This year’s field expanded from 24 to 32, and with 19 teams already qualified (including the World Champion), there are still 13 spots waiting for wins. One of these finished berths belongs to the US women’s team, which will claim an unprecedented three peat title and a fifth title overall.
While it will take until February to see the entire stadium (after an Intercontinental playoff for the last three berths), the tournament draw will continue to take place in October. This draw will provide more clarity on the paths each country must take to lift the trophy, but in the meantime, there are plenty of story lines to follow over the next 12 months that will shape how things play out under them.
Expanding to 32 teams is a huge step forward for the women’s game, matching 32 of the men’s World Cup features (at least until its expansion to 48 in ’26). One of the main outcomes is that it will put more pressure on everyone in the group stage – there will be no chance for third place to advance, and half of the field will be eliminated before the Round of 16 instead of a third. He. She. While middle and lower tier teams will feel the majority of the effects of this change, it also means that higher tier teams don’t have the breathing space they once had in the event of a serious early slip.
There will likely be growing pains and some lopsided group stage margins in both this cycle and the next (many likely haven’t forgotten the 13-0 loss the US put on Thailand three years ago), but the hope is that the larger field – plus To the doubled prize pool for 2019 – it will lead to more associations investing in women’s teams.
Alexia Putellas injury
If the 2019 World Cup is Spain’s appetizer as a contender on the big stage, ’23 will be its main course – at least, assuming it’s in full force. That assumption became even more murky this month when star midfielder Alexia Putillas tore her ACL and underwent surgery, and faces an estimated 10-12 months to return to the field. The 28-year-old is the winner of the FIFA Women’s Ballon d’Or and Best Player, having led the Champions League in scoring last season and propelling Barcelona to their first women’s Champions League title in 2021. Alexia is Spain’s skilful hub . The team that climbed to No. 7 in the FIFA rankings, entered this month hoping to deliver on its promise of a stunning performance in the Eurozone.
While Alexia’s loss in the tournament came as a severe blow to Spain, it would be even more devastating to their World Cup prospects if they were left on the sidelines. The good news for the midfielder and La Roja is that she has a full year to rehab, and the team has already qualified for the World Cup. The bad news is that ACL recovery windows can vary, and many players need an adjustment period upon return to return to their previous form. Coach Jorge Velda will likely gladly accept any contributions Alexia can make to next summer’s roster, whether as a super start or a full start. But if she wasn’t at her best, would Spain be?
Is England back?
The last time England were on the stage of the World Cup, they were on their way to competing with the United States in what was arguably the championship game’s semi-final battle. Given the talent of the young and emerging lionesses, it seemed that they were only willing to build from there. But this crushing loss inadvertently marked a turning point – the team under former coach Phil Neville rallied until the pandemic hit, at which point Neville announced he would be stepping down in 2021 and the FA hired Netherlands coach, Sarina Wiegmann, effective September. Meanwhile, Haig Rice coached the Great Britain team at the Olympics, as a group largely made up of England’s players withdrew in the quarter-finals.
Wiegman’s era, though, got off to a great start, seemingly correcting the ship’s course just in time as England head towards European glory as they eye 2023. -0-2 under Wiegman, including impressive margins against the Netherlands (5- 1) and Norway (8-0). A first women’s Euro title in the country is no guarantee though, not with teams like Germany, France, Sweden and others on the way. The nominees have been largely successful so far in the event, and it’s a reminder that the continent will be sending many top contenders down under next year. Although England have not yet officially qualified for the World Cup, it will almost certainly end in September.
Can Australia assemble it under Gustafson?
Hosting the World Cup for the first time should be a dream come true for Australia and New Zealand, but what would make things even sweeter if they could give home fans something to cheer on on the field. While the Football Ferns face long odds of making any real waves next summer, Matildas is an interesting case. Five years ago, Australia were at their highest point in the FIFA Women’s Ranking (No. 4), and that summer they caught everyone’s attention with their victory at the United States-hosted Nations Championship. Matilda’s team looked like a rising force that could challenge both the World Cup and Olympic gold in the upcoming cycle, but a sudden change in training a few months from the previous finally paved the way for a disappointing exit in 2019.
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In response, the union hired former USWNT assistant Tony Gustafson as coach, and several players (including world-class striker Sam Kerr) made a pivotal decision for the club, leaving both the NWSL and W League and signed to WSL in England. Not only did it offer a different challenge, but it also provided a running calendar structure that was less prone to fatigue. Although they came in with lower expectations, Australia fared better at the Olympics last summer, defeating Great Britain and reaching the bronze medal match, where they fell to the United States.
Now, the country is going through a pivotal stage with many of its main characters reaching their prime. Kerr turns 29 next summer, and no one will be sure to miss what could be her best major slam yet. Gustafsson felt the need to build depth and look to the future, and called up on the untested youth roster for two friendlies in June. While it showed up in results as expected (including a 7-0 baton by Spain), experiment along the line could help. However, the year is not very long, and the average team needs consistency and some defensive consistency if they are to compete for the trophy at home.
Will injuries continue to wreak havoc on the landscape?
It has been a difficult year for the health of many prominent footballers. In addition to Alexia, the list of notable ACL tears in 2022 includes Marta (Brazil), Marie Antoinette Catuto (France) and American majors Kristen Press, Catarina Macario and Terna Davidson (the U.S. also lost Lynne Williams at the end of the season to a leg injury). With the World Cup over a year later, we are now at the point where any major injury will put a player’s status (or at least his ability to be 100%) in the tournament into question. As we move into fall and winter, a single injury can knock someone out of the World Cup picture altogether. The frequency of this year’s big setbacks has surely made many fans wonder who could be next.
Another health factor to consider? COVID-19, which affected this month’s European Women’s Championship (Dutch’s Vivian Miedema, Germany’s Lea Schuler and Wegmann are among those sidelined with a positive test) and continues to boycott domestic leagues such as the NWSL. With FIFA approving 26 players for its roster (up from 23) for this year’s men’s World Cup, it stands to reason that the same could end up with the women’s progression.
At the moment, we have no idea how far the virus will spread in a year – or what regulations host countries will apply regarding entry. While Australia recently suspended COVID-19 vaccination entry requirements for international travelers, New Zealand has not. If that continues until next July, teams will have to make decisions about bringing in non-vaccinated players who can only play in Australia-based matches (each round during the semi-finals contains at least one New Zealand game). We have seen that vaccination requirements seriously affect other sports; Will women’s football be next?
Who’s on, what’s yet to be decided
The 19 nations that have qualified so far will be joined by three South American nations later this month. Five European nations will join the field in the international window in September, and two more will qualify via the UEFA play-off in October. After that, three final berths will be left, which will be decided in a unique 10-team playoff in New Zealand in February.
The stadium consists of two teams from Asia (Chinese Taipei and Thailand), Africa (Senegal and Cameroon), CONCACAF (Panama and Haiti), South America and one team from Oceania and UEFA, which is divided into two sections of three teams. The arc is one of the four teams. The winners each time qualify for the World Cup.
As for the countries present so far, they are (the current FIFA ranking in parentheses):
Hosts: Australia (12), New Zealand (22)
UEFA: Sweden (2), France (3), Spain (7), Denmark (15)
CONCACAF: United States (1), Canada (6), Costa Rica (37), Jamaica (51)
Adequate: Nigeria (39), South Africa (58), Morocco (77), Zambia (103)
Asian Football Confederation: Japan (13) China (16), South Korea (18), Vietnam (32) and the Philippines (53).
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