, provided England qualified for a spot.
This isn’t to say England/Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden aren’t deserving of going to Tokyo. But a case can be made that France was actually the second- or third-best team in the tournament but had the bad luck to run into the United States in the quarterfinal.
Plus, this tournament has shown how vastly improved the level of play in Europe is. Why wouldn’t UEFA take advantage of that with a tournament that has France, Germany, Sweden, England, the Netherlands, Spain and Norway duking it out for Olympic spots?
The other issue is that, at 12 teams, the Olympic field needs to be expanded. The men manage to get a 16-team tournament done during the Games. There’s no reason the women couldn’t, too.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.