Over the next two weeks, our review of the 2019 Women World Cup Finals will be done across each of the six FIFA Confederations, though some findings—such as the vast improvement in goalkeeping—cuts across Confederations. We present Part 1 this week (for UEFA, Oceania and the AFC) and next week will conclude with Part 2 (CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and CAF), as well as some general notes from the tournament. Later this month we will update fans on the state of the 2019 NWSL season, which ran concurrent with the World Cup, with a short break in early June, and review some recent books on the women's game.
UEFA—Huge Success with Three Teams in the Semifinals
UEFA placed 8 of their 9 sides in the Round of 16—with hard luck Scotland feeling that they could have been there as well, if they had not surrendered 3 goals to Argentina in the last 15 minutes of their final group game. UEFA then advanced 7 sides to the Quarterfinals (as only Spain dropped out after losing 2-1 to the Americans), 3 to the Semifinals (with Sweden defeating England 2-1 for third place on July 6) and the Netherlands facing the U.S. in the final, losing 2-0 on July 7.
The Women's World Cup Finals are also critical within UEFA as the top three finalists advanced directly to next year's Olympic Finals—namely great Britain (via England), Sweden and the Netherlands. There is still confusion among some correspondents who occasionally cover women's football—particularly in America—who think that UEFA should hold Olympic Qualifiers and that the Olympic Finals should have more than 12 teams. Oceania also doesn't hold a separate Olympic Qualifiers (not that we should start using Oceania as our standard for women's football procedures) while the confederation-wide European Championships Qualifying and then Women's World Cup Qualifying every two years provides all of the European nations plenty of strong competitive games on a regular basis. It also speaks to where the Olympic Games football competition ranks among FIFA and some National Football Federations—very low on the men's side as it is a U-23 tournament with three overage players—and is perpetually handicapped by FIFA to keep it from rivaling its high revenue-generating and prestigious World Cup. On the Women's side, there are no age restrictions but—and I have covered women's football in the Olympics in the past—it still is not prioritized organizationally by the IOC like the Women's World Cup is by FIFA. I struggle with the condensed schedule of games that necessitates having to start the competition even before the official opening of the Olympics, plus allows only 20 players on the roster versus 23 and the venues typically are located outside the host city. The U.S. started that practice with the 1984 men's Olympic Tournament and it does spread the Olympic Experience to other cities in the host nation, which is a huge benefit. Football draws great crowds, but this tournament is just not seen in the same light as the World Cup and resources are typically not as large. Sorry, but the Olympic Games tournament, while worthwhile, is not as important as the Women's World Cup and probably never will be, since FIFA again has to protect its property, and the Women's World Cup is growing in status around the world after its eighth edition in France.
As far as Sweden's triumphant march to third place in this tournament—their third bronze medal Women's World Cup campaign after 1991 and 2011—and with their second place finish in 2003 in the U.S., they have only failed to make the knockout stage once (in 2007 in China) in eight tournaments. A fellow journalist from Sweden told me in France that Sweden's chances at the start of this tournament to advance into the latter stages were remote and making the Olympics seemed a bridge too far. Despite advancing second out of Group F, losing 2-0 to the Americans with largely a reserve roster in their last Group match, Sweden was never given enough credit and their 2-1 Quarterfinal win over Germany was a landmark event for the nation, while Stina Blackstenius (Linkopings FC of Sweden) confirmed her status as an up-and-coming top class striker, scoring her country's winner early in the second half. It was Sweden's first competitive victory over traditional powerhouse Germany in 24 years. Sweden lost to Germany 2-1 in the 2003 WWC Final—a match this reporter covered—and fell by the same score line in the 2016 Olympic Final. Lina Magull (Bayern Munich) opened the scoring for Germany in the 16th minute before Sofia Jakobsson (Montpellier of France)—who was so dynamic in attack from the wing all tournament—tied it in the 22nd minute, slotting the ball under the leg of goalkeeper Almuth Schult (Vfl Wolfsburg of Germany).
Germany allowed only 2 goals at this Women's World Cup but unfortunately exited before the semifinals. Germany for some reason had underperformed of late in this tournament when it is held in Europe. After winning consecutive titles in the U.S.in 2003 and in China in 2007, they fell out at the quarterfinal stage at home in 2011—albeit with the added pressure of host—and now in France. German coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg fell short of the semifinals in her first six months in charge, after doing so well in developing Switzerland into a competitive UEFA side. She said after the Sweden match: "We knew it was going to be difficult. We have to make sure this process goes on despite the defeat, to keep on growing, to gain strength and channel the negative experience into something positive and to learn our lessons from it." She should be kept on by the German Football Federation and given the time to prepare the side for the 2021 UEFA Finals in England and the 2023 WWC, likely in Asia—either in Australia, Japan or the Korea Republic.
Sweden's 1-0 overtime defeat to the Netherlands was a classic game, but they came back to defeat England for third 2-1, with goals coming from Sofia Jakobsson (29) and Kosovare Asllani (Linkopings), who turns 30 later this month. This reporter saw Asllani line up with the WPS' Chicago Red Stars in 2010, along with English international Karen Carney, who had announced a few days before the final that she was retiring from all football. Carney came to WPS in 2009 with Emma Hayes and rejoined her in 2015 with Chelsea, where she has played the last four seasons. We wish all the best to Carney and hope that we will see Jakobsson and Asllani with the Olympic team and in more tournaments for Sweden.
The Netherlands were a popular team for neutrals to follow; their colorful fans flooded across the border to support their players in France and added a great atmosphere, as they did to the EUROS Finals to years ago when they hosted. They built on their UEFA title and their 2019 WWC second place finish is something to relish, going six straight games in France with a win before falling to the U.S. on July 7 by a 2-0 score line. They should gain more experience at the Olympics next summer and will be favorites to repeat their European title in England in two years' time.
For England, a weekly taken penalty late in their 2-1 loss to the Americans by Steph Houghton (Manchester City) as well as an earlier goal by Ellen White (Birmingham City) that was nullified through VAR, could have seen the Lionesses force overtime and possibly make their first ever Women's World Cup Final. For the Olympics, they could test a few new players but keep a core ahead of the EUROS in 2021, for which they will not have competitive qualifying games. As a Great Britain squad, most likely they could add from Scotland's Rachel Corsie (Utah Royals—U.S.), Kim Little (Arsenal—England) and Erin Cuthberth (Chelsea—England), Jess Fishlock of Wales (Reign FC in Washington State) and Sarah Robson of Northern Ireland—who played collegiately at Southern Mississippi State University in the States as well as in Iceland and is now with Durham in England—or Rachel Furness, who represented Great Britain at the World University Games in 2011 inChina after representing Irish Universities in the 2009 event in Serbia, and is now with Reading.
If we look at the three semifinalists from Europe, England's national league is doing quite well, attracting players primarily from other European countries, and has received significant investment over the past few years. Hosting the European Championship will no doubt help the league to continue to grow. The 2005 European Championships which England also hosted was quite a different time in the country's development of the women's game but it was a signature moment for the sport in the country and England attracted over 29,000 to their opening match in Manchester and 25,000 in Blackburn, the latter which drew a similar size crowd for the final, which England did not make as they finished last in their group. Expect bigger crowds in two years' time, even for non-England matches which in some cases drew only a few thousand fans 14 years ago.
The Dutch women's league—the Eredivisie—has been building nicely for years, even integrating with Belgium's league for a few years. It has never been a large importer of talent but that could change with more investment—after all, in two years, this team has been in two major international tournament finals and won one. As the league develops, it must try to avoid creating a gulf between more affluent clubs such as Ajax, PSV and Twente and the rest of the league.
Finally, Sweden's Damallsvenskan seems to have been popular to bash of late; is this partially because Marta left for the U.S. (once again) or that national team players have moved to France, Germany and England? Sweden's per game average fell below Germany some years back after being for years the top drawing league on the continent. I watch a lot of Damallsvenskan games and I think it is still one of the highest level leagues in Europe—along with Germany, France and England—but also more competitive from top to bottom. This season, small town club Vittsjo is currently joint second in the table, drawing from an area with 1,700 inhabitants. Sweden's top three leagues are still a major draw to Americans after college and Africans trying to break into European club football. Just as the national team has been underappreciated, the Damallsvenskan should not be ignored and is still viewed by most as a higher level league than those in Iceland (a short season), Finland (where most of their national team players for years emigrated to) and Norway.
We talked about this region last week and New Zealand seemed to regress in 2019 compared to past World Cups, but their issues are more at the Confederation level in terms of competitiveness.
Asian Football Confederation
The five Asian representatives overall were a disappointment, none more so than Australia, who were a favorite to make the semifinals for the first time. Sam Kerr did well for the Matildas, scoring 5 in 4 WWC games, and then returning to Chicago to score a hat trick in her first NWSL game back. She is still currently the undisputed best forward in the world but the Matildas need to reconstruct its back line and add some center backs for their Olympic Qualifiers.
Japan and China, matching the Matildas, all fell in the Round of 16 to UEFA sides. Korea Republic is still in the second tier at the world level and Thailand bounced back nicely after their 13-0 loss to the U.S. in their 'score and cheer' farce—even scoring against Sweden in a 5-1 loss, while their 2-0 loss to Chile kept the South Americans from advancing to the knockout stage on goal difference. Thailand needs to continue to build their infrastructure at home to attempt a three-peat of WWC berths in 2023.
Next Week: We look at CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and the Confederation of African Football's results from France 2019.
Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.
Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey