Sport

NEW WORLD ORDER

The evolution and revolution of women’s soccer is being broadcast right before our eyes

The evolution and revolution of women’s soccer is being broadcast right before our eyes
Alexandra Popp of Germany misses a chance at goal during their World Cup clash with Colombia at Sydney Football Stadium on 30 July 2023. (Photo: Zhizhao Wu / Getty Images )

The landscape of women’s soccer has shifted in front of those watching the World Cup Down Under. New powers are emerging, new stars too. But off the field there remains a gap between the established and the rising nations.

If the ongoing Fifa Women’s World Cup has taught keen observers anything, it’s that the gap has narrowed between nations that are the pioneers, powerhouses and trendsetters of the game, and those that are still rising.

The quadrennial global showpiece is celebrating 32 years since its inception. The 2023 edition, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, is the ninth.

Whereas previous tournaments have largely followed the script of established nations shining while the minnows serve as ATMs that dish out three points with ease, this year the so-called smaller nations are fighting back.

“The top 10 have always been there. The world that is catching up is Wales, is Vietnam, is Zambia, Portugal,” USA head coach Vlatko Andonovski warned before the tournament.

Turning tide

As evidence of this, Germany, who have won two of the previous eight World Cups, were bundled out in the group stages, despite being favourites to win their group with ease.

The Germans finished third in their group, pipped to qualification by Colombia and World Cup debutants Morocco. 

The latter also came into the tournament as the lowest-ranked side. But that counted for little as they showed great tenacity to reach the round of 16 with two wins from their three group matches.

Brazil, who were runners-up in 2007, suffered the same fate as they were edged to the two qualification spots in their group by fellow powerhouse France, as well as an unfancied Jamaican side that had to crowdfund just to ensure their participation in the tournament.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Netherlands down Banyana Banyana to end SA’s World Cup magical march

In Group B, co-hosts Australia and the reigning Olympic champions in women’s soccer, Canada, were tipped to fight it out for the two knockout qualification spots. But only the former lived up to the billing.

The Canadians, on the other hand, were relegated to third place in the mini-league and early elimination from the tournament. They were edged to the runner-up spot in the group by record African champions Nigeria.

Then the world was also captivated by the guile of the South Africans, who managed to climb out of a tough group consisting of perennial World Cup dark horses Sweden, as well as Italy and Argentina, who are ranked comfortably above South Africa’s 54th spot.

Banyana, in just their second World Cup, displayed great improvement from their debut in 2019 where they lost all their matches and finished bottom of their group.

In 2023, they were one of the surprise packages to qualify for the round of 16, before being eliminated in a 2-0 loss to the runners-up of four years ago, the Netherlands.  

women's world cup Morocco

Khadija Er-Rmichi and Fatima Tagnaout of Morocco celebrate advancing to the World Cup knockout stage by defeating Colombia 1-0 at Perth Rectangular Stadium on 3 August 2023. (Photo: Paul Kane / Getty Images)

“Anyone can beat anyone on any day,” said England defender Jess Carter in the build-up to the tournament. “Obviously, we are constantly improving [as a team]. But the quality of international teams now is also just getting better and better.

“The World Cup is so open for so many teams to go and win. Everyone wants to be challenging for the same thing.”

She’s been proven right emphatically. In fact, the reigning champions of Europe, England, were fortunate to hold off Nigeria in their round-16 clash. The contest ended 0-0 after 120 minutes of back-and-forth action.

The English ultimately emerged victorious via the lottery of penalties, winning 4-2 to book a quarterfinal spot. However, they won’t soon forget how they were made to toil by the Africans.

Unless Japan repeat the heroics of 2011, where they joined the exclusive club of World Cup winners, a new nation will have its name engraved on the World Cup trophy.

The USA, who have clinched four of the eight previous World Cups, and were bidding for a historic hat-trick of gold medals at the showpiece, have since been eliminated as well.

Considering that they are a team in transition, with the old guard hanging up their boots one after the other, while new stars are blooded, perhaps their early elimination was not so surprising. Especially because they were facing old foes Sweden, who still needed a 5-4 penalty victory to dispatch the trendsetters in women’s soccer.

The round-of-16 exit is the earliest the record world champions have been eliminated. In all previous tournaments, the worst the Americans had managed was a third-place finish. But they had never failed to navigate to the semifinals at least. Not in 2023.

That means, unless Japan repeat the heroics of 2011, where they joined the exclusive club of World Cup winners, a new nation will have its name engraved on the World Cup trophy.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Colombian teen powerhouse Linda Caicedo: from cancer setback to world star

In 2011, the Japanese joined the USA, Germany and Norway on the list of previous winners. Meanwhile, among the other contenders, only Sweden and the Netherlands have reached a final.

The likes of France, England, Spain and co-hosts Australia are looking to break new ground.

Bright future

When the governing body of global soccer, Fifa, announced an expansion from 24 teams in 2019 to 32 in 2023, sceptics felt the World Cup product would be diluted.

They felt that the newcomers would be trampled by the more established nations of Europe and the Americas. However, that proved not to be the case and each participating team will walk away from the tournament having learnt extensively for the 2027 spectacle.

Certainly, the predicted scorelines of 13-0 have not materialised. Generally, matches have been closely contested. With time and experience, this gap will continue to narrow.

 

 

Prize money, team preparation funds and compensation to players’ clubs have also tripled since 2019. While local federations can still do much more to help their players, the progress and a shift in mindsets are rising by the day.   

“The game has evolved,” former USA star Carli Lloyd told Reuters.

“There’s been more resources, more support, more coverage, more investment. And a lot of these teams that have been playing in their first World Cup, as a debutant, have really taken it more seriously and had that support.”

Nevertheless, there remain concerns that some nations play only a fraction of the games that some of the established powers manage in a year. Add to that the fact that some of those smaller nations still have amateur or semi-professional leagues at best, and the gap is even wider. On paper at least.

On the field, the so-called minnows have shown that they can mix it up with the best in the world. In four years they will be ready to do it once more. Hopefully, by that time they’ll be in an even better position to execute this. DM

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