The USA’s Exit Just One Talking Point in a Women’s World Cup of Shocks

On Monday, less than 24 hours after the US Women’s National Team had lost their grip on the World Cup trophy – they were going for a hat-trick of titles after victories in 2015 and 2019 – with a penalty shootout defeat to Sweden, the New York Post published an opinion piece from Piers Morgan titled: “Don’t cry for Megan Rapinoe and humiliated USWNT – they’re a bunch of unpatriotic losers.”

In keeping with much of Morgan’s recent work, it was full of vitriol and little else. What it did point out correctly was that this was the worst-ever performance by a US team since the tournament began in 1991. Till date, the formidable USWNT had won four of the eight World Cups. They had never finished lower than third.

These are interesting times for global football. The men’s World Cup in Qatar in 2022 may have been won by Argentina, but shocks and upsets were the name of the game, right from Saudi Arabia beating the eventual champions, to Japan outwitting mighty Spain. Morocco, who had never previously gone past the second round, went as far as the semi-final before running out of steam against France.

Whatever the men did, the women have gone a step further. The shocks at this World Cup in Australia and New Zealand have been of seismic proportions. The US loss to Sweden was the least of them, since the Swedes are at No. 3 in the world rankings. Germany, winners in 2003 and 2007 and runners-up to England in the European Championships in 2022, came into the tournament ranked No. 2 in the world. They didn’t get out of the group stage, with Colombia (ranked 25) and Morocco (72) progressing instead.

Canada, ranked 7th in the world, and Brazil, a rung lower and featuring the legendary Marta – playing her sixth and last World Cup – were other teams that didn’t make it out of their groups. But the surprises didn’t end there. Japan thumped Spain, whose core comes from a champion Barcelona side, 4-0 to top their group, and then saw off Norway, 1995 champions, in the round of 16. Japan, winners in 2011 and finalists four years later, play fluid and fast football and look a good bet to go much deeper in the competition. The manner in which they took Spain apart would have sent shockwaves through other squads.

Only a fool would discount Spain’s chances though. Alexia Putellas, the world’s most accomplished female footballer, is slowly finding her way back to full fitness, and Aitana Bonmati, her fellow Barcelona star, showcased delightful footwork and trickery while scoring twice in a 5-1 hammering of Switzerland in the last 16. With the experienced Jennifer Hermoso to lead the line, a switched-on Spain are a match for any team.

After the swathe of upsets, the most likely winners look to be England, the current European champions. They dodged a bullet in the last 16, seeing off feisty Nigeria on penalties. The Nigerians were desperately unlucky, hitting the bar twice, but their failure to make use of the extra woman cost them dearly. Lauren James, the Chelsea forward, had been England’s shining light in the group stage, but after being marked out of the game, she was sent off for a disgraceful stamp on a Nigerian opponent. England, however, had the nous and the big-game temperament to hold on. With the US and Germany out of the running, this is England’s best chance to win the biggest honour.

As for a dark horse, look no further than Australia, the co-hosts. They were comfortable 2-0 winners against Pernille Harder’s Denmark, and with the great Sam Kerr getting back to full fitness, they’re a dangerous proposition when backed by fervent home support.

The sell-out crowds and sizeable TV audiences have shown that the Women’s World Cup is now far more than an afterthought. And if there’s a new name on the trophy – perhaps England or Spain – that will only add to the momentum that has been built over the past few years.

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