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Vision Is Clear From Mirror

Mia Hamm was talking the other day about soccer and life, about how one mirrors the other, because nothing is guaranteed in either.

Skill and talent don’t always prevail, dumb luck keeps encroaching on the best-laid plans, one freakish bounce of the ball can unravel mounds of hard work and preparation. As Hamm put it, one team can outshoot the other, 20-2, and still wind up losing, 1-nil.

Shots happen.

That’s soccer.

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That’s life.

Yet, that hasn’t been this Women’s World Cup tournament.

On-paper form has dug itself in like the Italian backline, refusing to budge. Unlike the men’s World Cup, in which France can upset Brazil for the 1998 championship and tiny Cameroon can ambush Argentina in the 1990 opener, this Women’s World Cup has been utterly devoid of surprises, unless you bet the house on Denmark over North Korea.

The United States, 1996 Olympic champion, went 3-0 in the first round.

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China, 1996 Olympic silver medalist, went 3-0 in the first round.

Norway, 1995 World Cup winner, went 3-0 in the first round.

Advancing with them to the quarterfinals, as expected, were 1995 World Cup runner-up Germany, South American champion Brazil, African champion Nigeria, and Sweden and Russia.

Motto for this tournament to date:

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The rich get to the final eight, the poor get early hotel checkouts.

But that is the state of women’s international soccer, circa 1999. The talent gap between the world’s elite and the rest of the field is bigger than a canyon, rendering the chances of a genuine shocker--say, Ghana over China, or Mexico over anybody--to “The X Files” cabinet.

Don’t look for anything to change in the quarterfinals, which begin tonight in San Jose, with China playing Russia and Norway facing Sweden, followed by United States-Germany and Brazil-Nigeria Thursday in Landover, Md.

Looking at the pairings after a Tuesday morning practice at George Mason University, U.S. assistant Lauren Gregg stated the obvious.

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“I would favor Brazil, I would favor Norway, I would favor China,” she said.

She did not say whom she favored in the U.S.-Germany match, because, well, who needs to be that obvious?

However, Gregg added, “For each of them, the game could be [in doubt] longer if they don’t play the way they need to play to put the other team away.”

For Norway, that means ignoring decades of Scandinavian soccer tradition and resisting the urge to turn its match with border rival Sweden into Long Balls Over Spartan Stadium.

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“What a battle that’s going to be,” Gregg said. “Sweden is one of the hardest teams in the tournament. Their single greatest dimension is their competitive spirit. Their best bet would be to get it to be a battle, because that may favor them.

“It’ll be interesting to see if it just becomes an air game against the two of them, or if Norway really plays up to the sophistication level they are capable of. Otherwise, I think it will be just a dogfight.”

Brazil-Nigeria has already been stamped as the potential game of the tournament, given the quick-strike capabilities of both sides, the star qualities of Brazil’s high-scoring Sissi and Nigeria’s “Marvelous” Mercy Akide and the what-defense? philosophies both teams espouse.

The unofficial line on this one?

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How about Brazil by an extra point, 7-6?

Yes, goals are expected to fly. And fouls. And cards of various color. Nigeria leads the tournament in fouls committed--a staggering 75 in three games--and spent most of its game against the United States testing the strength and resiliency of American shinguards. Brazil, meanwhile, has become highly nuanced in how it counterattacks such an opponent.

Yes, with Sissi and Pretinha and Katia and the rest, it’s down periscope and dive, dive, dive, just the way the men do.

“That could be a l-o-n-g game,” Gregg said with a laugh. “Foul! Foul! ‘Foul! Dive! Dive! Dive! The referee’s going to be spinning around in that one.

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“You have two athletic teams and a lot of gamesmanship between them. I think Brazil is evolving a sophistication on the ball. Their key will be to not get caught up in the antics that they are very capable of themselves. And be the wiser, more mature team . . . because they are certainly the better soccer team, no question in my mind.”

China has been drawing raves from coast to coast for its technical flair, but what, really, has it accomplished? The Chinese had to rally to edge Sweden, 2-1; rang up seven goals against hapless Ghana, then struggled to put away winless Australia, which played 88 minutes with only 10 players. Russia, which finished second to Norway in Group C simply by pounding Japan (5-0) and Canada (4-1), has seemed oblivious to the heat and humidity, hardly breaking a sweat in the first round.

“Russia’s an interesting team,” Gregg said. “Without putting out a lot of energy, they get the job done. They’re very organized, very professional-like. . . . They’re just very--laid-back is the wrong word--they just don’t get caught up in the moment. I think they’ve expended not very much energy to be this far, and they’re certainly getting the results.”

Germany versus the United States? Good news for the home fans, those who still break out in a cold sweat over the nightmarish images of Mike Burns “guarding” the near post as if it were on a leash and Juergen Klinsmann turning Thomas Dooley into a gyroscope during World Cup ’98: The women will be playing this one.

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Twelve months later, revenge is at hand.

And that’s just one more example of how soccer mirrors life. The women cleaning up after the men, because someone has to do it.

WORLD CUP QUARTERFINALS

Today, at San Jose

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CHINA vs. RUSSIA / 5 p.m., ESPN2

NORWAY vs. SWEDEN / 7:30 p.m., ESPN2 (9 p.m.)

Thursday at Landover, Md.

U.S. vs. GERMANY / 4 p.m., ESPN

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BRAZIL vs. NIGERIA / 6:30 p.m., ESPN2


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