The difference was marginal. The football hit the post and ran away from the goal and Team USA held out for a draw against debutants Portugal and advanced to the knockout stages of the Women’s World Cup 2023. In their knockout game against Sweden, it was marginal, again, but not in USA’s favour. The American goalie, Alyssa Naeher, got her hands to Lina Hurtig’s penalty, the ball looped up and came down, Naeher got her hands on the ball again and pushed it away. But the entirety of the ball had crossed the whole of the line by that time. Hurtig scored. Sweden knocked out the reigning world champions and the top ranked team in the world.
In the group stages, teams such as Jamaica, Nigeria and Colombia had already stunned other traditionally big teams of women’s football, issuing a strong challenge to the reigning queens. Olympic gold medallists Canada, Germany (the second ranked team in the world going into the tournament), Brazil, and Asian champions China all crashed out during the group stages.
Instead, in Morocco and Jamaica, there were two teams playing their first World Cup, who did qualify for the Round of 16. Teams like Colombia, Nigeria and South Africa, that had made up the numbers in previous tournaments, were suddenly the teams to beat.
Just ask the reigning European champions England, who, but for the frame of the goal, would have been on a plane back home on Monday. A hard running and tactically superior Nigeria defended well and flooded the English box when they attacked. Twice, they hit the woodwork. England just about did enough, and rode their luck, to scrape through to the quarter-finals on penalties.
While the Netherlands got the better of South Africa, it wasn’t as easy as many would have imagined. Despite the two goals that the 2019 runners-up scored, it was their goalie, Daphne van Domselaar, who saved their blushes with some stellar saves against an inspired South Africa. When the South African coach Desiree Ellis and captain Thembi Kgatlana gave post-match interviews, there was pride in their voice. They had played like the world’s biggest stage was exactly where they belonged.
And Morocco, who are the lowest ranked team in the knockout stages at 72, weren’t even supposed to be facing France in the third week of the tournament. They were grouped with Germany, South Korea and Colombia. Germany battered them in the first game, scoring half a dozen without reply. Yet there they were, following back-to-back one-goal wins over South Korea and Colombia, contesting the fifth-ranked French for a place in the quarters.
The fixture that stood out in the Round of 16 was the one featuring Colombia and Jamaica, the latter having pretty much crowd-funded their way to the World Cup. More than anything, this game was symbolic of the upheaval that is going on in women’s football the world over. Neither team was expected to emerge from the group stage. Yet, Colombia has made it to the quarter-final this weekend, against England. Colombia have now become only the second team ever from South America to make it to the quarter-finals. The existing power structure in the footballing world is changing.
The USA has had a head start over the rest of the world as far as women’s football is concerned. It is a popular game, and the US has a very good and competitive domestic league.
Plenty of internationals at the World Cup, including players from Australia, Japan, Nigeria, South Africa, England and Brazil, have played or still play their football in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). Before being knocked out in the Round of 16 this year, Team USA had won four of the eight World Cups and had never finished below third.
However, this fresh, serious competition from across the world hasn’t come overnight. It has been happening for a while now with more investment in women’s football. Teams have been responding by making marginal gains every single game over the last few years since Fifa announced that the tournament will be expanded to its current format of 32 teams.
European teams have made tremendous progress since 2019 and they can hold their own, and even surpass USA, in many respects today. African nations have benefitted from their players playing overseas and coupled with some investment in the game, are rising fast.
Over the last three weeks they have shown that the progress is real and they have to be taken seriously. And the African teams are not only about pace and power anymore. As Nigeria’s Ashleigh Plumptre said after their defeat to England on penalties, “Teams from Africa… we play tactical football too.”
This was widely considered to be the World Cup that would be the turning point in women’s football, but no one expected change this quickly. Yes, one team usually goes on a surprise streak in most tournaments, but we have witnessed tough fights and surprises in most groups.
The fact that five unheralded teams—South Africa, Jamaica, Morocco, Colombia and Nigeria —progressed to the knockout stages at the expense of top-billed ones has already made the tournament an epochal one. It is a clear sign that the crown of women’s football cannot be taken for granted anymore. The current queens of football have been dethroned one game at a time. Women’s football is fast becoming a match-up amongst equals.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.