On Friday evening, the eighth FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off in Paris when France face South Korea. Just the second edition to feature an expanded 24-team format, the World Cup will see the globe’s best female footballers compete across nine cities over four weeks. Will the Americans continue their dominance of women’s football? Can the English go one better than their male counterparts and reach the final? What spills and thrills await in France?
The Americans won the first- and third-Women’s World Cup, before a trophy drought saw them fall short for three consecutive tournaments. That barren run ended in 2015 and the USA are currently top of the FIFA rankings. A quick glimpse at their 23-woman squad list demonstrates why – led by Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd, the United States have at their disposal some of the top talent in the world. It would be a big surprise if the Americans aren’t contesting the final in Lyon on July 7.
Their world number two ranking belies a challenging period since Die Nationalelf won the 2016 Olympics. They failed to make the semi-finals at the 2017 Euros and 15 months ago finished last at the prestigious SheBelieves Cup. That poor run prompted a coaching change, with former German international and one-time Switzerland manager Martina Voss-Tecklenburg taking the helm. In Dzsenifer Marozsán, Germany have one of the best playmakers in the world. But it remains to be seen whether the misfiring Germans can rediscover their rhythm.
After a challenging start to his tenure (thanks in part to his Twitter history), Phil Neville has settled into the managerial role with the Lionesses. They qualified with aplomb – conceding just one draw as they marched to France undefeated – and won the SheBelieves Cup. Ambitions are justifiably high, and after reaching the final four at the 2015 World Cup and 2017 Euros, the Lionesses are a realistic chance of winning their first-ever World Cup.
Despite benefiting from a core of Lyon players, recent winners of the Champions League for a fourth year in a row, Les Bleues have failed to convert domestic success into international glory. France lost to England in the quarter-finals of the 2017 Euros, and were knocked out by Canada at the same stage of the 2016 Olympics. But with a new captain (industrious midfielder Amandine Henry) and home nation support, the French women will be hoping to match the 2018 heroics of their male counterparts.
World number six Australia, nicknamed the Matildas, have long coveted a deep run on the global stage. The Aussies have reached the quarter-finals at three consecutive World Cups and at the 2016 Olympics. Stacked with talent, including Sam Kerr – one of the best forwards in the world – the Matildas were looking on track for a successful tournament until they abruptly sacked their coach Alen Stajcic in late 2018.
Rumour and innuendo followed, with reports of misconduct and a toxic environment. Last week Football Federation Australia settled with the former manager, complete with a grovelling apology (from them to him). But whether the team can now put the off-field distractions behind them under new manager Ante Milicic is unclear.
Equality – highs and lows
After decades of pay disparity, female footballers are beginning to be remunerated on more equal terms with their male counterparts. In March Adidas announced that it will pay its sponsored players the same performance bonus for winning the World Cup that it pays male sponsored athletes. The Norwegian women, meanwhile, earn the same as their male counterparts – after the latter took a pay cut in 2017.
But progress often feels like a case of one step forward, two steps back. Last week the French Football Federation kicked out the Les Bleues from their training camp at Clairefontaine to make way for the men’s team ahead of a Les Bleus friendly against Bolivia.
French men’s soccer team has moved into the national training camp ahead of a weekend friendly, forcing the women’s squad to leave their rooms just days before the Women’s World Cup https://t.co/mqQubc0H5K #FIFAWWC pic.twitter.com/DyRjgenRHu
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) May 30, 2019
Off the pitch, Ballon d’Or winner and recent Champions League final hat-trick scorer Ada Hegerberg is boycotting the tournament – reportedly because of what she perceives as differential treatment from the Norwegian FA (albeit her grievances have not been publicly aired with much particularity). The American team remain locked in a gender discrimination litigation against the United States Soccer Federation (in a lawsuit filed, aptly, on international women’s day this year).
The World Cup shows that equality in sport has come a long way, but there remains a long way to go.
Building the hype
Germany offered an early contender for video of the tournament with this effort, highlighting the barriers still faced by female athletes. “We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names,” the players sigh. “But you do know we’ve been European champions three times, right? No? That’s because it was eight times.” The video later drops its killer line: “We don’t have balls, but we know how to use them.”
In a homage to the hard work and dedication required to succeed in women’s football, the Dutch released this hype montage – with Australian rockers Wolfmother providing a catchy backing track. Perhaps their choice of tune gave the Netherlands a psychological advantage – they subsequently thrashed Australia in a pre-tournament friendly.
— OranjeLeeuwinnen (@oranjevrouwen) May 29, 2019
It is fair to say that Nike know how to make a great football video, and their World Cup trailer is no exception. A young girl goes from player mascot to superstar in an inspiring, upbeat clip.
As the brand tweeted: “Don’t change your dream. Change the world.”
Players to watch
Mary Fowler – Australia
The Aussie’s wonderkid and youngest player at the tournament is destined for big things. After opting for the Matildas following a nationality tug-of-war with Ireland, Fowler could blaze a trail for a large family of sporting prodigies. “If they think that Mary is great, there are four other Fowlers who are coming,” Dutch coach Dwight Blackson told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Ji So-yun – South Korea
A midfield dynamo, she has long been an important player for Chelsea, having helped the Blues to two Women Super League titles and dual FA Cups triumphs. She now has the opportunity to lift her country to glory, as Korea’s “golden generation” – who won the U17 World Cup in 2010 – come of age.
Asisat Oshoala – Nigeria
“Superzee” is the shining star for African heavyweights Nigeria, who have triumphed at nine of the 11 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations. Barcelona’s Oshoala won the golden boot at the U20 World Cup in 2014 and hasn’t looked back since. If Nigeria are to progress from the group stage, it will require goals aplenty from the 24-year-old.
Kieran will be in France covering the Women’s World Cup for Paddy Power. Follow him on Twitter: @KieranPender
*All odds correct at time of posting