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  • Writer's pictureAaryan

2023 FIFA World Cup: Matches and Stories to Look Out For

The 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup kicked off yesterday as Australia and New Zealand will host the world's best footballers from 20 July to 20 August 2023. The 9th edition of the tournament will the biggest one yet, and it promises to be an enthralling spectacle. With quests for glory, inspiring comebacks, and chances for revenge on the cards, (and far too many knee injuries, sadly), there's no shortage of fascinating storylines worth following. Here are a few to keep an eye out for.


Key Group Stage Games


The tournament has expanded from 24 to 32 teams since 2019, which means the group stage looks very different. In a 24 team tournament, if you come 3rd in your group, you still have a good chance to advancing to the knockout stages. With 32 teams, that won't cut it. Only the top 2 from each group will go through. This adds an additional layer of jeopardy to the group stage, as a single slip-up could cost dearly. This means almost all of the group games will be worth watching, but it makes the key contests all the more enticing.



20 July: New Zealand - Norway

The first game of a football World Cup is always worth watching (Tshabalala, anyone?), but especially so when it is New Zealand playing at Eden Park. New Zealand are not one of the powerhouses of the sport, but as hosts, they will have high hopes to advance from Group A. They face stiff competition first-up in a Norway squad with several stars from Europe's top clubs, headlined by Ada Hegerberg, the first recipient of the Ballon d'Or Féminin back in 2018. New Zealand will be the underdogs, but if last year's women's Rugby World Cup is anything to go by, the Eden Park crowd certainly knows how to get behind their team. They will be keen to upset the Norwegians, meaning the tournament could start with a belter.


27 July: USA - Netherlands

A replay of the 2019 final, in the group stage! USA won that contest, meaning the Netherlands will no doubt be out for revenge and redemption, especially after an early exit from last year's Euros. That will be no mean feat against the world no. 1 team; the defending champions looking to make it a hat-trick this year. Netherlands are also missing a star player in Vivianne Miedema due to man ACL injury. USA have injury woes of their own, however, with their captain Sam Mewis out after undergoing knee surgery, among other prominent absentees. These injuries might cause trouble for them in the tournament and in this game, meaning the Dutch will be keen to turn the tables on the USA, making this match a must-watch.


2019 World Cup Final. Photo from: Getty Images/Jean-Philippe Ksiazek

28 July: England - Denmark

This game will likely determine who tops Group D, and could thus have a major impact on how later stages of the tournament shape up. England enter the tournaments as last years European champions and one of the favourites to go all the way. But they too have a squad weakened by injuries, missing both their captain Leah Williamson and the Euros top-scorer Beth Mead due to ACL injuries, amongst others. Denmark will be a tough test as a team seemingly on the rise with stars of their own such as formerly-Chelsea-now-Bayern striker Pernille Harder. England will expect to top the group, but their performance in this tough game may well indicate just how far they can go in the tournament.


29 July: France - Brazil

France and Brazil are both very strong teams coming into the competition, hoping to reach the last four and perhaps beyond. France bring a strong and experienced squad with a new coach in Herve Renard, who might be familiar after his exploits with Saudi Arabia at last year's men's World Cup. Brazil are a talented team in great form with youth and experience alike, and they bring with them a legend of the game in Marta, who is participating in her sixth World Cup! With both teams having great quality, this is one of the most closely matched games in the group stages. Add in the potential incentive of avoiding world no. 2 Germany in the Round of 16 for the group toppers, and we should have a cracking match on our hands.


30 July: New Zealand - Switzerland

If Norway prove a bridge too far for the Black Ferns on Day 1, then this will likely be the game to determine who goes through in the final Group A games. And Switzerland, just above New Zealand in the world rankings, will be just as keen to progress as the hosts. So we'll have the hopeful home team taking on closely ranked rivals in a potential winner-takes-all scenario in the last game of the group: a recipe for classic World Cup jeopardy.


31 July: Spain - Japan

Japan are the last team that were not the USA to win the World Cup, back in 2011, and they nearly replicated that in 2015 by reaching the final. They have not enjoyed that level of success since then, and now a newer generation of players is eager to recreate that glory. Spain, on the other hand, are a team that have always seemed to underperform their potential on the international stage and they will look to rectify that record. The squad is stacked with talent, with many stars from the Champions League-winning Barcelona side, including Alexia Putellas, the winner of the last two Balon d'Ors, returning from an ACL injury. But they are playing for a coach that the players wanted removed from his post not long ago, which leaves you to wonder how they will perform. This makes this final group game a fascinating encounter, with two strong teams with high hopes and something to prove.


31 July: Australia - Canada

The final group games of a World Cup are always a thrilling spectacle, but this edition's seem a real treat with another fascinating encounter between home team Australia and the Olympic champions from Tokyo, Canada. Between the two hosts, Australia have the greater historical pedigree in the women's game, and will hope to go far in the tournament. The Matildas, as their fans know them, also have one of the best strikers in the world in Sam Kerr, but with her missing the first two group games because of injury, this final game against Canada could be all-important. But the Olympic champions will be formidable opposition, having been key contenders at major international tournaments for several years. They have legends of their own, such as Christine Sinclair, the all-time international top-scorer in football, with 190 goals. That's an outright record, as in not just for women's football; she is well-clear of Ronaldo's 123 on the male side. With the knockout draw on the line on the final day of the group, this should be a fiercely contested game between closely matched teams.



Stories to Follow

Along with the promise of some thrilling action starting from Day 1, the World Cup will also feature some fascinating stories, of individuals and teams, worth looking out for through the tournament.


Linda Caicedo

She's only 18 years old, but she is already Colombia's star player and one of the most exciting talents at this tournament. Her importance to the Colombian team is such that this will technically be her 3rd World Cup in 12 months, having played both the U-17 and U-20 tournaments last year. Perhaps even more impressive than her achievements on the field, however, is the fact that she was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, but has overcome and recovered from that so quickly. She got right back on track to continue a very promising start to what could be an amazing career by becoming a key player for Real Madrid at such a young age. She will hope to help her team get through a tricky Group H with Germany in it. She is already a star in Colombia, hopefully this tournament will make her talents known to the world.


USA's Quest for History

The USA are the perennial favourites at the women's World Cup, and this year is no different. They have won half of the 8 previous editions and are looking to win a third World Cup on the trot, which would be an achievement unmatched in the men's or women's game. It's not all smooth sailing, though, with some key players sidelined by injury, including captain Sam Mewis. They have not looked invincible in recent form, and will face stiff competition from the likes of England and Germany. They still have a star-studded lineup featuring familiar mainstays such as Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, and the hype around the team pre-tournament show they have not been shy about their expectation to win. It remains to be seen whether they will live up to that. But they will be an entertaining side to watch, playing some good football (not soccer).


USA won the 2019 World Cup. Photo from: Reuters

Jamaican Team: 'The Reggae Girlz'

As fun as their nickname may be, the reality is much harsher for the Jamaican squad making the nation's second appearance at the World Cup. After receiving limited funding and support from their Federation, the squad had to resort to crowdfunding to help finance their World Cup effort. This is unfortunately not as surprising as it should be, as lack of support and financial backing from federations remains a problem plaguing women's football until today. Many teams at this tournament have had internal conflicts with their federations with players having to demand higher pay or better playing and coaching situations. This neglect of women's football by federations being represented by their teams is very disappointing, and the case of Jamaica is an example of the extent to which this is an issue. However, given their impressive effort just to get to the tournament, hopefully this team's perseverance can serve as a lesson to federations to support the players who are representing them and stimulate improvements in the treatment of the women's game. Jamaica are exciting underdogs, spearheaded by the second highest scorer in the Women's Super League last season, Khadija Shaw.


Marta

The Brazilian legend will be coming to the World Cup for a 6th time, and will be keen to add the coveted trophy to her expansive collection which already holds 6 FIFA Player of the Year awards. She is the all-time highest goal-scorer at FIFA World Cups, with 17 so far (beating Miroslav Klose's record for men) and could well add to that tally. She is a revered member of the squad, who have said they want to recreate the sort of storybook ending that Messi got last year in winning the World Cup. It will be fascinating to see what she can inspire this team to achieve.


Alèxia Putellas

Having won the last two Balon d'Or awards, Alèxia Putellas was arguably the best player in the world. Until she tore her ACL, that is. She had to get surgery and was sidelined for 10 months, forcing her to miss the Euros, but she has recovered in time to make her international return at the World Cup. Given the unfortunate abundance of knee and ACL injuries in women's football today, it will firstly be nice to see a top player returning from that to play at the highest level. Beyond that, however, Putellas is a player who could light up the tournament and possibly inspire a Spanish side caught up in recent controversy. Even if she is not yet back to her best, Spain might need her leadership more than her goals. The underlying story is that last year the team wanted Coach Jorge Vilda to step down, but the federation did not listen, so 15 players refused to play for the national team in protest. The federation still didn't budge (surprise, surprise) and the players had to yield if they wanted a chance to play in the World Cup. But this leaves a very talented squad in the hands of a coach they don't want to play for; an awkward situation, to say the least. However, the return of their star player in Alèxia might be just the sort of impetus they need to unite behind the objective of the World Cup. It isn't a great situation the players find themselves in, but Putellas might just be able to lead them to great things in spite of their circumstances.


A Bold Prediction

Germany win the World Cup.


The way the groups are organised, one half of the knockout draw is a minefield, containing several tournament hopefuls in Germany, Brazil, England, Australia, and Canada. These teams will have a tough path to the final, but they will be well-prepared and confident once they get there. The USA, on the other hand, is on what looks (for now) to be the easier side of the draw, with Sweden and Spain possibly their toughest challengers. This means they would likely reach the final a fresher team, but they might be untested, leaving them perhaps unprepared for very tough opposition in the final. This might not be true but they're the favourites anyway, so it'd be a bit dull to make them my predicted winners. I think Brazil and Germany will face each other in the other Semi-Final and whoever wins that will win the Cup. I think that will be Germany. They will have a point to prove after losing the Euros on penalties to England. They have a talented lineup with new and old stars alike. Not only do they have quality, they also have enough depth of talent to go all the way despite a potentially difficult draw.


Alexandra Popp is Germany's star player. Photo from: The Guardian

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