At the 2022 Euros, the Lionesses won the first major football trophy England has seen since 1966. With less than 100 days to go, they have set their sights on a new prize, the 2023 World Cup which will take place in Australia and New Zealand in July. This promises to be a record-breaking event, in both attendance and viewership, having already become the first World Cup to take place in two nations, with eight nations making their World Cup debut.
But who will take home the prized silverware? Which players should we look out for?
Defending their title is the USA, a fierce competitor who has won four of the nine women’s World Cup tournaments to date. Historically the USA has been a league apart with female players in the USA receiving high levels of funding, as well as excellent training facilities following the 1972 mandate for US colleges to provide equal sports funding regardless of gender, allowing women’s soccer to get equal college funding to men’s sports teams like American football. In comparison, the FA did not lift the ban on women’s football in the UK until 1971 allowing the USA to be a generation ahead in cultivating young talent. The USA is a more physical team than the European nations, requiring technicality to overcome. Although the squad has not been announced, they will likely be captained by Becky Sauerbrunn, with a focus on older and more experienced players such as legendary NWSL’s Golden Boot winner Alex Morgan who will be 34 at the time. Waiting to solidify her name outside of the USA will be 22-year-old, NWSL MVP of the year, Sophia Smith, with only one less goal than Morgan in the NWSL she will put the Europeans to the test.
A significant threat to the USA comes from current European champions. After their Euros victory, England’s record goalscorer Ellen White MBE and seasoned Midfielder Jill Scott MBE retired making space for younger, but less experienced, players. Despite this, and captain Leah Williamson being injured, the Lionesses beat the USA 2-1 in October and went on to win every game in the Arnold Clark Cup. After losing three of their most experienced players: Chelsea Midfielder Fran Kirby, England vice-captain Millie Bright and BBC player of the year Beth Mead MBE to injuries, the Lionesses returned to Wembley on April 6th to face Brazil in the Finalissma. In contrast to previous matches, the squad seemed complacent, allowing Brazil to equalise in extra time resulting in penalties. However, thanks to Fifa’s best women’s goalkeeper, Mary Earps, who only conceded two goals during the Euros, England, beat the best country in South America, marking 30 games unbeaten!
This pattern was broken on April 11th when England played Australia, marking their first loss under manager Sarina Weigman and since 2021. Unrecognisable from their performances in the summer, England allowed Australia to control the centre, neutralising the world’s most expensive female player, Barcelona Midfielder Keira Walsh, and preventing the Lionesses from finding their usual rhythm. Despite losing 2-0 both Williamson and Weigman expressed no concern over the ability of the team to take home the World Cup.
While the loss is not a major concern, it has shown other countries how to beat what was once an unbeatable team. This game was the last international before the World Cup to select and trial a squad. With Mead and Kirby out of the World Cup with injuries, and without using Manchester United’s Alessia Russo, Ella Toone and Man City’s Chloe Kelly, as super-subs like in the Euros, the bench trialled in the squad against Australia lacked players who could change a game in the second half. Luckily, Bright is set to be back by Williamson’s side in time to make England’s defence cohesive for the World Cup and all eyes will be on the young James, Hemp, Russo and Kelly to take up the offence. The World Cup squad is yet to be finalised, but England is not short of talent and the ability for players like Rachel Daly to play in defence or attack provides good options for new super subs.
Alongside the USA and England, Spain and Germany also have the potential to make it to the semi-finals. Although Spain has never won the women’s World Cup, Germany has twice, and both teams triumphed over the USA recently, alongside giving England a run for their money in the Euro semi-final and final respectively. Two-time Ballon d’Or winner, Barcelona and Spanish national Captain Alexia Putella is also rumoured to recover from her ACL injury in time for the World Cup, after missing the Euros, providing a new challenge for England to overcome. Although Australia’s Matilda’s are less likely to make it to the semi-finals, they will undoubtedly see, and feel, the benefits a home crowd brought to England last summer as the love for women’s football spreads down under.
Image credits: IQRemix // CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr