- Favorites France and the USA enjoyed early success at the Women's World Cup, where the real stories are actually at the bottom and the teams that were expected to largely roll over only to–aside from Thailand–hold their own.
With the U.S. women's national team finally getting to join the fun in France in Tuesday's historic rout of Thailand, every participating nation has made an opening statement at the 2019 Women's World Cup.
It's been an intriguing, at-times odd and heavily set-piece- and VAR-influenced competition over the last few days. Some favorites have looked as- or better-than advertised, while others may have achieved the result they desired, albeit not in the most dominant of circumstances. In many ways, the story has been the underdogs. Teams expected to be out of their depth have, save for Thailand, held their own and frustrated their more high-profile opponents.
Of course, one game apiece does not tell the story of a tournament. Plenty more will unfold as the group stage transitions into the knockout rounds. But here are the first impressions left behind after some of the more notable performances and some way-too-early reactions to what we've seen so far:
Played as advertised
France and the USA were the two odds-on favorites to win it all, and they both came firing out of the gate. The USA's performance was beyond everything we expected to see, yet the Americans won't truly be judged until the knockout stage begins. Such is life as the champion with the title-or-bust mentality.
France, though, entered with some questions. Would there be nerves for the host nation? Any early slip-up would surely ramp up the pressure on Les Bleues, who are desperate to force their way into the world's elite after premature exits in past competitions. Needless to say, a 4-0 win over South Korea allowed the hosts to put their immediate stamp on the tournament. The Amandine Henry-Eugenie Le Sommer-Wendie Renard Lyon connection was stellar, and France simply dominated from start to finish. Wednesday's bout vs. Norway, another impressive team from the first set of games, will be much more telling about just how primed France is to power its way through.
There's more to prove
Germany, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada were all touted as contenders for deep runs. Germany, for instance, was a unanimous finalist pick among SI's prediction panel before the tournament started. Yet the two-time winners were limited by a physical China to a 1-0 win, while the European champion Netherlands needed a stoppage-time goal to beat New Zealand 1-0 and Canada relied on a set-piece header to edge Cameroon, also by a 1-0 scoreline. Japan, the 2011 champion and 2015 runner-up, was held by Argentina to a 0-0 draw, and Australia succumbed to a last-minute goal in a shocking defeat to Italy.
Germany, Netherlands and Canada all earned three points, and that's ultimately what matters at this stage, but more is expected from all of them. It may be difficult for Germany to achieve its desired heights after playmaking star Dzsenifer Marozsan broke a toe and will miss at least the rest of the group stage, if not more.
For Japan and Australia, though, the stakes in the second match raise significantly. Argentina was supposed to be Japan's easiest match, at least on paper. That clearly didn't pan out, and subsequent games against Scotland and England will only increase in degree of difficulty. Australia figures to be in a less perilous position, but winning its group now will certainly require a win over a Brazil side that, while it entered on a nine-game losing streak and without a fit Marta, still had its way with Jamaica. Nobody in the 1B tier did much to distinguish itself just yet.
The inspirational stories
What was made abundantly clear in the run-up to this Women's World Cup is that the gap is closing at the top, where the U.S. has more than just one or two regular challengers for the title. What wasn't, though, was how valiant some of the true underdogs would wind up being. The Women's World Cup field covers a vast spectrum of supported teams with resources, history and domestic leagues to those who struggle to have a fraction of that. Yet in the matchups that were supposed to be one-sided–clearly not including the USA-Thailand demolition derby–we've seen way more competitive games than anticipated.
Argentina, a team with an 0-6-0 Women's World Cup record entering the competition and a modicum of federation support in relation to the nation's men's team, managed to hold Japan to a draw. Chile, another South American nation that comes from relatively little, dueled Sweden to a scoreless stalemate until a weather delay in the 72nd minute. The Swedes scored twice after the restart, breaking through against a defiant upstart, but the effort was still commendable.
New Zealand, meanwhile, courageously defended its way into the 93rd minute against the Netherlands despite ultimately succumbing to a 1-0 defeat. Italy, perhaps not as unheralded as its counterparts but still not considered to be among the world's powers, wound up beating Australia. Even South Africa, making its Women's World Cup debut, held a lead over Spain before falling victim to a pair of penalties as part of a 3-1 defeat. Some of the close calls are a result of supremely defensive tactics and/or stellar goalkeeping, but going toe-to-toe is not going to be a sound strategy to close the gap.
The focus will eventually shift fully to the favorites, the ones who will ultimately battle for the title. But in the early going, the story is on the second and third tiers of the world pyramid, which perhaps aren't as far from the top as they were initially perceived to be. Imagine how much closer they could get with proper investment around the globe.