No more small teams? Women's World Cup minnows closing the gap

No more small teams? Women's World Cup minnows closing the gap
Though Morocco experienced a painful introduction to the Women's World Cup with a 6-0 loss to Germany, other tournament underdogs were able to show their mettle in the opening round of group games.
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Despite showing glimpses of magic, Morocco suffered a 6-0 loss to Germany in their opening group game [Alex Grimm/FIFA/FIFA via Getty]

With the opening round of group games completed, fears that a first 32-team Women's World Cup would see a flurry of embarrassing mismatches appear largely misplaced.

Admittedly, Morocco experienced a painful introduction to the tournament on Monday as their debut ended in a 6-0 hammering in Melbourne at the hands of Germany, one of the favourites.

Zambia too suffered a heavy 5-0 loss to former winners Japan, but there has been nothing on the scale of the USA's 13-0 annihilation of Thailand with which they began their triumphant campaign in 2019.

England, another of the favourites, struggled to break down a Haiti side ranked 53rd in the world and making their World Cup debut.

The European champions only secured a 1-0 win thanks to Georgia Stanway's penalty.

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The United States were expected to rattle in the goals against 32nd-ranked Vietnam but settled for a 3-0 victory in Auckland, although they missed a penalty and the shot count was 26-0.

Similarly, Spain beat Costa Rica 3-0 but it could easily have been more: they had 46 shots to one for their opponents.

"Going into this World Cup the game has just grown and a lot of federations have grown as well, so I think it is great to see so many countries coming in and making a great impression on the world stage," said United States defender Naomi Girma.

'Growing the game'

FIFA has overseen a rapid expansion of the Women's World Cup, from 16 teams in 2011 to 24 in the last two editions, and now 32 for the first time this year.

Eight teams are appearing in the finals for the first time, and that exposure to this stage will stand them in good stead for the future, even if there could be some more heavy defeats along the way.

"It's part of growing the game. They'll improve from here," was how USA star Megan Rapinoe described the possible impact on Thailand of that 13-0 defeat in Reims in 2019.

That scoreline is a tournament record, while in the 2015 edition in Canada Germany trounced the Ivory Coast 10-0 and Switzerland beat Ecuador 10-1.

Jamaica show the way

While Morocco, Zambia and Panama – beaten 4-0 by Brazil on Monday – lick their wounds, other outsiders at this year's tournament will be galvanised by their opening performances.

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Not least Jamaica. They lost all three group games in 2019, including a 5-0 defeat by Italy. On Sunday they held heavyweights France to a 0-0 stalemate.

"The gap between nations is narrowing and that's exactly what this sport needs to produce great tournaments. Look at the England-Haiti game. There was nothing between them," said Jamaica goalkeeper Rebecca Spencer.

"France were used to outclassing opponents in their first match but that is going to change because (women's) football is becoming stronger," said French coach Herve Renard.

The wider women's game is benefiting from greater investment, both at club and international level, and FIFA's prize pot for this year's World Cup, of $152 million, is triple that of four years ago.

That also reflects the growing interest in women's football around the world which has seen bumper crowds at club level and big attendances so far in Australia and New Zealand.

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"Many people who still believe that women's football is not a great game or not so entertaining or it's a bad copy of men's football, when they watch a game for the first time they will see it's a fantastic game and it's very entertaining," said FIFA president Gianni Infantino on the eve of the tournament.

Yet while the gap is closing, teams from North America and Europe in particular still have the edge over opponents from other continents.

At least more places at the World Cup offer the rest more opportunities to test themselves against the very best on the planet.

"This gives us encouragement and hope that we can compete evenly with European teams," said the Argentina coach German Portanova after his side went down to a battling 1-0 defeat against Italy on Monday.