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World Cup: Debutants and injuries dominate buildup

July 13, 2023

The women's World Cup promises to be the most exciting for years with more teams, more money and the chance for a dark horse to claim all the glory. DW highlights what fans at home and abroad should keep an eye on.

United States celebrate Women's World Cup win
Megan Rapnioe and the US women are looking to defend their World Cup title a second time runningImage: Mirko Kappes/foto2press/picture alliance

The women's World Cup kicks off in Australia and New Zealand on July 20 and is set to be the biggest iteration of the competition yet.

With 32 teams, this year's summer showpiece Down Under will see more countries involved, more prize money on offer and already boasts more tickets already sold than for the whole of the 2019 edition in France.

And, after last-minute broadcast deals were struck with the main five European countries, including Germany, to ensure the tournament will be shown live. DW breaks down what fans at home and abroad can expect.

Debutants galore but can they pull off a shock?

A quarter of the countries involved are set to feature at theirfirst-ever World Cup, with the expansion of women's football across the globe becoming more evident.

While having so many first-time entrants to the tournament is somewhat linked to expansion from the 2019 finals in France from 24 to 32 teams, many of the teams have traveled with the belief that they are in Australia to more than just make up the numbers.

Zambia, who made history by becoming the first landlocked country in Africa to reach the women's competition, beat Germany, the side ranked second in the world, in the teams' final warmup match in July.

Barbra Banda stretching for the ball
Barbra Banda scored twice, including the winning goal as Zambia beat GermanyImage: Daniel Karmann/dpa/picture alliance

Meanwhile, Portugal, who were drawn in Group E alongside both 2019 finalists, the United States and the Netherlands, managed to hold EURO 2022 winners England to a goalless draw in a strong defensive outing in their final match prior to travelling to New Zealand.

Although the realities and differences of playing on the biggest stage in world football and a friendly are large, all eight newcomers have players in the squads who play their club football in Europe, the United States or Latin America and could pose a threat to the bigger nations.

Powerhouses struggling with injuries 

Since January, many of the headlines centering around women's football have disappointingly been focused on a number of top players suffering season-ending injuries that ruled them out of this summer's World Cup.

England captain Leah Williamson tore her anterior cruciate ligament in April to become the third player from the EURO 2022 winning team to miss out on the FIFA competition, alongside Beth Mead (ACL) and Fran Kirby (knee surgery).

Leah Williamson standing with her hands on her hipswith a bandage on her injured knee
Leah Williamson tore her ACL against Manchester United in the WSLImage: Liam Asman/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance

An abundance of ACL injuries  have also depleted the attacking edge within the French squad with winger Delphine Cascarino and striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto falling prey. Meanwhile, midfielder Amandine Henry was agonizingly ruled out just 13 days before the start of the World Cup after sustaining a calf injury while training with the national side.

Current holders the United States aren't exempt either. They have an incredible 14 World Cup debutants in their squad with ACL tears, adding Catarina Macario and Christen Press to the list of absentees. 

USWNT capitan Becky Sauerbrunn was sidelined just days before the team's squad was announced while enigmatic forward Mallory Swanson tore her patellar tendon during a friendly against Ireland in April which required surgery and produced a minimum six-month recovery timeline.

Even though the top teams remain the most likely to lift the title, their new-look squads mean they are far from the polished and fearful side's they have been in the past.

Federation fights add to uncertainty

Disruption for teams ahead of the tournament has not only been limited to injuries but equally punctuated with fights between players and their federations.

Olympic champions Canada briefly went on strike in February before threats of retaliation from their federation Canada Soccer forced them back onto the pitch.

The fight for equal pay, equal treatment and equal working conditions compared to the men’s team had been simmering for over a year before the team reached its breaking point.

Christine Sinclair aims to strike the ball with her right foot
Christine Sinclair has accused Canada Soccer of failing the women's teamImage: Nick Wass/AP/picture alliance

Captain Christine Sinclair admitted at the time that the constant back-and-forth with Canada Soccer was exhausting the squad and hampering their preparations for the World Cup. With no resolution yet to the issues raised over five months ago, the team's and players' mindsets have undoubtedly been affected.

In Europe, both France and Spain also sought change that impacted their buildup — although with strikingly different outcomes. Former head coach Corinne Diacre was sacked after several players quit the squad citing a "very significant divide" that had "reached a point of no return".

But, while 15 of the top players in the Spanish squad also refused to play under Jorge Vilda, having accused him of creating a culture that negatively impacted their mental health — the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) has stuck by their head coach.

Eventually 12 of the 15 players made themselves available for the World Cup after a 10-month standoff, but Mapi Leon, a star defender for Champions League winners Barcelona, was one of the three to remain steadfast in her stance.

All in all, with some of the best players in the world missing from the tournament, the buildup for many teams has been far from ideal, leaving the door ajar for an unexpected dark horse to possibly steal the limelight and all the glory.

Edited by: James Thorogood