Weekly football conversation since 2009, with Graham Sibley, Jan Bilton and Terry Duffelen. Listen on Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn or your podcatcher of choice.

Women's World Cup Preview: Can anyone beat the USA?

Expanded to thirty-two teams the Women’s World Cup promises to tell amazing stories and provide no shortage of drama. Terry Duffelen looks ahead with excitement, and wonders which team, if any, can unseat the USA as World Champions.

Already, going into the tournament we know that two greats of the women’s game will be making their final bow. Megan Rapinoe who left an indelible mark on the 2019 tournament in France announced that she will be retiring after the World Cup. This will also be Marta’s last dance. The Brazilian legend, widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, has overcome an ACL injury to be ready for this tournament. Her role is likely to be peripheral, but no one should rule out the possibility of her adding to her record of 17 World Cup goals.

It is also likely that this will be the last we see of Christine Sinclair, who at 40 years old probably will not see another World Cup as a player. The Canadian international has scored 190 goals in 323 internationals which is an all-time record for the men's and women’s game.

Of the many questions to be answered over the next four weeks the big one will be whether the all-conquering US team can be overcome. A number of their players, including striker Alex Morgan and defender Crystal Dunn are over thirty. Then there were the defeats to Spain, Germany, and England at the back end of last year that strike a note of caution to anyone laying odds on the US winning a third successive World Cup. However, their pre-tournament build-up has been excellent, winning the SheBelieves Cup without losing a game. In Trinity Rodman, there is the possibility of a new star of the women’s game to emerge in this tournament.

The only serious question about the US that remains is: do they have the appetite for more glory? After all, continued success is exhausting. Could some of the senior players lose their appetite? Judging by recent performances and what’s being said, there does not seem to be a loss of appetite for silverware. I suspect the only reason the US will fail is that there is a better team out there that will beat them. Who could that be, I wonder?

Let us start with the European Champions, England. Sarina Wiegman’s plans for a Euro-World Cup took a bit of a knock after a recent defeat to Australia which brought to a halt the Lionesses’ 30-game unbeaten streak. The absences of the injured Beth Mead, Leah Williamson, and Fran Kirby, who were cornerstones of their European triumph, will be keenly felt. But there is still a bevy of talent that Wiegman can call upon, not least of which is Lauren James, who is another young player that could join the elite in this World Cup. There is also the small matter of Alessia Russo, Georgia Stanway, Rachel Daly, Ella Toone, and of course, Millie Bright. All told England should still be among the favourites, but the injuries have raised additional questions and the concern is that the missing players have set their progress back too much.

If you are German, you are probably thinking that England, may be European Champions but Germany is the best team in Europe. Had Alexandra Popp not sustained yet another injury on the day of the final and had Germany been awarded a penalty for what looked like a clear handball from Leah Williamson, then the Euro final between the two teams could have gone the way of the Germans. With the memory of that final defeat a strong motivator, I suspect that Germany will be the strongest team from Europe and a good bet to win the whole thing. If I am reading my wall chart right, England and Germany could meet in the semi-final and that could be a game full of beef.

French readers will be rolling their eyes at my English bias so allow me to course correct. France is in a tough group with Brazil and Jamaica but is well capable of progressing in this tournament and even winning it. The common criticism about the French is their mentality coupled with their inability to finish off teams. This may be nonsense but makes sense when applied to short-format tournaments like the World Cup. It looks like the mood in the French camp is good thanks in some part to the new coach, Herve Renard who needs no introduction to any men’s football hipsters. The Frenchman has a wealth of experience coaching men’s World Cup teams, most recently the Saudi Arabian team that beat Argentina in Qatar. The players have also been at pains to point out that the internal issues that existed between them and management have been resolved. You must be optimistic if you drew France in the office sweepstake.

Of the other contenders, it is impossible to discount Sweden. A team that has come close to winning major honors in the Euros, World Cup and Olympics. Most recently they lost to Canada in the 21 Olympic Final. With players of the quality of Fridolina Rolfo, Stina Blackstenius, and Magdalena Eriksson, the Swedes will rightly be feared or even underestimated.

Sitting below these main European contenders sit Spain who improve with each passing tournament but whose progress was hampered by a dispute between the players and coach Jorge Vilda. Objecting to his methods, fifteen players withdrew from the squad over a nine-month period, demanding that he be removed. But the Spanish federation stuck by their man and all but three relented. Quite how this recent bad feeling plays out on the pitch remains to be seen.

Outside Europe, you would be mad to not look to Canada, the reigning Olympic champions, as a potential winner. However, their preparation was hampered by a lack of warmup games. This is due to the ongoing dispute with Canada Soccer, the Canadian federation, over equal pay. We have yet to see the best from the Canadians in the World Cup and it would be an ideal way to stick it to their federation in their campaign for parity.

And what about the co-hosts? Well, New Zealand, while regular participants in the World Cup have yet to win a game in a tournament. While seeded, they face a tough group in the debutants Philippines which is made up of US-based players, a dangerous Switzerland side, and Norway who, with Ada Hegerberg back in the team will be anxious to erase the stain of their humiliating European Championship. It is always healthy for a home side when the hosts do well so here is hoping for some good times for NZ.

Australia is a different matter. Olympic Semi-Finalists in 2021 and with an attacking threat of Arsenal’s Caitlin Foord and Chelsea’s Sam Kerr, the latter being in the form of her life going into this tournament. It is possible that the Matilda’s lack the squad depth to go all the way. However, if Kerr hits the ground running in their opening fixture against first-time qualifiers, Ireland then perhaps the players will ride a wave to the final. They share Group B with Canada but do not play the Olympic champions until the final game by which time both teams could be through.

While it is natural to focus on the contenders there will be so many other stories to emerge from the World Cup such as the arrival of Haiti and Zambia, the latter bursting on the scene in the Olympics. Although their preparations have been disturbed by allegations of sexual misconduct against their coach Bruce Mwape. Look out also for Jamaica. With Manchester City’s Khadija “Bunny” Shaw leading the line, the Reggae Girlz could be a dark horse for Group E.

And of course, there is the prospect of the US playing Vietnam in what is likely to be a game full of symbolism as these two once-warring nations meet on the sporting field.

I have not really given due respect to former World Champions, Japan, and ex-European champion, Netherlands. However, both teams have gone off the boil somewhat. But that does illustrate the development of the international women’s game and how standing still is not an option.

Terry’s verdict: Concerns about the age of the US squad are unfounded, and I believe their appetite for success will be undiminished. But the bar is raised with each passing tournament and the USWNT will need every ounce of their skill, experience, and desire. Sadly. I think England’s injuries will take their toll in the end leaving Germany, France, Canada, and Sweden as the strongest contenders with Australia as a dark horse.

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Podcast: Sound of Football Podcast 539 - Women's World Cup 2023 preview
Quiz: The Sound of Football Women's World Cup quiz

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