The Women’s World Cup, which opens this week, is the largest in its 32-year history, but it may also be the most open stadium the tournament has seen.
While much of the 32 teams based in Australia and New Zealand may have modest ambitions for the coming month, it is no exaggeration to say that nearly half of the field could see themselves as serious title contenders. (Some are more accurate than others). These ten countries are the most likely to survive all the way to the end.
Two things can be true at once. By common consensus, Vlatko Andonovski’s team arrived in New Zealand as heavy favorites to win the tournament. He has the aura of experience, the dazzling shock of youth, and the solid foundation of talent to lift a third consecutive World Cup. It has a psychological advantage, too: it has been the superpower in the game for so long that respect can appear as awe.
At the same time, the undisputed sovereignty that the United States has enjoyed for more than a decade has never been more fragile. There is a risk that this group will fail the Goldilocks test: some players are too big, some are too young, and so maybe none of them are right. The major countries of Europe have closed the gap. Within a month last year, the Americans lost to England, Spain and Germany. The United States has the team that will emerge as the champion. But for the first time in some time, she’s not alone in this.
The expectation is still heavy for England under Sarina Wegman. The Lionesses won the European Championship on home soil last summer, the team’s first major honour, and followed that up with victory in the Finalissima – a match between the European and South American champions – earlier this year. Winning the World Cup would be the natural outcome of a trajectory that has been on a steep upward curve for 10 years.
Fate, however, may intervene. Wegman lost her captain, Lea Williamson. its most creative player, Fran Kirby; and her strongest attack threat, Beth Mead, to get injured. Millie Bright joined the team but is still, strictly speaking, recovering from knee surgery. Wiegmann is a coach skilled enough – and has enough talent at her disposal – to hide those losses. But she will do it quickly.
It’s hard not to see the co-host being less “Australia” and more “Sam Kerr and His Guests”. At 30, Chelsea striker Kerr may very well be the best player in the world. She is a totem for her country. She is the face of heroism, the person expected to deliver what she referred to as “Cathy Freeman moment. She is the star on whom Australia’s hopes have been pinned.
This assessment is not entirely correct. Largely drawn from the major leagues in Europe and the NWSL in Kaitlin Forward, Hayley Raso and Alana Kennedy, Tony Gustafson’s team is a solid support team. Its momentum is big, too: Australia have won eight of their last nine matches, including a historic victory over England. Kerr will have to give birth, of course, but she is far from alone.
In 2019, the Dutch have emerged as the standard-bearers for Europe’s next powerhouse, as the herald of the game-changing power base. They failed miserably, losing to the United States in the final. Since then, progress has been erratic, as they lost Wegman, who left to coach England, before losing in the quarter-finals of last summer’s European Championship.
Still the core of the team that reached the final four years ago – Daniel van de Donk, Jackie Groenen, Gil Roord and Lek Martens – the Dutch have the talent to run deep again. Two things stand in their way: the injury absence of striker Vivian Miedema and an unfortunate group stage draw. The Dutch encountered the Americans early on. Defeat in that game would likely mean a tougher road for the remainder of their stay.
The Canadians have had precious little impact on the final rounds of the World Cup in the past two decades, extending their stay beyond the first knockout round just once. But even that, on home soil in 2015, only lasted until the quarter-finals.
In many ways, it’s hard to see that change this time around. Christine Sinclair is 40 years old; Janine Piqué on the outside, another victim of the ACL epidemic in women’s football; Canada won only one of their last five matches and were drawn into the same group as Australia. But there is a resilience to this team that should not be underestimated: It’s only been two years, after all, since Canada—just as ignored then as now—won gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
On some level, Brazil’s stay at this World Cup will be seen as Marta’s farewell tour: the sixth and (probably) final tournament turned out to be a lap of honor for the 37-year-old some consider the best of all time.
It’s definitely hard to believe that she’ll end up with Marta repeating Lionel Messi’s trick and finally winning the honor that means more to her than anything else. The Brazilian national team is not as strong as previous editions, and none of them has been strong enough to beat the great powers in North America and Europe either. However, in Pia Sundhaag, Brazil has a skilled and skilled coach, and the likes of DiBenha, Kerolin and Jesse Marta may not have to bear the burden alone.
More than anyone else – even England – Spain should be the biggest threat to the US crown this summer. After all, its national team is largely based on the Barcelona team that has become the dominant force in European football. Alexia Potellas, while likely never fully recovered from the knee injury that kept her out of last year’s European Championships, is the World Player of the Year. Spain only lost once a year.
The problem is that Spain has been mired in a civil war between players and the country’s football federation since last summer. Despite the call for an uneasy truce – allowing some of the 15 players who called for the sacking of the coach, Jorge Vilda, to return – the effects are still being felt. There are still ten players missing, and Vilda must find a way to instill team spirit in a team made up of the rebels and their replacements.
The Spaniards may have been less than perfect preparations for a major tournament, but the glory of the French gave them a run for their money. Corinne Diacre, a longtime coach who had lost the confidence of a large number of her players, was finally ousted in March. She was replaced by Hervé Renard, a world-class trotting instructor with some notoriety but no experience in the women’s game.
He has, at least, brought some familiar faces back into the squad: Wendy Renard and Cadidiato Diagne, both of whom had refused to play under Diacre, returned. Amandine Henry, an experienced midfielder, was also called up to suffer a calf injury that would rule her out of the tournament. France’s hopes depend, now, on the new coach’s ability to bring out the best in the team he has just faced.
If anything is ever certain about this tournament, it is that the Germans will reach the quarter-finals. In eight attempts, they’ve never failed to do so, and with a nice group draw – Morocco, Colombia and South Korea – there’s little reason to think they won’t reach the last eight again.
Whether coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg can guide her team any further is open to question. Germany possesses a well-balanced squad – two fine goalkeepers, the strength of rising star Lena Oberdorf, the creativity of Lina Magull, the goals of Svenia Huth and Alexandra Popp – and finished as runners-up at last summer’s European Championship. But his form fluctuates: he lost to Brazil and Zambia in the past two months and just beat Vietnam in a warm-up match last month.
Nobody thinks of Sweden. Sweden may have one silver and three bronze medals to show in the previous eight World Cups, and may be a reliable force at the European Championships, but the operating assumption has always been that Sweden is not a true contender.
It’s worth noting, then, that Sweden not only has the likes of Fridolina Rulfo, Stina Plakstenius and Hana Bennison, but reached the semi-finals at last year’s Euros, edging away from the United States on the way. To the Olympic final two years ago. Sweden is a threat. But no one ever thinks of Sweden.