The Cameroon players deserve criticism but when male players behave despicably we seem to judge individuals rather than the whole sport
Some of the behaviour we saw from Cameroon’s players and their coach in their game against England was shocking, but it is important to make it clear that it was not an indictment of the women’s game. It is an indictment of Cameroon specifically, and it was a game I can only hope their players watch, cringe, are honest about and learn from in the future, to understand the weight of responsibility that comes from representing your nation with pride and professionalism.
They had complained about the refereeing of their last game, against New Zealand, and I think they probably came into the England match with that perceived sense of injustice bubbling just below the surface. Their coach did not do a good job of controlling those emotions. The shame is that if they had focused on playing the game they would probably have scored a couple of goals, because England looked very open at the back.
Before the game I was singing the praises of the Cameroonian team, ranked 46th in the world by Fifa, who arrived in the last 16 with strong performances in their group, having tested Canada (ranked fifth), scored against the Netherlands (eighth) and beaten New Zealand (19th), thanks to a late strike from Ajara Nchout that is a contender for goal of the tournament. Unfortunately the protests and petulance of the Cameroonian players will be the lasting impression of their nation’s time in France.
We see some despicable behaviour in men’s football – diving, horrible fouls, racist abuse, players arguing with opponents, with the referee and sometimes with their own manager – but somehow on those occasions we are able to restrict our judgment to the individuals involved, rather than the entire sport.
Yet some people who saw this game, one wild match in a tournament that has given us moments of greatness and also of disappointment, have announced that it proves women’s football cannot be taken seriously. I think they are watching it the wrong way. It is as if people are not just watching women’s football and enjoying it, they are sitting in judgment. If every time you turn on the TV you need to be persuaded that the women’s game is good enough, it’s probably not for you.
Having come through this test, England are now preparing to play a Norway team that are proving themselves among the very best at the World Cup, with an in-form front line and intelligent defence. If England play against Norway as they did against Cameroon they will need a lot of luck to get to the semi-finals.
On Sunday night Phil Neville was mostly asked about Cameroon, and he spoke honestly and truthfully. This has been one of his most impressive traits as England manager, and I think we can assume, based on everything we have seen from him so far, that he was as honest with his players when they got back to the team hotel. They need to examine every mistake they made against Cameroon, so they’re ready to show their best against a flourishing Norway team. If England allow Guro Reiten or Isabell Herlovsen on the left-hand side for Norway the kind of space they got against Australia, they will cause a lot of trouble. If they allow or Caroline Hansen the space on the counterattack to run at the back line, they will struggle.
I have praised the midfielders Keira Walsh and Jill Scott previously in this tournament. Scott in particular has been in excellent form, and against Cameroon broke Peter Shilton’s record for the most appearances for England in World Cup finals. But in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-2-3 formation Walsh is meant to be a defensive midfielder, who sits in and protects the backline, while Scott is a box-to-box player, tucking in defensively and getting forward to break into the opposition penalty area.
Against Cameroon both players were too high and left a lot of space in behind them in midfield. One pass and their line was beaten, and it happened a number of times. That is dangerous, because once you beat the midfield line the defence is completely exposed. Against pace, which Norway have got in abundance, this is asking for trouble. A pass to either flank or a through-ball to Herlovsen, and they’re in on goal. The move that led to Nchout scoring, though the goal was disallowed by VAR after the tightest of offside calls, showed how England allowed themselves to be carved open against a Cameroon side that lacked quality in the final third.
Lucy Bronze was guilty of overdribbling, carrying the ball into midfield where she was out of position and losing it would cause immediate danger. She is undoubtedly one of the best players in the world, but there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance and sometimes she finds herself on the wrong side of it. Her assist for Ellen White’s goal showed her using her abilities perfectly, exposing the opposition defence before playing a great pass, but sometimes she can be guilty of playing her team into danger, leaving space to exploit on the turnover.
White has now scored four goals in France, and is in wonderful form. But Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdóttir at the heart of the Norwegian defence were exceptional against Australia and controlled the best forward in the world in Sam Kerr. If England are going to get past that pair White’s movement has to be exceptional, and Fran Kirby will have to help her out with runs from the No 10 role. England will need more than one player to be affecting those two, because the Chelsea pair are smart, experienced defenders who will be familiar with the English forwards.
At the same time England’s back four needs to be at the top of their game to deal with Herlovsen, who is in clinical form, Hansen, who must have put in one of the best performances of her life against Australia, and Reiten, a tricky left winger who is about to join Mjelde and Thorisdóttir at Chelsea. When they played Japan in the group stage England were much more tactically disciplined than they were against Cameroon. Japan played a lot of pretty football but didn’t really get anywhere, because England made themselves hard to break down. That is the kind of organisation they will need to show on Thursday.
It can be hard, in the middle of a tournament, to turn a poor performance in one game into an excellent one in the next. That is the challenge England face now. The only way to achieve it is to be honest with yourself, to review your mistakes and make sure you don’t repeat them. That is the process Phil Neville and his team have to put themselves through if they are to earn a place in the semi-finals.