For some, it’s just the “other World Cup”. For smart football fans, it’s a great chance to catch up with the best female football players in the world on the biggest stage. “The same game, the same passion, the same emotion, different faces” could be a nice slogan for the Women’s World Cup, an event that keeps getting bigger, better and more interesting.
The 2015 edition, held in Canada, features 24 nations for the first time, 50% more than the customary, which is bound to result in some highly one-sided scores (see: Germany – Ivory Coast), but there’s no doubt that increasingly more countries are fuelling money for the women’s game and the field of candidates for the title expands on every occasion. Therefore, for almost a full month (6th June to 5th July), talented individuals will grace the stadiums of the six cities (Moncton, Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver, spanning the entire Canadian territory) hosting the tournament, and produce unforgettable moments of football on the highly polemic synthetic grass pitches approved by FIFA.
This article aims to expose the major candidates to lift the Women’s World Cup trophy, point out the other teams that may leave a mark on the tournament and, along the way, introduce the biggest stars on the game. To start, I sort out the top five contenders to claim the whole thing.
Despite becoming a powerhouse on women’s football on the last decade, the Brazilians have yet to clinch a major title, falling short on the 2007 World Cup final, to Germany, and the 2004 and 2008 Olympics (to USA).
Talent has never been a problem for the team, but the national federation understood that more had to be done in order to boast the chances of success. Therefore, they established a residency program for the national team’s players plying their trade at home, with the team training together, in Sao Paulo, through the whole year leading up to the World Cup. This method accounts for the lack of a sustainable national league on the country and improves chemistry on and off the field but there’s a slight weakness to the plan: superstar Marta (along with midfielder Beatriz), the five-times FIFA World Player of the year – and finalist in the last 11 years! – wasn’t there to prepare the competition with her teammates, which would certainly help in integrating her transcendent qualities on their style of play. It’s a problem this Brazil team faces now and then, not unlike the struggles of Lionel Messi and Argentina over the last international competitions…
Even if the Canarinhas will benefit from a pleasant group draw, facing debutants Spain and Costa Rica along with lowly South Korea, the danger is just around the corner, as the winner of group E will face, on the last 16, the runner-up of group D, highlighted by the USA and Sweden, possibly taking their journey to a premature close.
As is the norm with all of their teams, Brazil will rely heavily on the strength of the attack, with powerful striker Cristiane, she of the 74 international goals at the age of 30, once again joining forces with 29-year-old Marta to form an intimidating duo. Yet, the rest of their roster is not up to the par, with Formiga still being, at age 37 and on her sixth World Cup participation, a major component of their midfield with her tireless runs and outstanding work rate, doing justice to the nickname. Elsewhere, the adaptable midfielder/forward Andressa Alves is the only promising youngster who figures to make a real impact on the team, probably snatching a starting spot from the experienced Rosana (111 caps), and a lacking backline could be exposed by the high pressing style imposed by coach Vadao, something that was evident on last April’s 4-0 defeat to Germany.
With the Rio Olympics just a year away, the tournament can also be considered a stepping stone for a team that will be under real pressure to deliver gold. For the time being, Brazil will go as far as Marta can take them – Vadao recently said that ““Marta has the same impact on our team as Neymar does with the men’s side” – and that’s as dangerous for them as for their opponents, because she can dominate a game almost by herself and will them through the eliminatory rounds. I wouldn’t count on that, though.
The Nadeshiko defeated the USA on an unforgettable night in Frankfurt four years ago, but this time they won’t have the surprise factor on their side. Inspired by their people in 2011, just a few months after thousands of compatriots died on a terrible earthquake, Norio Sasaki’s side enjoyed a fairy-tale month, that included a shocking triumph over the hosts and tournament favourites on the quarter-finals, and a display of possession-heavy football that delighted the critics. From unknowns to recognizable figures, the 2011 World Cup brought attention to some of the team’s main stars and no other received as much laurels as the leader and Captain Homare Sawa, who left Germany as the tournament’s best player and would receive the FIFA Player of the Year award a few months later.
Sawa would resign from the national team after the silver medal conquered in London 2012 but, at age 36 and 200 caps later, she’s back for another go-around, competing in her sixth World Cup and re-joining the brilliant Aya Miyama at the heart of Japan’s midfield. The pair is essential to the tiki-taka-like approach that the Japanese have implemented under Sasaki’s guidance, relying on his players’ technical excellence and passing skills, but the team has other individuals capable of shining on the big stage.
Let’s take, for instance, defensive stalwart Saki Kumagai, who was an important piece of the championship team in 2011 and whose performances provided a ticket for Europe, specifically FFC Frankfurt. At age 24 and now representing Olympique Lyon, she’s one of the finest skippers on the women’s game.
Meanwhile, outside of Miyama and Sawa, the midfield is populated by some combination of veteran Kozue Ando, Mizuho Sakaguchi, Nahomi Kawasumi and Rumi Utsugi, who all contribute to the fluent style of play, with the attack usually reserved for Wolfsburg’s Yuki Ogimi (53 goals in 117 caps), Shinobu Ohno and Yuki Sugasawa. On the bench, a former star in their youth teams, diminutive forward Mana Iwabuchi, now 22-years-old, keeps awaiting her chance to shine on the heels of a debut season for German Champions Bayern Munich.
Together, all Japan’s players share the same trait: low centre of gravity, quick execution, intelligence and an appearance of physical fragility that tricks opponents. The Japanese will always suffer on the air and during inevitable physical confrontations against the likes of Germany or the USA, but, through commitment and team work, they’ve found a way to compete head-to-head and, with the weapons at their disposal, repeating is certainly more than a pipe dream.
The cream-of–the–crop in women’s football is coming up next, but the supremely talented French are poised to join the top of the board in short order. Actually, some would argue that they’re at that level right now and only the lack of previous international successes keeps this team a step below on the pre-tournament favourite’s rankings. Four years ago, France ended up in 4th, repeating the outcome on the 2012 Olympics, both all-time bests, but this time anything other than the podium would be a disappointment.
Indeed, the roster at the disposal of Coach Philippe Bergeroo, a former GK of the men’s national team, is stacked with skilled, matured, in-their-prime stars who have amassed experience over the last few years. Not only for the national team but also on the emerging French League, especially on the powerful Olympique Lyon and PSG, which jointly supply 18 of the 23 players called to the World Cup (four players hail from FCF Juvisy, while youngster Claire Lavogez is the lone Montpellier representative).
The main star of France’s squad is definitely Lyon’s playmaker Louisa Necib, the superb 28-year-old creator with supreme vision, technical skills and a powerful accurate shot from distance. The Marseille-native has crafted an impressive chemistry with teammate Eugénie Le Sommer, whose speed and flair make her a dangerous contributor whether she plays up top or on the wing. Gaetane Thiney creates all over the last third of the field and adds an impressive finishing touch (13 goals on the qualifiers), while 30-year-old Camille Abily is the voice of reason on the midfield when necessary.
With 58 goals in 86 caps, lengthy Marie Laure Delie is the main striker in the roster while speedy Élodie Thomis can play any attacking role needed. And we haven’t even talked about Kheira Hamraoui and Kenza Dali, recent additions that shined this season for PSG, the vice-European Champions. Anchoring Les Bleues’ behind all this firepower, there’s Amandine Henry, one of the best holding midfielders in the world, who occasionally enjoys the help of former captain Élise Bussaglia. The 28-year-old, mistake-prone, Sarah Bouhaddi is still the team’s main goalkeeper but she can count on a reliable defence line, patrolled by the imposing central presence of skipper Wendy Renard and Laura George.
Overall, France entertains the crowds with an attractive blend of football, based on high pace and fluidity, and is a deep, athletic, versatile team with few weaknesses and options that allow for different styles of play depending on the circumstances. Because of this, they’ll be a tough out for everyone, having recently beaten, for example, the two teams coming right after. A first major title can certainly be on the cards for the French.
Winner of the last three Olympic gold medals, the USA have missed out on the World title since 1999, with their closest chance to regain glory being squandered against Japan, four years ago, after the deciding penalty shootout. In 2015, with thousands of fans getting north of the border to support their team, it’s, once again, gold or bust for the United States Women’s National Team (or USWNT).
Swedish coach Pia Sundhage, who led the team from 2007 to 2012, is now at the helm of her nation’s outfit and it’s one of her former assistants, Jill Ellis, who has the ingrate task of managing a squad with so many weapons and expectations that the pressure can be overwhelming. Long known for their physical domination, fighting spirit and athleticism, the Americans had to catch up with the evolution of the game at the world scale and they’ve slowly tried to implement a style more based on possession and tactical prowess instead of long balls, exploring the space behind the opposing backlines and overpowering speed. The gamble has delivered some ups and downs, advances and setbacks, and ultimately they’ve seemed to found a fusion that adapts to this era’s needs and still reaps the best out of their players.
And what a stellar collection of talent they have, starting from the best goalkeeper in the World, Hope Solo, a player that has saved the team countless times over the years. In front of her, there’s a defence that suffered a renovation since the London 2012 tournament, with captain Christie Rampone (40 years and 306 (!) caps) yielding her centre-back place to Julie Johnston, a fiery 23-year-old who will a have long career leading the team from the backline. 30-year-old Becky Sauerbrunn has also come off the shadows to pair with Johnson, while Meghan Klingenberg snatched the left back position after developing nicely during two seasons on the Swedish League. The only mainstay is the experienced Ali Krieger, which manages the right side after missing the last Olympics.
The 37-year-old Shannon Box is well past her prime, just like Rampone, and she has also been replaced on the defensive midfielder role, which now is managed, in turns, by Carly Lloyd, a box-to-box midfielder with a knack for decisive goals (Lloyd scored the game-winning-goal in the last two Olympic finals) and Lauren Holiday, which started in the national team as a forward, then drifted to the outside of the midfield and now uses her vision, awareness and technical abilities to manufacture the attack. Even though both Lloyd and Holiday are responsible defensively and have good stamina, none is a classic holding midfielder and that can severely expose the team against other favourites for the trophy.
From super-sub in Germany to driving force of the midfield in 2015, the daring Megan Rapinoe is a key player for the Americans, with her brilliant feet producing spectacular crosses and being a threat on shots from far. The Seattle Reign star is naturally responsible for all set pieces and her imaginative game makes the difference, while another creator, winger Tobin Heat, comes off the bench oozing confidence on her touch and incredible dribbles. 26-year-old Christen Press took her time arriving on the main national team after scoring boatloads of goals in Sweden, but she’s found her niche on the right side, using an explosive stride and instincts to get to the dangerous areas and provide offense.
Press is a natural forward and had to take a back seat precisely due to the quality of the team’s strikers, starting with Abby Wambach, whose 182 international goals are a football record, and her size (181 cm) and ability on the air a rarity on the women’s game. The 35-year-old hopes to get her first World title before surrendering the lead, for good, to Sydney Leroux, the boisterous forward born in Canada, and Alex Morgan.
Fighting injuries during the last months, Morgan is not only the most marketable player on the team (and the entire female football world) but a unique piece of the puzzle, congregating strength, speed, tenacity and a deadly release in front of the goal to become the biggest single threat on the team if fit.
Such an arsenal promises to be almost impossible to stop, with the United States poised to score at will, but the defensive aspects are a major concern heading into the tournament. The Americans’ games will be entertaining and eventful but, come the decisions and close games, their defensive effort must be well calibrated or otherwise the tournament may end in disappointment.
World Champions in 2003 and 2007, European Champions (for the eighth time in a row!) two summers ago in Sweden, and shockingly dispatched in the quarter-finals of “their” tournament in 2011. The Germans have the history, the experience, the desire to avenge that setback, and a powerful squad capable of breezing through the Canadian event. Oh, and they can do so even without the services of the injured Nadine Kessler, merely the reigning FIFA Player of the Year, who misses the tournament due to a knee surgery.
With a roster constantly refreshed by the talent nurtured on the Frauen-Bundesliga, as of today probably the best women’s football league in the world, the squad, led by Silvia Neid since 2005, is a top contender every time it steps on the field and the depth on every position is enviable.
Starting on their own goal, the goalkeeper of the women’s Mannschaft is Nadine Angerer, the only goaltender (man or woman) to win the FIFA Player of the Year award (2013) and the Captain that is bound to retire at the end of the tournament. The centre-backs, Annike Krahn and Saskia Bartusiak have over 200 international caps between themselves and the full-backs available are all relatively young, yet experienced, energetic and consistent, from Leonie Maier and Jennifer Cramer (both 22-years-old) to Bianca Schmidt (25) and Tamea Kemme (23). The defence, as a whole, lacks some speed and strength, but it shouldn’t be a weak link, something the midfield won’t be either.
Lena Goessling, Kessler‘s long-time partner, both at the national team and club (Wolfsburg) level, is an excellent all-around player and versatile 28-year-old Simone Laudehr will fill for the missing piece, connecting the play with the fantastic creative force of the team, Dszenisfer Marozsan. The 23-year-old FFC Frankfurt star is a little banged-up at the start of the tournament but should recover well in time for the round-robin matches, when she will delight the crowds with her imagination, soft touch, technique and capacity to place the ball everywhere, whether through pinpoint passes or decisive shots.
And if this wasn’t enough, spearheading the attack there’s a triple threat that has combined for 124 international goals. The youngest of the trio is the versatile Alexandra Popp (24-years-old), usually deployed wide on the national team to make space for the devastating goal scoring ability of Celia Sasic and Anja Mittag, who impelled the team during the qualifiers with a combined total of 20 goals. Sasic, the striker of the current European Champions FFC Frankfurt, is coming to Canada looking to boast the numbers stamped on her next contract, after the deal with the German club expired, and Mittag, after several seasons terrorizing defences on the Swedish league, will join PSG in the fall. With a blend of physicality, terrific finishing abilities and the support of Marozsan, the German attack will run wild against the opposing defences.
On the bench, a trio of young attacking threats looms, getting ready to take a spot on the starting eleven in the near future: Midfielder Melanie Leupolz and forward Lena Lotzen, both 21-years-old from Bayern Munich, were already part of the winning squad in 2013, as was Freiburg’s winger Sara Dabritz, and their role will be even bigger this time.
The number one ranked team in the World is the top favourite on the tournament based on their amount of talent and ability to overpower every team it faces. Anything but a presence on Vancouver’s Final would be a huge surprise, and Germany has excellent chances of becoming the first country holding, at the same time, the men’s and women’s World Cup crown.
The five aforementioned teams are the top favourites to lift the Women’s World Cup but the field of strong candidates can be extended to include, at least, three more teams.
The hosts, Canada, are coming off a bronze medal in London 2012, their best result in any major event, and hope to go even further with the support of their public. Just get the USA out of their way, since the Americans have eliminated Canada every time the Reds got out of the group phase.
Christine Sinclair, the captain, inspirational leader and top goal scorer (154 goals in 224 caps) in the history of the team, is the one inevitably leading the way and the 32-year-old is absolutely essential if they plan to transform a hardworking, solid but unspectacular group into a title contender. That probably won’t happen, but Canada will cause problems with an assortment of defenders and midfielders of good quality, headlined by 19-year-old centre-back Kadeisha Buchanan. They lack creativity, though, with Sophie Schmidt has one of the few capable of helping Sinclair setting up offensive chances. 17-year-old midfielder Jessie Fleming is the biggest promise of the country’s football scene and watching her evolution will be an interesting under-the-radar treat.
Two Scandinavian nations complete the list of outside contenders, with Norway, coached by Even Pellerud, who occupied the place during the golden age of their female footballing success, the 90’s, trying to rekindle the lost magic. The Norwegian are big, athletic, have one of the most exciting strikers in the world, Olympique Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg, a 19-year-old burly prodigy, but lack explosive offensive talent and technical skills to be a real menace, even more without the injured Caroline Hansen, the dazzling 20-year-old winger from Wolfsburg. Veterans Solveig Gulbrandsen and Trine Ronning, versatile D/M Maren Mjelde and forward Isabell Herlovsen are other players to watch.
Moreover, Sweden relies on a trio of top players that is already on the wrong side of the 30’s: Nilla Fischer, a big, strong centre-back, team captain Caroline Seger, a cerebral midfielder that charges up and down the pitch, and forward Lotta Schelin, one of the most prolific strikers of the last decade, with 80 goals amassed for the national team and 203 in just 194 games over the last seven years at Olympique Lyon. The 31-year-old is tall, elusive, smart, skilled and a great finisher with her feet and head, or, in short, one of the most complete goal scorers in the women’s game. Montpellier’s Sofia Jakobsson, who exploded after scoring a hat-trick against Germany earlier this year, and fellow attacker Kosovare Asllani are also interesting players but not at the level of the three mentioned before, and, because of that, this may be Sweden’s last chance in a while at a major international title.
Dark horses (or some other teams and stars I wanted to write about and had to place somewhere):
England: A rapidly improving domestic league, boosted by the presence of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, has improved the competition provided to the best English players, but the team lacks talent to fight the top teams. Eniola Aluko, the shifty Chelsea forward, is their best player, partnering on the attack with Man City’s Toni Duggan, but she’s not a Sasic, a Morgan, or a Schelin, and the other recognizable names (Jill Scott, captain Fara Williams, Alex Scott, Karen Carney,) are just good. The Lionesses resemble Canada, but without a legend like Sinclair and the home factor.
The rest of the European contingent: Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland are all debutants and each team has its own superstar.
Frankfurt’s Veronica Boquete, the Spanish captain, has been one of the best European players for some time but never had a major nation’s tournament to shine on. It’s her opportunity and the little creative midfielder will be free to display her superb ball control with either foot, vision and poise, traits that have earned a comparison with some guy named Andrés Iniesta.
The Swiss, who have advanced past any qualifiers for the first time, like to attack a lot and their best players are, understandably, offensive starlets. Lyon’s Lara Dickenmann and Frankfurt’s Ana Maria Crnogorcevic are lynchpins in creating goal scoring chances but the true magician is Rosengard’s Ramona Bachmann, a feisty, rambunctious dynamo with off-the-charts imagination that promises to light up the synthetic fields of Canada.
Finally, the Dutch have Bayern Munich’s winger/striker Vivianne Miedema, a 19-year-old phenomenon that has already earned comparisons with…guess who…Arjen Robben (too easy!). Quick and effusive, Miedema willed a really young team (14 of the 23 players have less than 25 years) towards Canada, scoring 16 times during the qualifiers, and has already collected 19 goals in just 25 appearances with the national team. The Netherlands squad is obviously inexperienced and prone to defensive craters but the games they’ll play will surely be a lot of fun to watch.
Australia and Nigeria: These talented teams share group D with USA and Sweden, composing the proverbial Group of Death, hence one of them should go home after just three games (unless Sweden makes a real mess…). However, should they go through, a scare for a powerhouse may be in order.
The Matildas (that’s Australia, of course) are used to get to the round robin phase on international tournaments and have gifted players all over the field, forming a team capable of competing with everyone. The star is 30-year-old Lisa de Vanna and her devastating speed up front, but 21-year-old Samantha Kerr, 20-year-old Caitlin Foord (the best young player in the 2011 World Cup at age…16) and 22-year-old pigmy (154 cm..) Katrina Gorry are youngsters to watch on an explosive team that’s ranked 10th in the World. Meanwhile, Kate Gill, the Aussie’s all-time leading scorer, was left out of the roster for the event because coach Alen Stajcic thought he had better options…
Nigeria is, by far, the best African team and it’s built around the players that lost the under-20 World Cup finals of 2010 and 2014. As usual with the continent’s representatives, the roster is electric, fast and intense but lacks tactical knowledge, which can doom their chances, even if some of their best players already play abroad. Forwards Francisca Ortega (Washington Spirit, USA) and Desire Oparanozie (Guingamp, France) are two examples but none is close to the level of 20-year-old Asisat Oshoala, an unstoppable force after picking up speed with the ball.
The Liverpool player won the BBC Women’s Player of the Year award recently, and last year stormed through the youth World Cup, gathering the Golden Ball and Golden Boot, returning now to Canada to lead a team that will thrive on quick counter attacks.