The Women’s World Cup starts this week, with 32 teams – for the first time in the competition’s history – competing for the top prize in women’s football. The 2023 World Cup is also the first in its history to see two countries host the competition, as Australia and New Zealand welcome the sides.
In a tournament full of firsts, here are 10 predictions of our own as the action gets under way.
1. A Little Less Time Spent on VAR
2019 marked the first Women’s World Cup to use VAR and it’s fair to say it was about as controversial as it has remained in the intervening years. Penalties were retaken, offside decisions felt like they took longer than games themselves, and of course, no one really knew what was going on.
Twenty-six penalties were awarded in 2019, the most ever at a World Cup, and an increase on the 22 given in 2015. Those 26 spot-kicks came from just 52 games, so on average 2019 saw a penalty awarded every two games.
That did not help England, however. Despite being awarded the joint most penalties (four – tied with the US), they managed to miss three of those, including one in the semi-final. It was the most penalties ever missed at a Women’s World Cup tournament by a single nation.
With automated offsides set to make their Women’s World Cup debut, the time spent on VAR should be reduced somewhat, but with officials set to clamp down on time-wasting by increasing stoppage time as they did at the 2022 Qatar World Cup, expect to still be enjoying drawn out halves of football.
2. Marta and Christine Sinclair to Score
Cast your mind back to 20 September 2003. A 20-year-old Christine Sinclair gave Canada a 1-0 lead over Germany in the fourth minute of their opening group stage game.
Just a day later, a 17-year-old called Marta scored her first ever World Cup goal, the opener in a 3-0 win for Brazil over South Korea.
Twenty years later, both players are heading to their sixth World Cup tournament.
Both Marta and Sinclair have scored in every World Cup they have played in, and this one is likely to be their last. Marta holds the record for the most goals ever scored at a World Cup while Sinclair is the all-time record international goal scorer for both men’s and women’s football with 190 goals scored across her career.
Expect them both to sign off with a bang.
3. New Zealand to Become the First Host Nation to Be Knocked out at the Group Stage
This World Cup marks the first time that two countries have hosted the tournament together, and it’s fair to say that New Zealand is the junior partner of the two. Ranked 26th in the world, they have never won a World Cup game in their history. They are also on a rather unfortunate 10-game losing streak.
The good news though is that the last game they won was against The Philippines, who are in their group again, so even if they do go out at the group stage, they might be able to get their first World Cup win.
Opta’s tournament predictor fancies New Zealand to just qualify out of Group A, ahead of Switzerland. Jitka Klimková’s side are given a 53% chance of progressing into the last 16, a mere 0.3% ahead of Switzerland. If New Zealand don’t qualify for the knockout stages, they’ll become the first host nation to fail to do so in Women’s World Cup history.
Meanwhile, if you are Australia, expect to go out at the quarter-final stage. After being eliminated in the group stage in their first three World Cup appearances, Australia have subsequently reached the knockout stages in each of the last four editions but have never progressed further than the quarter-finals.
To make matters worse, the last four World Cup hosts have all exited the competition at that point. Only the USA, hosting in 1999 and 2003, have managed to go past that point, winning the competition in 1999 and finishing third in 2003.
Home advantage? Not so much at the Women’s World Cup.
4. Alexia Putellas to Finally Score a World Cup Goal
Two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas was in a race against time to make the World Cup this year, having sustained an ACL injury on the eve of last year’s Euros. The Spanish midfielder won that race though and is heading to her third World Cup tournament. But despite scoring more than 200 career goals, she is yet to score one on the world’s biggest stage.
Having turned 29 this year, it seems unlikely that this would be her last World Cup, but go without a goal again and she risks becoming the greatest women’s player never to have scored at the tournament.
5. Lucy Bronze Will Be Key for England
England’s injury concerns have been well documented heading into this World Cup but the biggest problem they have actually faced has been retirements. England’s average age at the 2019 World Cup was 27.8 years old – that has dropped to 26.4 for this tournament. That makes the Lionesses the 12th youngest squad competing in this year’s tournament.
Of the four players who featured in every match for England at the last World Cup, Lucy Bronze is the only one present in this year’s squad, with the right-back having started all but two games in England’s last four international tournaments.
The 2019 World Cup was a standout tournament for Bronze, who had the most touches (691), the most passes ending in the final third (136) and the joint most interceptions at the tournament (18). She is also the only defender to have created more than 10 chances over the past two World Cups. Her performances in 2019 propelled her to a number of individual awards, including winning the Silver Ball (awarded to the second-best player) at the tournament itself.
Bronze has also scored in the knockout stages of all but one of the international tournaments she has featured in. The four goals she’s scored across the knockout stages of the 2015 World Cup, 2019 World Cup and 2022 Euros make up a third of her total international goals.
A nailed down starter for Sarina Wiegman, while there have been some concerns around Bronze’s decline in recent years, she is not someone who shies away from the big stage. She’ll be crucial for the Lionesses once more.
6. Katie McCabe to Get a Yellow Card
While Katie McCabe has still not quite caught up with Kate Longhurst when it comes to the all-time WSL yellow card stakes, McCabe is not afraid to get stuck in. Averaging a yellow card once every five WSL matches, McCabe’s one-match ban for hitting Chloe Kelly on the head with the ball was a highlight of the WSL season.
The Irish forward, who can also play at full-back, is making her World Cup debut with her country and as captain will surely be finding herself in the thick of the action.
Yellow cards meanwhile are on the increase at the World Cup – there were 124 handed out at the last tournament, up from 110 in 2015.
But fear not, Ireland fans, even if McCabe does pick up a yellow card or two, there’s always a chance she’ll score a screamer. Her winning goal against Manchester City won the WSL goal of the season.
7. Will We See a Record Defeat?
With the expansion of the tournament to 32 teams, the gap between team quality is bigger than ever. Zambia are the lowest-ranked team in the competition, ranked 77th by FIFA, 24 places below Jamaica who were the lowest-ranked team in 2019.
The current record defeat was set back in 2019, when the USA beat Thailand 13-0. They were duly criticised for their rather effusive celebrations.
But with the gap only growing wider, could an even more lopsided loss be coming?
If you were going to worry for anyone, it might be Vietnam who play the US in their opening group match. Vietnam’s biggest-ever defeat came against Australia back in 2015 in an 11-0 loss. However, with standards constantly rising within women’s football, hopefully that USA-Thailand result will hold onto the record forever.
8. But Average Goals to Decline
Despite the increased number of teams, the Women’s World Cup has slowly become a little less free scoring. From the heady heights of an average 3.8 goals per game in the early 1990s, recent tournaments have seen the average settle around 2.8.
Defences are getting better, and while you might see some blowouts in the group stages, by the time we reach the knockouts things will tighten up. Ten of the 16 knockout stage matches in 2019 were decided by one goal.
9. Alex Morgan to Become the First Player to Be Top Scorer Twice
Alex Morgan was pipped to the 2019 Golden Boot by Megan Rapinoe despite all three of Morgan, Rapinoe and Ellen White scoring six goals across the tournament. While Rapinoe might have ended up scoring six (and racking up three assists) in fewer minutes, and therefore taking home the shiny statue, Morgan has the opportunity to do something no player has ever done before at a Women’s World Cup, and finish as top scorer twice.
Since 2019, Ellen White has retired and Megan Rapinoe is unlikely to play a starring role for the US, so Morgan has a clear run at this one.
That said, there are plenty of other top strikers at the tournament who will be looking to walk away with the Golden Boot.
Norway’s Ada Hegerberg and Australia’s Sam Kerr have been two of the world’s most prolific goalscorers in recent years, with Norway in particular looking like they have a kind group. Morgan herself knows what a plus that can be – five of her six goals in 2019 came in that 13-0 win over Thailand. It looks like six goals should just about do it as well. Not since Michelle Akers scored 10 in 1991 has a player needed more than seven goals to win the award
10. And at the End the US to Win It All Again
Okay, no one wants them to win it again (unless you’re American presumably) but it is hard to look past the US winning a third consecutive World Cup title. Our tournament predictor certainly has them as clear favourites.
The draw is slightly weighted in their favour with six top-10 ranked teams hidden away from them in the bottom half. Plus, given the Netherlands are in their group they’d only be able to meet them as late as the semi-finals.
Becky Sauerbrunn is clearly a big loss for them – going into a tournament without your captain is a serious blow – but they still have a core of the team who won in 2019. Seven of the team that started the 2019 final are in the US squad and youngsters like Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and Naomi Girma are worthy replacements for some of the veterans who have missed out.
The Americans have never finished lower than third at a World Cup, and every time they roll around people ponder whether the rest of the world have finally caught up with them. Most of the time, the answer to that question is no.