Australia and New Zealand hosted the 2023 Women’s World Cup and provided a spectacle that showcased the upward trajectory of the game. Lesser-ranked teams impressed, the world’s best faltered and rising to the fore was an unlikely champion. Following on from the USA’s 2019 victory, the profile and significance of the tournament, both on and off the pitch, stepped up a meaningful notch for many countries.
The USA’s world-changing early exit
Speaking of 2019, let us consider the reigning champions, the US Women’s National Team (USWNT). This powerhouse of women’s football not did not make the 2023 final but failed to win a medal for the first time in the history of the competition. A round of 16 elimination to Sweden marked the US’s earliest exit in their World Cup history.
There were signs of trouble from the start. Some players refused to sing their national anthem before games, as a protest against racial injustice in the US. Their now-departed coach, Vlatko Andonovski made few substitutions at times when the USA were being outplayed, leaving standout players like Lindsey Horan, Naomi Girma and Sophia Smith woefully overshadowed.
Sometimes, it felt as if controversy was the USWNT’s extra player. Their performance during the group stages was not that of defending champions but of a team that, after years of world dominance, has now been exposed on the big stage. Defeats in 2022 to Germany, England and Spain had already quietly signified change.
This summer, the world saw that shift live on television. The Netherlands, and more notably, debutants Portugal (ranked 9th and 21st in the world respectively), were able to pass the ball effortlessly around and through the US. Their exit game against Sweden was their best performance, but it was too little, too late.
An expectant US media destroyed them throughout the tournament. When Megan Rapinoe missed during the US’s penalty shootout against Sweden, prominent US journalists such as Megyn Kelly and Michael Knowles had a notable face on which to direct blame.
It will be the last time Rapinoe wears a USWNT jersey as she announced her retirement from international competition before the tournament’s beginning. In addition, Julie Ertz announced her retirement following the team’s exit while this could be the last international games for fellow stalwarts Alex Morgan and Kelley O’Hara. Time will tell with the Olympics being a year away.
Lesser-ranked teams surprising
Jamaica, ranked 43rd, crowdfunded their way to Australia and New Zealand, becoming a prominent story across the World Cup. Their reward? Not, as predicted, a group stage exit, but a shock round of 16 appearance with the chance of reaching the quarter finals. If anyone had told them before the tournament opener that they would reach the same stage as the 4-time champions USWNT, they would surely have taken that in a heartbeat.
The Republic of Ireland, Zambia, Vietnam, Haiti, Morocco, Panama, the Philippines and Portugal made their World Cup debuts while Denmark returned after 16 years. Morocco qualified for the last 16 while Germany – another powerhouse, ranked second in the world and previous champions on two occasions – didn’t. Portugal was a goal post away from progressing to their first ever round of 16, almost knocking out the USWNT in the process.
For these nations, their runs serve as building blocks to elevate them towards future World Cup appearances. South Africa progressed at Italy’s expense, Jamaica drew against former finalists Brazil to advance and Morocco’s Nouhalia Benzina became the first player to wear a hijab at a World Cup. These things will stand the test of time and are likely to be written large in their respective history books.
England reached their first World Cup final
Following their Euro 2022 victory, much was expected of England in Australia and New Zealand. The departure of competitive teams like France, Germany and Brazil from their side of the tournament made it feel as if the team had a golden ticket to the final. And after reaching that final, a first world cup win would have cemented the Lionesses’ status in history. Even though their opponents, Spain, came out on top with a dramatic 1-0 win, the team has gone further than any England national team since 1966. Their legacy is assured.
Nonetheless, England also played some scrappy games. They may have defeated debutants Haiti 1-0, but their win was less than convincing. Thrashing China 6-1 was vintage England but the following knockout win against Nigeria could have gone either way. Quarter final and semi-final wins against Colombia and hosts Australia were expected, but the victories were not straightforward dominations. Had ball trajectories been different, we could have witnessed England being sent home with the USA from the round of 16.
Players like Lauren James, despite her red card, and the World Cup’s Golden Glove winner, goalkeeper Mary Earps, had standout tournaments under manager Sarina Weigman, herself a proven winner with the Netherlands. They displayed a professionalism that blocked out the chaos surrounding other teams, enabling a hard fought but unforgettable run to the final.
Future of the game
So the USA have been caught. It feels crazy that Spain are new champions, following their humbling 4-0 loss to Japan in the group stages. La Roja now set the standard, despite the chaos surrounding their team with 15 players missing and numerous allegations facing manager Jorge Vilda. Vilda and the Spanish team showed immense maturity to focus on the task at hand and remind fans and media that tournaments end in finals, not group stages.
England’s place in the women’s football hierarchy has been reinforced, their appearance in this year’s final coming on top of their Euro 2022 victory. The final defeat will sting the country, but we can count them to come back stronger and power towards a 2027 trophy run. The once-dominant USA are playing chase for the first time in 12 years while fellow giants Germany and Brazil will also have to go back to the drawing board to avoid repeating their nightmares of this summer.
Women’s football is now at a level undreamt of just a few years ago. The 2027 World Cup will be the most anticipated yet.