Women’s World Cup: Getting Close

In between the Barcelona love and the aggravation given to me by the US Men’s National Team, I have neglected women’s football, and I truly apologize for that.  This is especially egregious because the Women’s World Cup starts next week.  To be fair, it seems like the World Cup has generally gotten remarkably little play in the media save for a few raised eyebrows about the decision of certain German internationals to pose for Playboy.

It’s not worth rehashing the reasons why the World Cup has been ignored.  I’ve written about it a few times (here, and here for example.)  If you want to be depressed, you can read this opinion piece.  Admittedly, the women’s game is not played at the same level and intensity as the men’s game, but that does not mean it is not entertaining, or that the players lack skill.  To the contrary, in terms of entertainment I bet that the Women’s World Cup will be more entertaining than the last year’s World Cup in South Africa, which is generally seen as a disappointment.

The women’s international game is actually more interesting than the men’s if you bother to learn about it.  Unlike in the men’s game where club football is superior, in the women’s game it is international competition.  Because there is little to no dialogue between the best women’s leagues the way that there is in the men’s game, it is still possible to find the stylistic differences that have been steadily eroding in men’s international football.  In the men’s game, the UEFA Champions League and not the World Cup is where the greatest teams are found, at least on a technical level.  In contrast, the international game is still the at the vanguard of women’s football.  I can only guess as to why that is but I imagine it at least partially due to the following reasons: (1) the talent pool is spread out across the world rather than concentrated in Europe, and clubs cannot simply buy up all the best talent, thus preventing Champions League from overshadowing the World Cup; (2) the women’s clubs, always teetering on the edge of ruin, are not nearly as supported as the national teams, and thus a national team coach has more leeway in shaping a squad’s identity; and (3) the only chance in women’s football for on-the-pitch exchange of ideas between countries is in international play and not club play.

The point of this post though is not to defend women’s football.  Instead I am going to offer predictions for the upcoming World Cup group stages.  You all can laugh at my completely off-base predictions when the group stages end, but I am telling you that it is tough.  Each of these groups is fairly evenly matched.  That’s why I am taking the wimp’s way out and avoiding the knockout rounds.  After I’ve had a chance to really see the teams, I’ll predict the rest of the tournament.

As always, I would love your comments.  Do you agree with me?  Disagree?  Don’t know?  Do you have an opinion about a Women’s All-Time XI?  Do you have a question that you need answered?  Please post.

So without further delay:

Group A: Germany, Canada, Nigeria, and France.  Germany are the reigning champions, one of three teams who have a claim to being the best in the world (the other two are the United States and Brazil.)  Germany won the last two Women’s World Cups, and this year the squad has home-field advantage.  I have no doubt they will finish first in the group.  Second is harder to predict.  Nigeria are always tough and the perennial African champion but have never really broken into the elite (kind of like the men.)  The real battle for second is probably between Canada and France.  Canada has a very good squad and under their coach Carolina Morace, the team became legitimate world-beaters, but their coach quit over disputes with the Canada’s FA and threw the team (who sided with Morace) into chaos.  The dust has since settled, and Morace is back, but is it enough?   Last month, France’s club Lyon won the women’s version of the Champions League (over German powerhouse Turbine Potsdam), and much of the French squad is from Lyon.  Maybe they have enough poise to go through to the knockout rounds?  Maybe, but I am going to pick Germany and Canada.

Group B: Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, England.  Another tough group.  Japan is a top (but not the top) team in a competitive confederation, while New Zealand is the powerhouse of Oceania (for what that’s worth.)  Mexico knocked out the US from the CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup–the first time Mexico ever beat the US squad.  England are a tough floater, not a champion, but definitely a top-tier contender, and arguably the strongest of the lot.  And England also have Kelly Smith, one of the top players in the WPS.  New Zealand probably have no shot; they’re not quite ready yet.  Japan are brimming with talent and has gotten good results in the recent past, but also struggling of late.  Even though they only came third in the Asian qualification, the top teams were all very close, and Japan are due for a breakthrough.  I would love to see Mexico move on, but I don’t think that’s happening.  England and Japan are just too good.

Group C: United States, Colombia, North Korea, Sweden.  Is this the group of fading powers and up-and-comers?  The US are long past the great players of the 1990’s, but has won every Olympic title but one.  They were the last team to qualify, which is a tremendous embarrassment.  The US women’s program is fading, or at least the rest of the world has caught up.  In some cases moved past the US.  WPS is having trouble (shades of 2003 when WUSA folded?)  Sweden beat the US at the Four Nations Cup, but the US won the tournament while Sweden finished near the bottom.  Of course that was a glorified exhibition, but it does make one question Sweden.  While it was a shock for the North Korean Men’s Team to qualify for South Africa, the women are always at the World Cup (and also always seem to play the US in the group stages.)  North Korea are a power of the AFC, and knocked out China in the Asian Cup.  Colombia are appearing in the World Cup for the first time.  They have some bright young talent, and performed beautifully in qualification until they were thoroughly dominated by Brazil.  Even though neither has really impressed, I cannot side against the US or Sweden.  Not this time anyway.

Group D: Brazil, Australia, Norway, Equatorial Guinea.  Let’s get this out of the way: Equatorial Guinea is a tiny country on the central west coast of Africa, right by the Equator–hence the name.  It was formerly a Spanish colony, that has sizable petroleum reserves and a horrendous human rights record.  Unlike Nigeria which are a perennial power and has a strong men’s team, Equatorial Guinea women’s side only recently become strong, and the men’s side are nearly anonymous.  Equatorial Guinea won the African Women’s Championship in 2008, the only side other than Nigeria to do so, and came in second at last year’s competition.  As a result, there has been a lot of controversy about the Equatoguineans, particularly allegations that some of the players are actually men.  There is no evidence of this however, and until and unless there is some, I chalk this up to sour grapes.  I cannot see them advancing however, and they are definitely the weakest team in this group.  Australia are the AFC champions despite not actually being Asia.  Norway are the only team other than Germany and the US to win a World Cup (1995), and the only team other than the US to have won the Olympics (2000).  Brazil are Brazil.  If this competition were won by sheer talent alone, Brazil would dominate.  The players have sparkling skills, none more so than Marta, the greatest female player in the world and possibly ever.  On the other hand, the Samba Queens only play at major competitions and are otherwise ignored by the CBF (the Brazilian FA).  It’s frustrating for both players and fans.  Australia can play upset, but I have trouble seeing beyond Brazil and Norway.

So there you have it.  I would love your comments, and I will write more as the tournament progresses.

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