The Most Interesting Thing About China’s Plan to Relentlessly Foul Germany: It Nearly Worked

Giulia Gwinn of Germany battles for possession with Haiyan Wu of China
Giulia Gwinn of Germany battles for possession with Haiyan Wu of China during Saturday’s match.
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Germany’s 1-0 win over China at the Women’s World Cup on Saturday was that the game finished with only 26 fouls.

France and South Korea on Friday had 22 total, split evenly between the two teams. But those fouls were largely insignificant, the polite and expected collateral damage of a one-sided game, where one team is lunging desperately to halt a superior attack and the other has so much control that the easiest way to prevent counterattack chances is sometimes just to knock down the person running with the ball.

China-Germany was not one of those games. It was ruthless, full of high boots and heavy tackles and wincing spectators (at least on one couch that I know of). The play led to some unconventional rooting interests by game’s conclusion:

China committed 19 fouls and received four yellow cards, and that was more or less by design. The game’s shape arose from the team’s clear plan to destroy Germany’s rhythms and harass, annoy and, failing that, just knock over German players any time their offense began to look dangerous. China hoped to keep the Germans discombobulated enough to steal a goal for itself.

And the strategy nearly worked. The German center backs looking unprepared at moments, including this best series of Chinese chances right before halftime.

Germany began to respond in kind and was probably fortunate to get away with only seven fouls and one yellow card. At least one Oscar winner thought so:

Germany missed on a couple of chances early, but spent much of the game looking far less fluid and dangerous than you would expect from the world’s No. 2 team. The Germans finally put away the game on just about their only chance where China failed to get a body on or in front of the ball. Giulia Gwinn’s shot in the 66th minute scooted just under the raised leg of China’s Yang Li and into the far side of the net.

Time will probably sand off the rough edges, and the fouls will be remembered as numbers on the stat sheet and not cleats to the leg or rugby tackles. People will recall Germany’s narrow win, and not necessarily how close China’s gambit came to working. Twenty-six fouls. That’s a lot, but is it too many?