The Women’s World Cup, which opens this week, is the biggest in its 32-year history, but it may also be the most open field the tournament has seen.
While plenty of the 32 teams descending on Australia and New Zealand probably have modest ambitions for the next month, it is not a stretch to say that almost half of the field might regard themselves as serious title contenders. (Some more accurately than others.) These 10 countries are the most likely to stick around all the way until the end.
Two things can be true at once. By common consensus, Vlatko Andonovski’s team arrived in New Zealand as the favorite to win the tournament. It has the aura of experience, the dazzling jolt of youth and the deep bedrock of talent to lift a third straight World Cup. It has a psychological edge, too: It has been the game’s superpower for so long that respect can manifest as awe.
At the same time, the undisputed primacy the United States has enjoyed for more than a decade has never been more fragile. There is a risk that this squad will fail the Goldilocks test: Some players are too old, some are too young, and so perhaps none are just right. Europe’s major nations have closed the gap. In the space of a month last year, the Americans lost to England, Spain and Germany. The United States has the squad to emerge as champion. But for the first time in some time, it is not alone in that.
Expectation hangs heavy on Sarina Wiegman’s England. The Lionesses won the European Championship on home soil last summer, the team’s first major honor, and followed that with a victory in the Finalissima — a game between the European and South American champions — earlier this year. Winning the World Cup would be the natural conclusion to a trajectory that has been on a steep upward curve for 10 years.
Fate, though, has intervened. Wiegman has lost her captain, Leah Williamson; her most creative player, Fran Kirby; and her most potent attacking threat, Beth Mead, to injury. Millie Bright made the squad but is still, strictly speaking, recovering from knee surgery. Wiegman is an astute enough coach — and she has enough talent at her disposal — to disguise those losses. But she will be doing so on the fly.
It is difficult not to see the co-host less as “Australia” and more as “Sam Kerr and Guests.” At 30, Kerr, the Chelsea striker, may well be the finest player in the world. She is a totem for her country. She is the face of the tournament, the person expected to deliver what she has referred to as a “Cathy Freeman moment.” She is the star on which Australia’s hopes hang.
That assessment is not quite true. Tony Gustavsson’s squad is drawn largely from the major leagues of Europe and the N.W.S.L. In Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso and Alanna Kennedy, the supporting cast is a strong one. Its momentum, too, is considerable: Australia has won eight of its last nine games, including a milestone victory against England. Kerr will have to deliver, of course, but she is far from alone.
In 2019, the Dutch emerged as the standard-bearer for Europe’s coming force, an advertisement for the game’s shifting power base. They fell agonizingly short, losing to the United States in the final. Progress since then has been patchy, as they have lost Wiegman, who left to coach England, before falling in the quarterfinals of the European Championship last summer.
The core of the team that made the final four years ago — Danielle van de Donk, Jackie Groenen, Jill Roord, Lieke Martens — remains, and the Dutch have the talent to make a deep run once more. Two things stand in their way: the absence of striker Vivianne Miedema through injury and an unfortunate draw for the group stage. The Dutch face the Americans early; defeat in that game will most likely mean a tougher route for the remainder of their stay.
The Canadians have made precious little impact on the latter rounds of the World Cup in the last two decades, extending their stay beyond the first knockout round only once. Yet even that, on home soil in 2015, lasted only until the quarterfinals.
In many ways, it is hard to see that changing this time around. Christine Sinclair is 40; Janine Beckie is out, another victim of women’s soccer’s A.C.L. epidemic; Canada has won only one of its last five games and has been drawn in the same group as Australia. But there is a resilience to this team that should not be underappreciated: It is only two years, after all, since Canada — completely overlooked then as now — won gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
On some level, Brazil’s stay in this World Cup will be seen as Marta’s valedictory tour: a sixth and (presumably) final tournament turned into a lap of honor for a 37-year-old player regarded by some as the best of all time.
It is hard, certainly, to believe that it will end with Marta’s repeating Lionel Messi’s trick and finally winning the honor that would mean more to her than any other. Brazil’s squad is not as strong as previous editions, and none of them were strong enough to overcome the superpowers of North America and Europe, either. Still, in Pia Sundhage, Brazil has a canny, adroit coach, and the likes of Debinha, Kerolin and Geyse mean Marta may not have to bear the load alone.
More than anyone — even England — Spain should be the biggest threat to the United States’ crown this summer. Its national team is, after all, based largely on the Barcelona team that has become the dominant force in European club soccer. Alexia Putellas, while most likely not fully recovered from the knee injury that kept her out of the Euros last year, is the reigning world player of the year. Spain has lost just once in a year.
The problem is that Spain has been engulfed by civil war between the players and the country’s soccer federation since last summer. Though an uneasy truce has been called — allowing some of the 15 players who had demanded the dismissal of the coach, Jorge Vilda, to return — the effects are still being felt. A dozen players are still missing, and Vilda must find a way to instill a team spirit in a squad consisting of both rebels and their replacements.
The Spanish might have had the least ideal preparation for a major tournament, but kudos to the French for giving them a run for their money. Corinne Diacre, the longstanding coach who had lost the faith of a considerable number of her players, was finally ousted in March. She was replaced by Hervé Renard, a globe-trotting coach of some renown but absolutely no experience in the women’s game.
He has, at least, restored some familiar faces to the squad: Wendie Renard and Kadidiatou Diani, both of whom had refused to play under Diacre, are back. Amandine Henry, the vastly experienced midfielder, had been recalled, too, only to suffer a calf injury that will keep her out of the tournament. France’s hopes, now, rest on the new coach’s being able to get the best out of a team he has only just encountered.
If anything at all is certain about this tournament, it is that the Germans will reach the quarterfinals. In eight attempts, they have never failed to do so, and given a kindly group draw — Morocco, Colombia and South Korea — there is little reason to believe they will not make the last eight again.
Whether Coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg can steer her team any further, though, is open to question. Germany has a well-balanced squad — two outstanding goalkeepers, the emerging star power of Lena Oberdorf, the creativity of Lina Magull, the goals of Svenja Huth and Alexandra Popp — and finished as runner-up in last summer’s European Championship. But its form is sputtering: It has lost to Brazil and Zambia in the last couple of months and just squeezed past Vietnam in a warm-up match last month.
Nobody ever thinks about Sweden. Sweden might have one silver and three bronze medals to show for its eight previous World Cups, and it might be a reliable force in the European Championship, but the operating assumption is always that Sweden is not a genuine contender.
It is worth pointing out, then, that Sweden not only has the likes of Fridolina Rolfo, Stina Blackstenius and Hanna Bennison to call on, but that it made the semifinals of the Euros last year, and it swatted aside the United States on the way to the Olympic final two years ago. Sweden is a threat. But nobody ever thinks about Sweden.