AWhile the national teams have adjusted to Australia and New Zealand in recent weeks, many coaches and staff have been doing what everyone else is doing and catching up on the news from the various teams to see how they are doing. That’s when an international tournament gets that enticing independence. All eyes are still on the USA, especially as this is Megan Rapinoe’s last World Cup and the side are looking to defeat her with a historic third straight win.
However, when the defending champions look around the pitch themselves, they don’t see what they used to see. Of course, there is the usual confidence, but also a certain amount of caution. The gap to the rest is not that big. With Rapinoe’s retirement, a greater era could well come to an end, as the dominant factor in women’s football over the last decade has been that USA has enjoyed a much longer-term development than the rest of football. That’s seen as particularly influential in terms of physical condition, but there’s a general feeling that European football and Australia have caught up.
England certainly wouldn’t be scared there, especially considering how they defeated the USA in that crucial game in October.
This could well be a threshold tournament. In many ways, of course, this can be used to describe almost any women’s tournament at this stage of game development. It’s evolving so fast that everyone brings something new. Historically, Australia and New Zealand will still have had a lot more than most.
It’s fittingly the biggest ever, as it features 32 teams and is taking place in two countries for the first time, at a time when footballing cultures like England are enjoying a boom in interest and Spain some of the best attended games in the world experienced . Then joy reigns in both New Zealand and Australia, with the latter host country trying to carry that emotional momentum all the way to the trophy itself. If ever there was a time to expand the tournament, it’s now.
This has still drawn the counter-argument that it has expanded too quickly and will merely create a group stage that is essentially a pre-tournament riddled with disagreements. There’s a real feeling – not least with the eight to 12 teams who genuinely believe they can do it – that the ‘real World Cup’ won’t begin until the round of 16 in August.
That’s likely a cost factor in the expansion, but the real question is whether the value outweighs it.
That could be a resounding yes, especially considering the value that cannot be measured. This is the excitement that will be felt in the participating countries, especially among the eight debutants who are reaching this level for the first time or those who are new to such a level. Put simply, new heroes and influences are born. New memories emerge. It may sound corny, but you only have to look at last summer in England to see the truth. There’s nothing quite like the excitement that comes with participating.
Ireland is almost the perfect example in this regard. They belong to an emerging middle class between the favorites and the underdogs who are mainly hoping to develop this season. There are so many banners across the country and the team has been featured regularly on TV. Imagine repeating this a few times, notably in the Philippines and Morocco. Many traditional men’s soccer cultures feel the same way. Argentina are desperate for a first win. Italy, Portugal and Denmark aim for the next step up.
This helped make the second game of the tournament perhaps the biggest event of the opening stage. Hopefully Australia-Ireland will set the tone in terms of atmosphere. As well as launching a campaign which the hosts hope will be victorious, it has also garnered keen interest from the region’s vast Irish diaspora. It has already moved from the Sydney Football Stadium to the 82,500 capacity Stadium Australia.
It’s a treat to enjoy for all sorts of reasons.
It’s also one that unintentionally hints at some of the other challenges that the specific stage of this World Cup brings.
As glorious as Australia and New Zealand are as hosts, it’s a bit unfortunate that this tournament comes at a time when Europe is investing so heavily in women’s football and so many sides across the continent are seeing themselves as winners. Your games will be far from prime time.
This indeed played a role in the unfortunate delay in broadcasting rights in Europe, although one felt that some broadcasters were cynically keen to use this pretext to downplay Fifa. Late morning and afternoon kick-offs are still great for the many children who make up the Women’s World Cup crowd due to the more diverse demographics.
However, it is not just time that is a problem. There is the gap which has resulted in Ireland being one of the few nations to claim anywhere near all of their allocations. Some sources within fan groups criticized the sales campaigns by both FIFA and the associations, arguing that they did not follow nearly the same processes as the men’s World Cup.
“Some just didn’t bother to sell tickets,” says a person in contact with them. “Others just gave the fans a few days. There was supposed to be additional impetus for a women’s tournament, but the opposite was the case. A collective failure.”
Distance has played a role in another concern. Travel is extremely expensive for associations. This has actually been mentioned in heated negotiations between the Football Association and the England team as players seek bonus payments on par with comparable elite nations in the US and Australia. Remarkably for a side that could win the entire competition, as the World Cup begins, the issue is still unresolved with Sarina Wiegman’s team merely willing to postpone talks. The players have pointed out that it just goes to show there is still a lot to struggle for in women’s football. South Africa and Nigeria faced more extreme disputes.
This is still an area where, despite all the valid criticisms in so many other areas, Fifa deserves credit. The groundbreaking requirement that every single player be guaranteed 60 percent of the prize money is both groundbreaking and, in many cases, life-changing.
It befits again a tournament that feels new and is itself enriched with rousing sporting vitality. There has never been a Women’s World Cup as open as this one. While the group stage is characterized by imbalances, the knockout stages are likely to be the polar opposite, offering an intoxicating concentration of quality and truly unpredictable matches.
USA remain the favourites, but injury problems, which have been an unfortunate subject in pre-season – with so many cruciate ligament problems – have meant they are not what they used to be. A strong Germany leads them very closely now, leading a good group of teams with the gaps between them closing. England, of course, defeated Germany in the final of Euro 2022 before beating the world champions, giving them peace of mind despite their own injury woes. Spain may be the most technically advanced team at the World Cup, France the most incredibly talented. Australia has many of those qualities and more as Sweden and the Netherlands are trying to make progress themselves.
All of this is fueled by the compelling storylines that create truly great tournaments, as well as the moments that create memories.
Rapinoe is one of the few greats to retire as Marta brings her experience to an exciting young generation of Brazilians and Canada looks to end the career of the great Christine Sinclair in a fitting way.
Alexis Putellas, meanwhile, returns for Spain determined to take charge and seize the chance of a tournament of the kind she should have had at Euro 2022 before she was sidelined through injury. The reason for this is the controversy surrounding their squad and the refusal of some players to play under coach Jorge Vilda. He may be hoping for redemption as another male coach, the charismatic Herve Renard, has become the first coach in history to take part in two World Cups in the same year. The Frenchman can take his home country much further than he did in Qatar with feared Saudi Arabia.
However, the stage for the real stars is only really being prepared. They are Putellas, Rapinoe, Sinclair, Dutch Jill Roord, French Wendie Renard, German Alexandra Popp, Swede Stina Blackstenius, American Sophia Smith, Nigerian Asisat Oshoala and – perhaps most importantly – local star Sam Kerr , all at the helm of a top-notch cast.
Some will score goals that go into the archive. Some players will amaze out of nowhere. Others will suffer mishaps and misfortunes. Few will enjoy defining individual campaigns that decide their teams’ legacy and ultimately the tournament itself.
That’s all there is to a World Cup. This one has factors like no other before. History is written in many ways. For such a grand finish, England are one of the few countries realistically dreaming of their first World Cup. The US is aiming for an unprecedented third place in a row.
Most eyes remain on the champions. More eyes than ever are on the Women’s World Cup itself.