In case you haven’t noticed – and judging by the lack of attention it has received, you haven’t – the UEFA Women’s Champions League cut its field down to 32 last week.
Still don’t care? That’s fair, it doesn’t really have anything to do with America, and most – if not all – of the teams that were forced to play in qualifying won’t be around very long, when they run into the Lyons and Turbine Potsdams of the world.
But one of the reasons why I love and was drawn to international soccer as a youngster was to learn about the world at large; places I’ve never seen, places I’ll never see, but places that we need to understand if we really want to know what is really happening in the 90 percent of the world that most Americans choose to conveniently ignore.
Franklin Foer’s “How Soccer Explains The World” is somewhat outdated these days, but a sequel might have more than a chapter or two on the rise of the women’s game. We don’t notice it here because – let’s face it – none of these teams will be playing any American teams any time soon, nor will most of these countries be able to stay on the same field as the United States national team for the next couple of decades.
But women’s soccer is on the rise, albeit slowly. Any every team has a story. And here are some interesting notes from the first round of the 20-12-2013 UEFA Champions’ League.
(For those that don’t know the UEFA format, 22 teams automatically qualified for the Round of 32. They all have stories, too, like Italian champs Torres, Birmingham, and FC Barcelona. Yes, that Barcelona.)
- FC Zurich didn’t concede a goal in three qualifying games, virtually qualifying when they beat hosts Pomurje of Slovenia (who play in a little town called Beltinci on the Hungarian border) in the first game. But what’s most interesting about Zurich is that Inka Grings scored three goals for them, including the one that finished off Pomurje. Yes, that Inka Grings. After the World Cup, she retired from Germany, but pushes on for Zurich. And is probably enjoying herself.
- BIIK Kazygurt is only five years old, but managed to take over the Kazakhstani league last season, led by Brazilian/Equatoguinean defender Bruna (remember her from the World Cup?) and a 16-year old goal scoring machine named Alina Litvinenko. Alas, Litvinenko isn’t from Kazakhstan, but an even less heralded soccer nation, Kyrgyzstan. But it’s a great story, no? The national team in Kyrgyzstan was started, in part at least, because of her, and she scored a hat trick against Palestine (which surely is another great story) at the age of 13.
Despite the fact that Shymkent, where BIIK plays (and a city of about 700,000 people), is almost on the Kyrgyzstan border, Kazakhstan competes in Europe while Kyrgyzstan is in Asia for soccer purposes, so maybe with a couple more players like Litvinenko, Kyrgyzstan can make a name for itself. But that is the inherent difference between the men’s and women’s games right now. In the men’s game, surely someone would take a chance on developing Litvinenko. In the women’s game? Not so much.
Anyway, someone has thrown a little money into BIIK Kazygurt, and the result is the last 32 in the UEFA Champions League. Just a little money, people.
- BIIK Kazygurt temporarily spoiled the party for Group 2 hosts Spartak Subotica by beating them 2-0, but as it turned out, Subotica gets through as one of the top second place teams. Subotica has employed several Africans in the past couple of seasons (although none played here), which may not necessarily jive too much with your thoughts about Serbia, but Subotica is in the very north part of Serbia, bordering Hungary. When everything went wrong with Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, many Serb refugees came into the area, leading many of the ethnic Hungarians to leave, but also making it a much more diverse population.
- I talked about Alina Litvinenko, but how about Cosmina Dusa from Cluj in Romania, which advanced in Group 3? Dusa had eight goals in three games, including hat tricks in reasonably close games against Glentoran Belfast United (Northern Ireland) and Dezembro (Portugal). Dusa has been a fixture in the Romanian national team since the age of 19. She’s now 22. Her club, Olimpia Cluj has only been around for a little more than two seasons, yet Dusa has a remarkable 187 goals in that time. Not a typo. In 54 games, that’s more than a hat trick per match. Obviously, the competition surely isn’t that stiff, but if she was a men’s player, someone would have given her a shot on a bigger stage (the Romanian national team has a few players that play in Cyprus and a couple in Russia, so we’ll see).
Sadly, Portugal lags behind in women’s development. Dezembro has won the Portuguese league 11 straight seasons, yet has never gotten to the final 32 of the relatively new Champions League after being beaten here. Oh, well.
- Unia Raciborz of Poland pulled an upset of sorts by knocking off host Slovan Bratislava in emphatic fashion, 5-0, and then rolled to the final 32. Leading the way was another Equatoguinean (Equatorial Guinea) in Gloria Chinasa, who played at the World Cup. Chinasa had a hat trick, one of two in three games for Raciborz. Of course, Chinasa is Nigerian, like a few players for Equatorial Guinea, but how she ended up in Poland? Google isn’t helping me with that one. Interestingly, Raciborz is a small town right on the Czech border, which is historically German, which led surely to plenty of awkwardness and heartache in World War II, but may also explain why women’s soccer has caught on a bit there.
- SFK 2000 Sarajevo (Bosnia) may be among the least impressive of the qualifiers, having drawn with ASA Tel Aviv University (Israel), although they were down to 10 women early in the secnd half, but advancing with seven points. Tel Aviv actually went to the round of 32 last year before losing to Italian champ Torres. American Jelena Vrcelj, who played collegiately at Jacksonville, is listed on the roster, but didn’t appear in any of the three games for Sarajevo, who has won 10 straight Bosnian titles, but advances to the Round of 32 for just the second time. Vrcelj was born in Croatia, so it makes some sense. 19-year-old Bosnian Aida Hadzic scored twice.
- Host Apollon Limassol (Cyprus) outscored opponents 31-0 in Group 6, including a 21-0 win over Ada Velipoje of Albania, who also lost 14-1 to Zhytlobud-Kharkiv (Ukraine). Velipoje has won the last two Albanian titles but at least there’s a league, which there’s been for the last three years. Albania hasn’t graduated to full international status. Local Connecticut product Furtuna Velaj, who played for the Boston Breakers this summer, qualifies for Albania and has played in a couple of the test matches for them.
Meanwhile, Limassol will make their third straight appearance in the Round of 32, and might be a tough out with a few internationals in their midst. Who wouldn’t want to hang out in Cyprus for a little while? Scotland and Great Britain defender Ifeoma Dieke (as well as being American born and a former WUSA and WPS player) was on their team last season, and none other than Sinead Farrelly scored in all three qualifying games for Limassol. Like I said, it’s Cyprus.
- MTK Budapest also didn’t allow a goal in Group 7 play, beating PAOK (Greece) 2-0 in the deciding game. You can see Fanny Vago’s clinching goal here (withhold level of play and size of crowd comments, please. The game was played in Macedonia and the host team was not involved in this one, so that explains a little). Vago just turned 21 and is a rising star for Hungary. Whatever I said about Litvinenko and Dusa certainly applies here again. Slightly disappointing for Greece, which had an automatic group stage qualifier in 2010 and 2011 and hasn’t been back to the Round of 32 since.
- In the final group, Group 8, Glasgow City pulled a bit of a surprise by knocking off host PK-35 Vantaa (Finland) on goal differential. Of course, Glasgow made it to the Round of 16 last season after upsetting Valur (Iceland) in the Round of 32, before running into Turbine Potsdam. And by running into, I mean they got trounced 17-0 over two legs. Again, not a typo. As seven-time defending Scottish champions, it’s certainly not uncharted territory for the club. Jane Ross, who scored against Vantaa, has 13 international goals for Scotland and was an alternate on the British Olympic team last month. Veteran Leanne Ross has 80 caps for Scotland, and unfortunately missed a penalty in that game, but alas Glasgow got through anyway.
- Also getting through would be PK-35 Vantaa, who had enough points to advance in second place in the group. You should recognize the name of goalkeeper Rachael Ayegba, who played in the World Cup with Nigeria. Vantaa had Beverly Goebel on their squad last season as well. Former Loyola-Chicago star Casey Berrier also starts in their defense, while goal scorer Cynthia Uwak, like Ayegba, is Nigerian. Vantaa, by the way, is just outside Helsinki on the Gulf of Finland.
So that’s that. The draw for the Round of 32 will be Thursday, and I’ll be sure to give you some updates (with some help from Jenna most likely) on the matchups and more facts that might only be interesting to me.