Start as you mean to go on
The fifth FIFA Women’s World Cup began yesterday in China, with a much-fancied German side putting Argentina to the sword. The final result – 11-0 – was a record for the tournament, and was made all the more enjoyable for the neutral by the fact that the scoring was bookended by identical mistakes by the Argentina goalkeeper, Vanina Correa. The first and last goals saw her flapping at a corner kick so ineffectively that the ball spun backwards over her head and into the net. Readers in the UK can see highlights here, courtesy of the BBC who, it’s heartening to note, will be covering the whole tournament.
Germany’s next opponents will be England, who begin their campaign today in Shanghai against Japan. Perhaps the most pleasing element to this World Cup tournament when compared to the men’s event is the lack of hoo-haa and media scrum, which basically just leaves you with a football tournament. 16 teams in 4 groups, with many of the favourites (naturally enough) drawn against one another straight away.
Group A: Argentina, England, Germany, Japan
Germany and England should be the favourites here. Germany are the reigning World and European champions, and their display against Argentina should strike fear into the hearts of the opposition. England – who have a fit-again Kelly Smith, one of the best women players in the world – will be looking to build on their heroic qualification, which saw them knock out a France team ranked 7th in the world in a play-off. Argentina’s ladies are not a patch on their men’s team – or anyone else’s women’s team, judging by yesterday’s performance – and are likely to struggle. Japan are Asia’s third-best team, and have often struggled on the big stage. They were, however, Olympic quarter-finalists in Athens 2004, and will be looking to exploit their kinship with the Asian climate.
Prediction: 1. Germany, 2. England, 3. Japan, 4. Argentina
Group B: Nigeria, North Korea, Sweden, United States
This unlikely-looking group is, in fact, the strongest of the four. The USA team are perhaps the most famous women’s team in the world and, in spite of the fact the Mia Hamm-inspired golden generation have now mostly retired from the scene, they are still ranked 1st in the world by FIFA. Twice World Cup winners (and third last time out in the USA), plus reigning Olympic champions, they are a formidable outfit. Their opposition may be heartened by their heavy defeat by Brazil in the final of the Pan-American Games this summer, though. Sweden, on paper, are their key opposition here. Benefiting from an exceptionally strong domestic league program, they also boast Hanna Ljungberg, the forward made famous by her abortive deal with the Perugia men’s team. They were runners-up 4 years ago. North Korea are the 5th ranked team in the world, twice Asian Champions (2001 and 2003), they enjoy the status of Asia’s top-rated women’s football team. Their debut World Cup appearance in 2003 ended badly for them, going out in the first round in the United States. They’ll be looking to benefit from knowledge of local conditions this time, whilst their opening match this morning against the USA has a Tom Clancy feel to it. The fourth team in this highly-competitive group are Nigeria, 9-times African champions. However, the African ladies game is not as strong as its European, Asian or American counterparts, and with the strength of the competition they will face here, Nigeria look like they’ll face an uphill struggle.
Prediction: 1. Sweden, 2. USA, 3. North Korea, 4. Nigeria
Group C: Australia, Canada, Ghana, Norway
Another deceptively strong group. Norway – World Champions in 1995 and, more famously, Olympic champions against the dominant Americans in Sydney 2000 – are FIFA’s 4th ranked team. Like the Swedes, they draw on a very strong domestic structure, and like their neighbours have also sometimes flattered to deceive on the big stage. They were beaten finalists in Euro 2005, though, and will be tough to beat. Canada were 4th in the 2003 World Cup, 3rd in this summer’s Pan-American games and are rated 9th in the world by FIFA. They will most likely be the Norwegians’ strongest competition. Australia – the delightfully nicknamed Matildas – are regulars at this level, but have rarely made an impact. However, a growing domestic league may be paying off – they were runners-up in the 2006 AFC tournament and Olympic quarter-finalists in 2004. It goes without saying, of course, that they are multiple Oceanic champions, before – like their men’s team – they upped sticks to join the AFC. Ghana look set to be the whipping boys of the group. Their best hope will be to exploit their rivals’ lack of familiarity with their game.
Prediction: 1. Norway, 2. Australia, 3. Canada, 4. Ghana
Group D: Brazil, China, Denmark, New Zealand
Brazil are a growing force in the women’s game, as evidenced by their 5-0 demolition of the USA in this summer’s Pan-American games final. They also boast the exceptionally talented Marta Vieira da Silva, more commonly known as Marta. However, this group will be no easy ride. The Danes, at FIFA ranking number 6, are rated two places above the Brazilians. Compared to their Swedish and Norwegian near-neighbours, however, Denmark are rather weaker. They’ve yet to qualify for an Olympic games, one of the major tournaments in the women’s game, and their World Cup record is patchy. Like their men’s team, they seem to save their best for the European Championships. China managed to wrest the Asian Championship back from their rivals North Korea last year, partly thanks to the goals of the splendily named and highly talented Ma Xiaoxu. As host nation, they will be impossible to discount in 2007. New Zealand, who since The Matildas exit to join the AFC, are now the biggest fish in the very small OFC pond, are unlikely to cause an upset here.
Prediction: 1. Brazil, 2. China, 3. Denmark, 4. New Zealand