Everyone loves an underdog story. A version of the David vs Goliath always plays out at a major sporting tournament: Morocco’s run to the semi-final at the men’s World Cup in Qatar last December or Kapil Dev-led India’s victory at the cricket World Cup in 1983 or a wild card Goran Ivanisevic’s Wimbledon victory in 2001? These are all stories that stir the senses.
The ongoing Fifa Women’s World Cup has been a delight so far, particularly due to the rise of the underdogs. Of the eight debutant teams, some, such as Jamaica (ranked 44), Morocco (72) and the Philippines (46), have thrilled with skills and play that defy their Fifa rankings. Many of the teams that used to make up the numbers for big tournaments, such as Colombia (25) and Nigeria (40), have improved so much that the traditional giants are finding it difficult to cope with them.
In this past week, Colombia beat former champions Germany, which is second in Fifa standings, in a thrillingly physical game. The teenaged Linda Caicedo, who beat ovarian cancer at the age of 15, ran onto a loose ball in the box, skipped past one defender, shipped it right and curled a sublime shot into the far corner of the goal to open the scoring. Germany levelled with a penalty, but Colombia won with an injury time header from a corner. At the end of the game, Germany captain Alexandra Popp was seen with her hand on Caicedo’s shoulder, appreciating the youngster’s genius and the fact that Colombia were the better team on the day.
That there would be surprises in this tournament, became clear as soon as tournament debutants Philippines took on co-hosts New Zealand. They delivered the first big shock of the tournament when they beat the Kiwis 1-0, effectively sending them crashing out. Of the 23 players in the Philippines’ squad, 18 are American-born and many didn’t even have a Filipino passport till 2018. So, in addition to training and qualifying for the World Cup, the players also had to cut through bureaucratic red tape to get their passports that let them play for the country.
Morocco, the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament, and another first-timer, won their debut World Cup game when they beat South Korea (ranked 17). However, the Moroccan women are unlikely to emulate their men’s team because they are up against Colombia, who are already through and will most likely be joined by Germany, who face the win-less South Korea in Group H.
The biggest upset, however, was when Nigeria beat co-hosts and pre-tournament favourites, Australia. We should remember that this is the same Nigeria whose footballers have, at least once in recent months, boycotted training over unpaid bonuses. It wasn’t a lucky win either; Nigeria scored three goals after going a goal down early. Though the game ended 3-2, Nigeria never looked troubled or stretched after scoring the third goal.
Even though their midfield isn’t the most effective, Nigeria are solid in defence and lethal in attack when they counter with speed. They also have a proven finisher in the talented Asisat Oshoala, who won the Champions League with Barcelona this year, and they run tirelessly till the final whistle. Not surprisingly, Nigeria stand a good chance to progress to the quarterfinals.
Another team holding its own over the last two weeks are the Jamaicans, also making their World Cup debut. They held on for a draw against France in their opening game. That was followed by a victory over fellow debutants Panama, and only Brazil stands between them and a berth in the next round. This is an astounding feat for a team that was forced to crowdfund $175,000 to pay for their stay and food while playing at the world's biggest footballing event for women.
Every tournament has a few “piñata” teams that are thrashed by big margins and there have been such stories here too. Brazil put four past Panama, both Japan and Spain scored five goals each against Zambia, Morocco conceded half a dozen against Germany. But the most notable thrashings were of Spain at the hands of Japan and that of Canada by Australia.
Canada are the reigning Olympic gold medallists and were expected to sail through the group. Yet they suffered a 4-0 loss in which they hardly managed a shot on target. Spain, among the favourites and easy on the eye because of their fluid passing play, kept passing for all of 90 minutes but were unable to break down Japan’s defence and. All the while, Japan’s forwards launched counter-attacks with precision and pace, exposing Spain’s defensive frailties. Japan are up against Norway next while Spain play Switzerland.
The biggest sign of the gap between the big teams and the rest is narrowing is visible in Group F featuring current World Cup holders USA. The champions are in transition at the moment, as its golden generation of serial winners are moving out and younger stars are being eased into the team. But that does not take away the progress that is evident in their opponents’ display. The US has progressed to the Round of 16, just about, with a win against a doughty Portugal. It is clear that at the World Cup, teams are displaying levels of talent much higher than four years ago. It won’t be a walk in the park for the defending champions, or anyone.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.