The Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand was a record-breaking tournament; It was expanded to 32 teams, with ‘smaller’ nations proving their worth; Germany, Brazil and the USA struggled as goalkeepers like Mary Earps and Zecira Musovic shone; Spain were the eventual winners
This summer’s Women’s World Cup was the biggest ever, as the international order was disrupted, goalkeepers shone, but the issues in women’s football still remain.
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Order of international football changed forever
When we look back on the 2023 World Cup in the coming years, it will be known as the tournament that forever changed the order of women’s international football.
There was some scepticism when FIFA announced the tournament would be expanded to 32 teams – but it has turned out to be a masterstroke, allowing so-called ‘smaller’ nations to make history for their countries and prove that they were not just there to make up the numbers.
Eight teams made their World Cup debuts – the Republic of Ireland, Zambia, Vietnam, Haiti, Morocco, Panama, the Philippines and Portugal – while Denmark qualified for their first World Cup in 16 years.
Morocco – the first Arab country to qualify for the women’s edition of the tournament – made history when they reached the last 16, despite being in a group with Germany, South Korea and Colombia.
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Teams such as Republic of Ireland and Haiti also proved they were tough to beat and there were also heartwarming scenes when Panama and the Philippines scored their first tournament goals.
But it wasn’t just the debutants who shone. Jamaica, featuring at only their second World Cup, reached the knockout rounds for the first time – despite needing a Crowdfunding page to help fund their trip to Australia and New Zealand.
The same too for South Africa, who captured the hearts of World Cup fans. Switzerland made it two from two in reaching the knockout rounds as well.
It proves that despite not being ranked among the women’s football elite, there are plenty of teams out there with the same amount of heart, passion and talent to hold their own on the biggest stage.
It added excitement, anticipation and memorable moments across the World Cup. Long may it continue.
Why didn’t the top nations perform?
For every positive there was for a lower-ranked nation, there were a series of shocks for those teams that were considered the favourites.
Brazil were the first, knocked out in the group stages for their earliest World Cup exit since 1995. They needed a victory in their final group game against Jamaica, but missed a slew of chances, having lost to France in the previous match.
It was a particularly sad end to a glittering World Cup career for women’s football legend Marta. No player has scored more goals at the tournament – men or women’s – than the Brazil forward (17).
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After the game, she was adamant on the positive future for the women’s game, saying: “Women’s soccer doesn’t end here. Brazilian women’s soccer doesn’t end here. We need to understand that.”
Germany also made a surprise group-stage exit for the first time. After a 6-0 win against Morocco in their opener, it looked like the two-time World Cup winners would replicate the success of reaching last summer’s Euros final.
But a shock 2-1 defeat to Colombia, followed up with a 1-1 draw against South Korea – another team who underperformed at the tournament – saw them crash out. A mix of pre-tournament injuries, system changes and a raft of star players simply not playing their best contributed.
Perhaps the biggest surprise though came with the USA’s exit. Although losing to Sweden – ranked third heading into the tournament – is nothing to be ashamed of, very few predicted that the World Cup champions would finish second in their group, let alone be knocked out before the semi-finals for the first time.
They were a post away from exiting in the final group game against Portugal and with three missed penalties in the shootout, this team in transition could not quite click together. Vlatko Andonovski has now left his role as manager.
Perhaps it was the pressure. Perhaps it was the unexpected rise of those teams they were expected to beat. Perhaps off-field issues translated onto the pitch. While none of these teams will ever be written off, they now have to adapt and improve to ensure they do not get left behind as women’s football continues to evolve.
Goalkeepers prove their worth
Goalkeepers are not always in the spotlight, but this World Cup has proven more than ever how important they are in influencing results.
England’s Mary Earps won the Golden Glove and was the Lionesses’ best and most consistent player. In almost every game, she made a tournament-saving stop.
Melchie Dumornay and Roselord Borgella in the second half against Haiti. Katrine Veje’s corner for Denmark. Ashleigh Plumptre and Asisat Oshoala against Nigeria – for which Earps was rightly named Player of the Match. Lorena Bedoya in the quarter-final.
And then, an incredible save from Jennifer Hermoso’s penalty in Sunday’s final that – while England were unable to find the net at the other end – kept the Lionesses in the game at a crucial moment.
While Earps had the best overall tournament, the best individual performance in a match came from Sweden’s Zecira Musovic against the USA, where the then-reigning champions were knocked out.
The last-16 clash was a heavyweight battle that some had predicted for the final. The USA threw everything they had at Sweden – Trinity Rodman, Lindsey Horan and Sophia Smith were just a few of the players to be denied by the Chelsea goalkeeper.
Eleven of their 22 shots were on target – Musovic saved every one. Since records began in 2011, it is a single-game record at the Women’s World Cup for a goalkeeper that kept a clean sheet. Of course, a Player of the Match award followed.
Jamaica’s Becky Spencer has also earned the same accolade. It came in the goalless draw against Brazil in their final group game and sent the Reggae Girlz into the knockout rounds. The Tottenham goalkeeper kept three clean sheets in the group stages, only beaten by Catalina Usme’s goal in the last 16.
They are just three examples of standout goalkeeping performances, with far more besides. In a sport where goalscorers often grab the headlines, it has been the No 1s who were often been the game-changers and deserve recognition.
A tournament without a stand-out star
At most tournaments, there are usually standout stars that everyone remembers.
At the 2015 World Cup, it was Carli Lloyd. In 2019, Megan Rapinoe catapulted herself to international stardom. For England at Euro 2022, Alessia Russo and Chloe Kelly became household names. As already mentioned too, Marta has become internationally renowned for her achievements at World Cups.
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But in 2023, there will not be one player that everyone will talk about for years to come, rather a group that epitomises the trends of this summer’s edition. Youngsters like Linda Caicedo, Lauren James and Salma Paralluelo have lit up the international stage on their senior debuts.
Captains like Catalina Usme and Olga Carmona came up with big goals at big moments. Alex Greenwood and Amanda Ilestedt were imperious in defence and vital in attack. Japan’s Hinata Miyazawa ended the tournament with the Golden Boot, swiftly followed by France’s impressive forward, Kadidiatou Diani.
Heading into the World Cup, Australia’s Sam Kerr was the poster girl. A superb goal against England is etched into the tournament’s history, but she did not have quite the impact she or the Matildas would have hoped as injury restricted her minutes.
In a World Cup where team togetherness has been more prevalent than ever, it’s perhaps no surprise that a collective have shone this summer.
The biggest Women’s World Cup ever
Attendance, viewing figures, reach – in almost every category, this was the biggest Women’s World Cup ever. It was expected to be such too, as the women’s game continues to grow at an exponential rate.
This was perhaps best illustrated in Australia itself, where the public have been inspired by the Matildas’ run to the semi-finals. Their match against England was the most-watched programme of any genre on Australian TV, reaching 11.15 million people with an average viewership of 7.13 million.
In the UK, the BBC reported a peak audience of 12 million viewers for Sunday’s final between England and Spain. It makes it the is the second most-watched event for the broadcaster this year after the coronation of King Charles in May. There was also a 75 per cent increase in online streaming across this World Cup compared to 2019.
The average attendance for games in Australia and New Zealand was 30,911 – up from 21,756 in France four years ago – and FIFA hailed the success of the tournament.
Chief women’s football officer Sarai Bareman said: “This momentum is unstoppable. The numbers and data and everything about this World Cup has eclipsed 2019.
“Over the past few weeks we have witnessed record-breaking crowds, significant global broadcast audiences and staggering digital metrics, highlighting the truly global impact of this ground-breaking event.”
Issues still remain despite World Cup success
While breaking records is wonderful for the women’s game, it is impossible to talk about the World Cup without recognising that the issues these players face are still as prevalent as ever.
Although Spain are World Cup champions, it comes under somewhat of a cloud. Around a year ago, 15 players declared they would no longer play under Jorge Vilda, citing issues with training and conditions in international camps.
The Spanish football association, the RFEF, stood behind the manager and have continued to back him despite player concerns. It meant that some of the world’s best players – like Sandra Panos, Mapi Leon and Patri Guijarro – who have contributed to the building blocks of Spain’s success, missed out.
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There was uproar too when Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales was pictured embracing and kissing Jennifer Hermoso on the lips during the World Cup final trophy celebrations.
Hermoso was asked about the incident during an Instagram live video following the trophy ceremony and said “I did not enjoy it”, but later defended Rubiales in quotes given to AFP by the RFEF. Rubiales issued an apology on Monday.
Spanish football expert Semra Hunter told Sky Sports News: “If she really does feel uncomfortable about it then we have to look at the wider problem here and why it is that she can’t speak up and be honest about it.
“The reactions here have been completely opposite, in terms of those that are saying it’s not too much of a big deal and others that are absolutely horrified at what they saw and are asking him to step down as the Spanish FA president.”
Beyond Spain, the challenges remain numerous. Many countries continue to fight for access to resources and the right to be paid fairly – Nigeria, Jamaica and Canada are just three examples. England are set to resume talks with the FA over player bonuses.
Zambia coach Bruce Mwape has also been accused of sexual misconduct, one allegation coming during the tournament itself.
Although the World Cup has been a success, the fight for women’s football and players is far from over and at the moment, it seems like a long while until the key issues are resolved.