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Who will set the Fifa Women’s World Cup alight?

Who will set the Fifa Women’s World Cup alight?
From left: Alexandra Popp, Asisat Oshoala, Alexia Putellas, Marta Vieira da Silva and Sam Kerr. (Photos: BackpagePix/Gallo Images)

Kick-off is just days away and it’s time to take stock of the favourites and likely stars of the keenly awaited 2023 tournament.

Though South Africa’s expectations at the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup are modest, there are nations who have a weight of expectation firmly on their shoulders and are vying for gold.

Here’s  a look at those teams and some of the tournament’s star players.

Tournament favourites

The US

Four years ago, in France, the US became the third team to defend a World Cup successfully since World War 2, joining the Brazilian men (in 1962) and the German women (in 2007).

Vlatko Andonovski’s squad has maintained an uninterrupted six-year perch atop the Fifa rankings and head into this year’s World Cup as narrow favourites. However, the Americans’ pursuit of an unprecedented third successive world title has been anything but straightforward amid a tumultuous generational transition.

The Americans were compelled to retool their roster after a lacklustre bronze-medal finish with a veteran-heavy squad at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There, their once-swashbuckling attack struggled for ideas in the final third, despite ample time on the ball.

The US have won four World Cups and have never finished worse than third in the tournament. They have added four Olympic gold medals along the way.

With the once-yawning gap with their rivals growing ever narrower, this showpiece promises to be their stiffest test to date.

England

England travel Down Under as 2022 European Championships winners, intent on global domination. Crucially, Sarina Wiegman’s side understand the perils of more haste, less speed and will remain patient as they endeavour to conquer the world.

They also harbour few fears about shape shifting from their preferred 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations. When, during the Euro quarterfinal against Spain, England looked close to defeat, Wiegman switched to 3-4-3 and was rewarded with a watershed victory.

Additionally, it helps that the Lionesses’ Dutch coach and her influential assistant, Arjan Veurink, are no slaves to philosophy and happily tailor the team’s style and tactics to opposition strengths and weaknesses.

Germany

Two-time world champions Germany’s self-confidence, which was lost for a short time, is back. After quarterfinal defeats at the 2017 Euros and the 2019 World Cup, the Germans were no longer considered a powerhouse. That changed at Euro 2022, when they reached the final.

However, there was trouble before this summer’s training camp, with Germany not always convincing in warm-up matches. Recently they went down to Zambia in a World Cup preparatory fixture.

Nevertheless, national coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg is not worried, probably because the situation was similar before last summer’s European Championship. She said: “I’m still relatively relaxed because I have great confidence in our players.”

Spain

Spain enter their third World Cup firmly established as a global force. La Roja have become a permanent fixture in the top 10 of the world rankings. The team travels to Australia and New Zealand optimistic of a deep run in the tournament, despite recent major upheaval in their setup.

Late last year, 15 of Spain’s regulars walked away from the national side in protest against head coach Jorge Vilda and his backroom team. This forced Vilda to turn to players further down the pecking order. Since then, a reshaped and eager group is pulling in the same direction.

After a turbulent few months, Spain have successfully relaid the foundations of their side. They welcome back three rebels: Mariona Caldentey, Ona Batlle and Aitana Bonmatí – as well as star Alexia Putellas.

Players to watch

Sam Kerr (Australia)

There are few, if any, superlatives left to describe the goalscoring phenomenon that is Sam Kerr. The striker is in the form of her life. She is coming off the back of a goal-laden, double-winning season with Chelsea, during which she claimed a host of individual accolades.

She holds the Australian record for international goals – her 63rd helped down England earlier this year in her 120th international appearance – and such is her importance to the Matildas there is a sense she carries the hopes of the co-host nation on her shoulders.

Alexia Putellas (Spain)

The 29-year-old is Spain’s undoubted star. This World Cup presents a golden opportunity for the midfielder to shine with the world watching.

Last summer, Putellas was robbed of the chance to dazzle on the big stage when an anterior cruciate ligament tear ruled her out of the Euros. Having recently returned from 10 months on the sidelines, the back-to-back Ballon d’Or winner is set to pull the strings for Spain once more.

There is a slight doubt over whether she’ll be fit from the start. A 7-0 win over Panama in a friendly in June was her first start this year, with Putellas scoring after 22 minutes.

Alexandra Popp (Germany)

Without doubt, Alexandra Popp is the most popular player in the German squad. This is partly because of her sense of humour.

The 32-year-old’s footballing qualities should not be underestimated either. You often don’t know how she scores the goals she has. Popp scored in every 2022 European Championship match until the final – in which she was crucially absent owing to injury.

In Australia, Germany’s talented team will be looking to her to work her magic once more – especially if they are to win a third World Cup.

Marta (Brazil)

A six-time winner of Fifa’s Best Player award, Marta leads the reigning South American champions in her sixth World Cup. A key figure on and off the field, she is regarded as one of the best global players of all time.

This will be her final World Cup and she would love to sign off by winning the trophy for the first time.

Her teammates have made a pact: “We are taking inspiration from what Argentina did for Messi; we want to do the same for Marta,” said fellow forward Kerolin Nicoli.

Asisat Oshoala (Nigeria)

Playing for a club of Barcelona’s stature, scoring as many goals as she does, being nominated for the Ballon d’Or and winning the African Women’s Player of the Year award four times is a strong case to be the star player of any team.

Oshoala’s speed, agility and eye for the spectacular means the Super Falcons often look to her for inspiration. That is not always a positive for the team as a whole but it does challenge the rest of the team to raise their level.

A role model off the pitch too, she has a foundation and academy for girls, seeking to create the sort of opportunities she was denied when she was growing up. She is also the first African woman to win the Uefa Champions League. DM

This article first appeared in Daily Maverick’s weekly sister publication, DM168, which is available countrywide for R29.

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