Eight teams will play their first Women’s World Cup when the expanded tournament kicks off next week and a couple of recent shock results indicate that they might not just be in Australia and New Zealand to make up the numbers.
Critics of the expansion from 24 to 32 teams raised concerns that inexperienced newcomers might be trampled beneath the feet of the traditional powerhouses from Europe and North America.
Zambia, however, showed that no team should be underestimated last week when the World Cup first-timers shocked twice world champions Germany 3-2 in a pre-tournament friendly.
Zambia striker Barbra Banda grabbed a brace, including the winner deep into stoppage time, after making a pre-match pledge that her 77th-ranked side could make inroads Down Under.
“It’s a dream come true so I need to showcase my talent there,” the captain told reporters.
“We have set a target of progressing to the next round and do well there and maybe go all the way to the finals.”
Zambia, who open their campaign against 2011 winners Japan on July 22, will be joined at the tournament by fellow newcomers Haiti, Ireland, Morocco, the Philippines, Portugal, Panama and Vietnam, compared to just four first-timers seen in 2019.
“There most likely will be some lopsided scorelines just given the fact that some of these teams have not been able to be on the world stage or be in an environment like this,” said retired U.S. great Carli Lloyd.
The Fox Sports analyst nonetheless predicted the tournament would be “the biggest, best and most competitive World Cup to date”.
“It’s just amazing – a team like Ireland being able to come in and play in their first World Cup and Vietnam and Portugal even,” she told Reuters. “The expanded field is going to be great.”
The 21st-ranked Portuguese are the highest ranked among the newcomers and earlier this month held the European champions England to a goalless draw.
“I think anyone can beat anyone on any day,” said England defender Jess Carter.
“I think obviously we are constantly improving but the quality of international teams now is just getting better and better.
“The World Cup is so open for so many teams to go and win. Everyone wants to be challenging for the same thing.”
INSPIRE NEXT GENERATION
Portugal face a big test in their opener against 2019 losing finalists the Netherlands, while England play newcomers Haiti in their first match.
Haiti’s goalkeeper Kerly Theus hopes their debut can inspire the next generation and put her country on the map for the world’s most popular sport.
“I’ve been to tournaments where people said ‘Haiti? What’s that?’” she told the BBC. “We want the world to know about Haiti and the talent we have.
“Oh, and we want to get past the group stage.”
Ireland, a dark horse that analysts are keeping an eye on, suffered a scare after captain Katie McCabe rolled her ankle during a friendly against France two weeks before their debut campaign.
The Irish begin the tournament against Australia’s Matildas next Thursday and will be out to crash the co-host’s opening party.
After reigning champions the United States beat Wales 2-0 in their farewell match on Sunday, coach Vlatko Andonovski said that the top-ranked teams could not afford to take any side for granted.
“The top ten have always been there. The world that is catching up is Wales, is Vietnam, is Zambia, Portugal,” he told reporters.
“You know, the 7-0, 8-0 games are gone and we can see that. I mean, Germany plays against Zambia (and) loses 3-2. Those games are going to happen.”
The Americans had not been held goalless in the first half since January but were utterly flummoxed against 30th-ranked Wales before finally breaking through late into the affair.
While Wales did not qualify for the quadrennial tournament, the lower-ranked squad had sent a message to any of the favourites in Australia and New Zealand.
“No game is going to be easy,” said Andonovski. “It doesn’t matter who is in front of us.”