The history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup is rather short. The tournament started in 1991, which could be considered quite recent when factoring in that the men’s version dates all the way back to 1930.
But there’s something else about the WWC that’s short: the list of contenders for the championship trophy.
Since the start of the women’s tournament, only four countries have regularly appeared in the World Cup final to vie for a title: the United States, Germany, Norway and Japan. The U.S. and Germany have combined for five of the seven championships, withe the Americans winning three. Japan and Norway have one apiece and have each played in two finals.
By comparison, three nations — Brazil, Italy and Germany — represent the bulk of title winners on the men’s side, and a total of six nations have one at least two championships.
What does this all mean? Simply that the current state of international women’s soccer consists of the cream of the crop, followed by everyone else. The 2019 version of the WWC, however, could represent a shift in that reality.
“I think it’s going to be a remarkable world cup,” said Jill Ellis, coach of the United States Women’s National Team. “I think the level of competition four years on from the last one has exponentially increased — the different teams now rising. It’s going to be a very open World Cup and we’re excited to go out there and attack it.”
When the tournament begins Friday, 24 nations will compete in France for a chance at worldwide glory. A change to either put their country on the map, or keep it on the map. The U.S., for example, will attempt to win back-to-back World Cup titles for the first time since Germany did it in 2003 and 2007. Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn are back to help the U.S. reach that goal.
Speaking of Germany, its national team is looking to tie the U.S. in total number of World Cup championships. The last time it reached a final was 2007 against Brazil. Striker Alexandra Popp, playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsán and goalkeeper Almuth Schultwill lead the charge for the Germans, who have a new head coach in Martina Voss-Tecklenburg.
But to Ellis’ point, the U.S. and Germany are not the only countries with a legitimate shot to win it all this year, despite them being ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the FIFA rankings. France is the host country and played very well in the SheBelieves Cup, which occurred at the beginning of the year, but has never made a final. England, ranked third by FIFA and led by Jodie Taylor and Lucy Bronze, played in the 2015 semifinal against Japan and has historically held its own against the U.S. and Germany.
Then there are the lower ranked but up-and-coming countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada and even Sweden. Japan is looking to avenge its loss in the 2015 final, while Australia wants to finally make it out of the quarterfinals after being stopped in its tracks there the previous three tournaments.
Meanwhile, four countries will get their first taste of World Cup competition — Jamaica, South Africa, Scotland and Chile. Although it may be easy for them to be satisfied with simply qualifying, at least one of those nations will try to make a deep run.
“Obviously Jamaica as a country has not been to the World Cup before,” said Kayla McCoy, a forward for the Houston Dash and member of the Jamaican national team. “But I don’t think we’re going in with an intimated mindset of facing bigger countries that have been there before, been there several times, have more people. I don’t think that’s something that’s kind of a daunting task for us. We’ve very confident in the personnel we have, in the skill we have and the talent we have on our team.”
The thing about the World Cup is once the group stage is over and the tournament shifts to the win-or-go-home knockout round, anything can happen. The possibly exists for a dark horse to come out of the woodwork and shock with the world with a Cinderella story-like run.
But until that happens, it will be the familiar flags of the U.S., Germany, England, Norway and Japan that the other 19 nations have to get through first.
A: France (4), South Korea (14), Norway (12), Nigeria (38). The Group of Death
B: Germany (2), China PR (16), Spain (13), South Africa (49)
C: Australia (6), Italy (15), Brazil (10), Jamaica (53)
D: England (3), Scotland (20), Argentina (37), Japan (7)
Don’t sleep on: Japan. The world’s seventh-ranked team might fool casual followers of women’s international soccer, but make no mistake: Japan is the real deal. In 2015, the Japanese reached the final only to lose to the U.S. Strong passing through the midfield and creative attacking helped Japan beat Brazil and draw both Germany and the U.S. in 2019 matches.
E: Canada (5), Cameroon (46), New Zealand (19), Netherlands (8)
F: USA (1), Thailand (34), Chile (39), Sweden (9)
This is the fun part. While practically all the top-ranked countries will not only advance to the one-game, win-or-go-home round, they will likely win their groups, putting them in a specific spot on the knockout bracket. What happens from there will be a whirlwind.
The top teams should still advance to the semifinals, like the U.S., England, Germany and the Netherlands. But because draws have the added intrigue of 15-minute overtime periods and penalty shootouts, this is the opportunity for teams like Scotland, South Korea, Norway or Spain to stage upsets in the round of 16 and shake up the entire tournament.
In the end, though, the top two FIFA-ranked teams will fight for the trophy.
Given the historic strength of both nations and the fact that both are chasing history, expect to see the U.S. and Germany left as the final two teams in the tournament. While they have never before met in a WWC final, 2019 will put them on a collision course.
Germany has played the U.S. tight in the two matches between them — the 2015 World Cup semis and the 2018 SheBelieves Cup. But the Germans were unable to score a single goal against the Americans in either match.
It will be another tight one, but the U.S. will win the 2019 Women’s World Cup, repeating as champions.