On December 6, the drawing for the group stage of the 2015 Women’s World Cup (or as I like to call it, the World Cup) took place. I’ll spare the suspense, although if you are reading this, you probably already know. Here are the groups:
GROUP A: Canada, China, New Zealand, Netherlands
GROUP B: Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway, Thailand
GROUP C: Japan, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador
GROUP D: United States, Australia, Sweden, Nigeria
GROUP E: Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Costa Rica
GROUP F: France, England, Colombia, Mexico
Two topics have dominated the conversation and no doubt will continue to do so. The first is that
SPECTRE and The Legion of Doom FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association have decided to use artificial turf pitches, despite the fact that they would never allow that for the Men’s World Cup. The players are trying to fight it, but time is running out. If there is an increase in injuries during the World Cup, watch FIFA try to dodge this debacle too. Is FIFA the most loathsome organization in the world or merely just one of a select few?
The other issue that you will hear about until you are sick of it is the lack of depth in the field. FIFA expanded next year’s tournament from 16 teams to 24. But there is a perceived danger that the depth of quality has been watered down, and we will go back to the days of 6-0, 7,-0, 10-0 scorelines. (This is also a complaint about the expanded 2016 European Championship.) Certainly everyone thought newby Equatorial Guinea would be the recipient of such drubbings during the last World Cup, but that turned out not to be the case. The Equatoguineans’ performance was (admittedly aided by some dubious calls) quite respectable, better than Canada’s even.
Eight nations are making their World Cup debut: Netherlands, Ivory Coast, Thailand, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador, Spain and Costa Rica. Thailand has never qualified for a men’s or women’s World Cup before, so this is truly uncharted territory for them. Most likely they would not have qualified at all had the AFC not been given an additional two slots this year and (more germane) had North Korea not been banned from qualification due to the doping scandal at the last World Cup. The AFC is (unlike in the men’s game) a very strong division in the women’s game with Japan the reigning world champion, China a-once-dangerous-but-now-faded power, Australia and North Korea as perennial dark horses and South Korea as a potential future player. It is hard to see where Thailand will fit into this scheme in the future.
Speaking of North Korea, this is the first competition in God knows how long in which neither Colombia nor North Korea will play the United States in the group stage. In divine retribution, the US will play in Group D, unarguably the toughest group in 2015 World Cup. The US, Sweden, Australia, and Nigeria. The US is the strongest team in this group and should make it through to the next round, but it is not a given. Australia, as I mentioned above, is a perennial dark horse, and probably the second best team in the AFC. Nigeria has never missed a World Cup, is almost always the African champion, and gets better and better every tournament. And then there is Sweden. Last time around Sweden beat the US in the group stage, which to my recollection, is the first group stage loss the US ever suffered. This year the US and Sweden have an even stronger link than mere revenge. Pia Sundhage, the Singing Swede who coached the US to two Olympic golds and World Cup runners-up in 2011, is now coach of Sweden. Sundhage knows all about the US. The US players and staff know all about Sundhage. And of course, it is a grudge match for the US, which no doubt is still angry about four years ago.
If there is a second difficult group in this tournament, it is Group F: France, England, Colombia, and Mexico. What both Group D and Group F have in common is that all eight teams in those two groups have played in World Cups before. (Contrast that to Group C which is Japan and three debutant nations.)
As a US fan, I am hoping that the 2015ers can finally bring the trophy back to the US, but of course the other two major forces of the women’s game, Germany and Japan, stand in the way. Brazil is always a contender, but as Marta gets older and her magic wanes one wonders if Brazil is able to supplement her individual brilliance. France and host Canada are also top seeds hoping to make that breakthrough that has thus far eluded them. Norway will continue its sad, slow decline. For my part, I am really interested in how Spain will do. It their first World Cup and they are led by the magnificent Vero Boquete.
Because the World Cup is still over half a year away, I’m going to gather and save my thoughts for a future dates. But the draw is out, and the excitement has already begun.