After a week of controversy at FIFA, the return of competitive football will be a welcomed distraction to the outgoing president. Despite announcing his departure on Tuesday, Sepp Blatter has confirmed that he is still set on attending the seventh Women’s World Cup which kicks off tomorrow in Canada. The tournament runs for just under a month and features 24 teams playing across six Canadian cities – Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton. Somewhat surprisingly no games will be played in Canada’s biggest city, Toronto but this is largely due to the fact that they will be playing host to this years Pan American Games which starts around the same time. FIFA’s decision to hand Canada the Women’s World Cup is another show of good faith towards the country, who have previously hosted other FIFA tournaments including the Under 16’s and Under 20’s men’s World Cups and the Under 19’s and Under 20’s Womens World Cup. However it is the magnitude and prestige of this tournament that has the Canadian Soccer Association so excited as they see it as a perfect way to demonstrate their capabilities to FIFA with a view to a potential bid for the men’s tournament in 2026 or 2030.
That said, Canada has not belittled the Women’s World Cup in the slightest and is rapidly turning up the heat on what is set to be a compelling competition. Current holders Japan are out to win back to back titles after winning the 2011 World Cup in Germany, beating the US in the final via a nerve jangling penalty shootout. The star of Japan’s victory four years ago was their inspiration captain Homare Sawa. At 36, Sawa is Japan’s most capped female player of all time with 197 caps and is the country’s top goalscorer with 82 goals to date. Her five goals in the 2011 World Cup bagged her the Golden Boot award and a place in women’s football growing history. She will now look to add to that legendary status with a record breaking sixth World Cup appearance and a chance for one last final swansong. Japan are in group C alongside an impressive looking Switzerland and the fairly unknown commodities that are Cameroon and Ecuador. Progression is expected at which point the real defense of their title should begin.
Unlike Germany four years ago or China four years before that, the number of competitive teams able to win the tournament has increased dramatically. Besides Japan, any one of Germany, China, Brazil, USA, England, France, Sweden or hosts Canada could lift the World Cup trophy in Vancouver on July 5th. A victory for Canada on home turf would mean more to the side than can ever be expressed and would be as a career high for captain Christine Sinclair are her teammates. Qualifying from their group however may be tricky with China, Holland and New Zealand making the foursome. Germany and Brazil should reach the knock out stages fairly easily after being placed in substandard groups. England and France will battle it out with Colombia and Mexico in Group F but its Group D that has everyone talking of a group of death. As one of the clear favourites for the tournament, the news that the US had been grouped with Australia, Sweden and Nigeria was not welcomed widely.
With arguably the strongest and most experienced squad in the tournament, the US should be good enough to make it through at the expense of Australia and Sweden but its the challenge of Nigeria that potentially poses the biggest threat. Whilst the Nigerian team is fairly unknown with a majority of their players still playing their league football back home, it is their comfort on artificial pitches that has the US worried. In controversial circumstances and blaming the weather conditions in Canada, FIFA decided in its wisdom to play this World Cup on all artificial pitches. The decision sparked protests from the players who claimed the move was an act of discrimination against the women’s game and that FIFA would never make the men’s game play on artificial surfaces during their World Cup. They are of course right as the risk to serious injuries on these synthetic surfaces is greater than on grass. Despite calls for a change back to grass, the tournament will go ahead on artificial pitches which could hand those teams who play regularly on the surface a huge advantage. Nigeria are one such nation who play 100% of their games back home on fake pitches. Their knowledge of how the ball performs on this surface and the fact that they have spent years working with it could give them a slight competitive edge.