SYDNEY (AP) — The traditional elite have been cut down to size at the Women’s World Cup.
That has been the standout theme as a tournament that has already set records for attendance and goals scored enters the quarterfinals stage, and it has made for high drama.
“It’s been absolutely incredible and a great testament to some of the work that is happening around the world,” FIFA’s head of women’s football, Sarai Bareman, told The Associated Press. “To see the results of this World Cup brings so much meaning to the work that we do.
“It’s really special, not only for the players and the teams, but for those of us who are working on the game day in and day out.”
Soccer’s world governing body FIFA is trying to grow the women’s game at pace, and it seems to be having an impact.
Established nations have fallen one by one over the past two weeks, with the back-to-back defending champion U.S. team joining No. 2-ranked Germany, Brazil and Olympic gold medalist Canada by going home early.
The tournament, being co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, has produced one upset after another.
The U.S. team’s penalty shootout loss to Sweden in the round of 16 ended its bid for an unprecedented three-peat of World Cup titles.
Lina Hurtig’s spot kick crossed the line by a tiny fraction and that was enough to send the pre-tournament favorites packing, and prompting questions about the future of U.S. soccer.
Two-time champion Germany opened with a thumping 6-0 win over Morocco but was beaten by Colombia and held to a draw by South Korea in the group stage. Brazil started off with a 4-0 win over Panama before losing to France and drawing with Jamaica. Both Germany and Brazil were gone before the knockouts.
Tournament newcomer Morocco, as well as South Africa, Jamaica and Colombia all advanced. The Colombians, the only team from the Americas still in contention, face England in the quarterfinals after edging Jamaica 1-0 in the round of 16.
“This World Cup has been amazing. As you can see, the gap is closing (between) the smaller teams and the bigger countries,” Jamaica’s Manchester City forward Bunny Shaw said. “Women’s football is growing. We’ve got to keep moving forward and keep pushing.”
What remains to be seen is whether the upsets are a quirk of this year’s tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, or a more permanent trend.
The Associated Press takes a look at some other trends from the opening weeks:
IMPROVEMENTS IN GOALKEEPING
There have been standout performances by goalkeepers so far, with the Americans repeatedly frustrated by Sweden’s Zecira Musovic in the round of 16. The Chelsea keeper produced a string of saves and was voted player of the match as the U.S dominated but couldn’t find a breakthrough in the game that ended 0-0 through extra time.
Netherlands keeper Daphne van Domselaar was player of the match as the Dutch advanced to the quarterfinals by beating South Africa 2-0.
While that game saw South Africa keeper Kaylin Swart make an error to allow Lineth Beerensteyn to score, she also pulled off a string of saves to keep the Netherlands at bay.
Nigeria’s captain Chiamaka Nnadozie’s made a crucial save to deny Canada’s Christine Sinclair a place in history in a scoreless opening draw, earning her player of the match accolades.
“Of course everything is not perfect, but I think we are going in the right direction,” said former Germany keeper Nadine Angerer, who is part of FIFA’s technical study group at the World Cup.
“What we’ve seen so far in general is that there are way better goalkeeping performances.”
Angerer said the save percentage in the group stage improved from 70% in 2019 to 77%.
IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT POSSESSION
The tactical improvement of less-established teams has been as highlight.
While teams with fewer outright stars have had to cede possession, they have still managed to be effective.
Jamaica’s tactical approach saw it advance from a group that included France and Brazil without conceding a goal. It was eventually eliminated by Colombia 1-0.
“Sometimes the decision when you go into a game is ‘Do I want the ball or do I want the opponent to have the ball?’ said Jill Ellis, who coached the U.S. to two World Cup titles. “But if I want my opponent to have the ball, I want them to have it because I want them to open up because my strengths are in the transition.”
So while Japan and Spain have dominated possession, Colombia’s counter-attacking threat has also been effective.
“You’re seeing the personality or the strengths of nations come to the forefront,” Ellis said. “It’s not trying to take this style for this team., it is: ‘What is my team really good at and how can I exploit that?’ I see that a lot more in this World Cup.”
TIME ADDED ON
It was a feature of the men’s World Cup in Qatar last year and FIFA is continuing to clamp down on time-wasting.
Lengthy periods of stoppage time have been played, seeing games go well beyond 90 minutes during regulation time.
While that initiative wasn’t continued by major domestic leagues after Qatar, the Premier League appears set to follow it up this season.
Arsenal scored an equalizer in the 11th minute of stoppage time against Manchester City in the Community Shield on Sunday before going on to win on penalty kicks.
The Women’s World Cup has been pulling in the fans.
Australia has twice played in front of crowds exceeding 75,000 in Sydney, limited only by the capacity of the stadium.
The attendance of 1,533,545 fans so far in the first two rounds has exceeded the previous record total of 1,353,506 when the World Cup was staged in Canada in 2015.
More than 500,000 people have attended fan zones in host cities to watch games on giant screens.
While this tournament has been expanded to 32 teams, up from 24, the fact that 14 games in the first two rounds have had crowds of more than 40,000 people points to the popularity of the event.
“This World Cup has shifted from being a team-supported tournament to a globally-followed event,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said. “This is why we are witnessing the greatest Women’s World Cup ever — and a record-breaking one.”
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP Women’s World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup