Strong Field Battles For Women’s WCup

U.S. players celebrate after blanking Belgium last month in preparation for the World Cup.
PHOTO BY KATHARINE LOTZ GETTY IMAGES

Merle Thorpe

France will host the eighth quadrennial Wom­en’s World Cup this summer with the kick-off match June 7 in Paris and the final July 7 in Lyon. Twenty-four national squads will compete, with the initial four-team group play eliminating eight countries. The final 16 teams will then be bracketed into knockout matches.

In the previous seven WCs, the US has won three times (1991, 1999 and 2015) and the Ger­man women twice (2003 and 2007). Norway (1995) and Japan (2011) grabbed one title apiece. While France, ranked #3 in the world by FIFA, should get a boost as hosts, the home-field advantage has not consistently tipped the balance.

Only one host country has ever won the Women’s WC (the US in 1999) and twice the hosts came up short in front of their friendly fans—and both times they were the defending WC champs: the US ended up third as hosts in 2003; and Germany, playing at home, failed to make the final four in 2011.

Perhaps the French women will feed off an emotional lift similar to what fueled Japan’s stunning victory in 2011 just three months after the country was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami. While the destruction last month of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral can’t be compared to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in terms of loss of life or financial cost, the hit to the country’s psyche could be a motivator. We’ll see.

The 2019 field includes all of FIFA’s top-10 ranked teams, so no realistic contender has been left at home. Following are the six groups with teams, their FIFA rankings, and those likely to emerge to make a run for the trophy.

Group A: France (4), Norway (12), South Korea (14), Nigeria (38).

France’s highest WC finish was fourth in 2011 (and fifth in 2015), but 2019 could be the year. Not only are the French hosts but also they are entering the tournament on a bit of a roll, having won eight of their last nine international matches and outscoring opponents 31-4. That stretch includes a 3-1 victory over the US women in January (as well as wins vs. Australia and Japan). Midfielder Gaëtane Thiney (age 33) and striker Eugénie Le Som­mer (29) have been explosive scorers for the team and are now joined by striker Valérie Gauvin (22) who has averaged better than a goal per game at the international level.

Group B: Germany (2), Spain (13), China PR (16), South Africa (49).

The pinnacle of Germany’s national wom­en’s soccer came with back-to-back WC titles; in 2003 the team won each of its matches and in 2007 it did not allow a goal. With the tournament to be held in Germany in 2011, the ‘National Eleven’ were atop international soccer. But it turned out the squad was getting long in the tooth and a rebuilding period followed. That has culminated in the strong squad Germany will bring to France this summer, with just a single player more than 29 years old. Team captain is Alexandra Popp (28), an experienced striker who has netted 45 goals in her 95 caps; and Dzsenifer Marozsán, a Hun­garian born midfielder who controls the attacking half of the field and can score herself.

Group C: Australia (6), Brazil (10), Italy (15), Jamaica (53).

While Brazil boasts a storied name in soccer, has qualified for every women’s WC and has the greatest player of all time, its WC results have been ho-hum: one second- and one third-place finish. In 2019 it’ll be a question of which Brazil shows up: the team that breezed through qualifiers undefeated or the one that has failed to win in its last nine matches, all against WC competitors. Still, there will be Marta to watch. At 33 this may be her swan song, but she’ll still be among the most captivating players in France.

Australia’s story may be less compelling but the Female Socceroos can’t be overlooked. In the past year they have bested Brazil, Ja­pan and South Korea among other WC 2019 squads. Led by 34-year-old player/coach Lisa De Vanna—among the world’s all-time great soccer players—and striker/midfielder Sam Kerr (25), the Matildas have pushed their way into FIFA’s Top-10 and want to prove they belong.

Group D: England (3), Japan (7), Scotland (20), Argentina (37).

In February and March, England got past the US, Brazil and Japan to win the 2019 She­Believes Cup invitational tournament. For a team without a history of great success in international tourneys, SheBelieves was a huge confidence builder. The team’s strength is defense, with a back line anchored by veteran captain Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze, an aggressive defender who makes the offense better.

Japan followed up its WC championship in 2011 with a run to the title match in 2015, albeit a 5-2 loss to the US. After its usual qualifying in the Asian Confederation, Japan’s friendlies have been a mix: wins against Nor­way and Brazil, ties with the US and Ger­many and losses to France and England. But a return to the final four will surprise no one.

Group E: Canada (5), Netherlands (8), New Zealand (19), Cameroon (46) 4.

Canada was host of the 2015 WC and its sixth-place finish was a bit of a disappointment. But the team is back among the world’s elite and hasn’t lost a match in 2019. Also back is their all-everything captain, forward Christine Sinclair, who will be starring in her fifth WC. At 35 years old she is still one of the best players in the world and always dangerous with 180 goals scored in 280 international matches. Forward Janine Beckie (24) is scoring almost a goal every other match.

Group F: USA (1), Sweden (9), Thailand (34), Chile (39).

The US is the favorite to win Group F as well as the WC. Coach Jill Ellis’s squad is loaded but no one expects a cakewalk to the WC title as matches during the past four months have indicated. The US women lost to France and had draws with England and Japan in the SheBelieves Cup. The depth of talented wom­en’s teams around the world is growing and the top dozen teams in France won’t be pushed around.

Sweden is part of that depth with a veteran team that has made it to the WC semifinal round three times, but never taken the title. Perennially among the world’s elite teams, the Swedes have dropped a bit to the 8-10 range the past few years but usually play the US tough: in their last three encounters vs. the USWNT, Sweden has tied 0-0, won on PKs and lost 1-0. Midfielder Carolina Seger, both a playmaker and scorer, leads the team.