Norway Chance Rests on a Knee
When Norway lines up against France today in the opening game of the fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup, fans at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia will carefully scan the team.
They will be seeking a stocky, confident, no-longer-quite-as-young-as-she-was player with the look and bearing of a world champion and an Olympic gold medalist.
If a jersey appears with the name “RIISE” on the back of one of the players on the field, Norwegians will breathe a sigh of relief.
French fans will be less pleased.
It is fair to say that Hege Riise, 34, with the battle scars to prove it, is more important to her team’s chances of regaining the Cup than any other player is to any other team.
Recognized as the best playmaker in the women’s game, Riise wrecked her right knee on April 22 while playing for the Carolina Courage in the Women’s United Soccer Assn.
She underwent surgery on May 15 for a torn anterior cruciate ligament and -- like U.S. forward Shannon MacMillan, who suffered a similar injury at about the same time -- for the last four months she has frantically fought to get fit in time for the World Cup.
Just how well she has succeeded remains to be seen, but when Coach Age Steen announced the Norwegian roster on Sept. 8, he was confident enough to include Riise in his squad of 20.
All the same, doubts remain about her ability to stand up to a 90-minute match, and especially to three first-round games within one week.
Riise said this week that she thought she could play perhaps one half -- or 45 minutes -- per game.
Considering her vision, her pinpoint passing and her precision on free kicks, that might be enough for Norway to carry the day.
The question Steen has to ponder is: Which half should she play? Does he start her, or does he hold her in reserve and bring her into the game to turn it around?
He might have provided the answer when he said three weeks ago that, “She can be our joker off the bench.”
With 177 national team games and 55 goals to her credit, Riise is to Norway what Mia Hamm is to the United States -- the country’s best-known female player.
Only recently Riise was voted the best Norwegian female player of the past half-century, an honor she took with characteristic modesty, not to mention honesty.
“It’s a great thing that the Norwegian [soccer] federation also gave an award to a female soccer player,” she told the FIFAworldcup.com Web site. “They didn’t have to do that because women’s football hasn’t been around for 50 years.”
Riise has been around for 13, however. She was a starter at the first Women’s World Championship in China in 1991, when Norway was beaten, 2-1, in the final by the U.S.
She and her teammates were to avenge that loss.
Riise inspired Norway to victory four years later, at the Sweden ’95 Women’s World Cup, when the Norwegians ousted the Americans, 1-0, in a semifinal. Similarly, the midfielder drove her team to its overtime victory in the gold-medal match at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which the U.S. lost, 3-2, in overtime.
The Norwegians are the only team in the world with a winning record (18-16-2) against the Americans, and the teams could meet in either the quarterfinals or semifinals of this tournament.
First, Norway has to get past France, Brazil and South Korea.
With or without Riise, Steen’s team is formidable. Forwards Dagny Mellgren and Marianne Pettersen provide a potent 1-2 punch. Forward Anita Rapp, midfielders Unni Lehn and Solveig Gulbrandsen, along with defenders Brit Sandaune and Monica Knudsen and goalkeeper Bente Nordby, give the team a wealth of experience.
Still, fans will continue to look for Riise. This Women’s World Cup, her fourth, will be their last opportunity to see one of the world’s great players.
“I am an old woman now,” she told FIFAworldcup.com. “I don’t think I will play in the next one.”
If she plays in this one, Norway could go a long way.
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A look at some of the Women’s World Cup’s other top midfielders:
Malin Andersson, Sweden -- Playing in her third World Cup, the Swedish captain has earned 126 caps and scored 36 goals for her national team, as well as leading her club team, Alsjo AIK, to five consecutive Swedish championships in the 1990s. She scored twice against Germany during the ’95 World Cup in Sweden.
Julie Foudy, United States -- The third-most capped player in women’s soccer history, with 231, the Mission Viejo native will be playing in her fourth World Cup. She scored in each of the other three, against Taiwan in 1991, Australia in 1995 and Denmark in 1999. Foudy is also a force off the field, having served on the WUSA Board of Directors and as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
Kara Lang, Canada -- Only 16, Lang has already scored 19 goals in 30 internationals for Canada, including four in a victory over Jamaica at last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. She also helped Canada to a second-place finish in the first FIFA under-19 women’s world championships.
Zhao Lihong, China -- A two-time most valuable player at the Asian women’s championships, Lihong has been a mainstay of the Chinese midfield for a decade. After being selected to the 1999 World Cup All-Star team, she went on to play for the Philadelphia Charge of the WUSA.
Kristine Lilly, United States -- The most experienced international player of either gender, with 255 caps, she is nine goals away from the 100th of her international career. Lilly has played in all three previous World Cups and played every minute of the United States’ six games on the way to the 1999 title, averting a loss in the championship game by heading a shot by a Chinese player off the goal line in overtime.
Bettina Wiegmann, Germany -- Bouncing back from injuries that cut short her WUSA career, “Ms. Reliability” has led the Germans to the last three European Cup Championships and scored a memorable goal against the United States in the 1999 World Cup quarterfinals.