WC Countdown: Group E – New Zealand

We head deeper into group E and next up is New Zealand.

The Football Ferns, which is the nickname of the island’s beloved team, will head to their fifth World Cup, having qualified for their first back in 1991 for the inaugural cup in China. It would then be a 14-year long wait until they qualified for their next one, the 2007 edition, and they’ve qualified for all the others since, although never being able to make it out of the group stages. The road to France was quite a straightforward one for the Ferns, as they went through the qualification with 42 goals scored and 0 conceded in their five games. They went up against  Tonga, Cook Island, Fiji and New Caledonia, winning with numbers like 11-0 and 8-0 in the OFC Women’s Nations Cup.

Ali Riley is one of the names to look out for in the squad, as the vastly experienced fullback is looking to add another World Cup to her belt, having already played in three World Cups and three Olympics. The team captain is a strong presence at the back, and with her knowledge of big tournaments, she’ll be a huge asset. This is quite the comeback squad that coach Tom Sermanni will bring to France. Striker Hannah Wilkinson suffered a serious ACL-injury back in October, but thanks to her grit and determination she has managed to work her way back to match-fitness and is one of the 23 players named in the squad going to the World Cup.

hannah wilkinson
Wilkinson representing the Ferns, source

“I am so honoured to be named in this squad. It was an amazing feeling last week when I got the call from Tom. I am also really proud of myself because I know that I have worked really hard to get back,” she said.

“The first thing I thought about when the injury happened was France. That my World Cup dream was over. But my mentality from the get-go was to focus and work hard every day. I had doubt coming from all areas so that was a real test to listen to my inner self and my inner belief. Month after month I saw the progress. Suddenly we hit five months and I was looking pretty good to come back. There have been a lot of important lessons and it has been quite a journey,” she continued.

Another forward who has made it into the team is Emma Kete, who got the spot ahead of other strikers despite only having her first appearance for the Ferns since 2015 earlier this year.

“Emma’s comeback is a great lesson in maturity and how you can really play your way back in. If you are really focused, work hard and look to do the right things, you have got an opportunity. She has come back into the fold after being away from the team for a long time, but she has shown her intent to be a part of this squad,” coach Sermanni said of the forward.

Another important player to have on the team is defender Abby Erceg, a real veteran who has more than 100 senior appearances for the Ferns and who came out of retirement for a second time in January, only to be selected for the team for a fourth World Cup.

The Scottish coach Sermanni has a lot of experience in the women’s game, and this will be his fourth World Cup, having started his illustrious career with Australia back in 1995. He rejoined the Matildas to lead them to the quarterfinals in 2007 and 2011, took over the United States women’s national team for a year, was amongst the staff for the Canadian women’s national team during the World Cup 2015, then Orlando Pride for two years, before returning to international duty in October 2018 with the Ferns.

The Scot is a welcome refresher in the team after the previous coach Andreas Heraf caused a lot of drama. The Austrian coach spoke after the team lost 2-0 to Japan back in June 2018, saying that New Zealand “will never have (the) quality to compete” with the likes of Japan, which caused a lot of upset and lead to serious allegations emerging about the coach. The players association sent the NZF a letter voicing concerns about the coach, and 13 players had signed the letter saying they did not want to work under him anymore, as the coach allegedly upheld a ‘culture of intimidation’ and Ercag, the retired player who returned, described him as ‘delusional’.

Sermanni seems to change in between formations, depending on what kind of team they’re meeting, and against the likes of Norway and Australia, where he seemed to feel the need to be more defensively rigid, they played a 5-3-2, and they’ve also played the likes of 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1.

New Zealand participated in the Cup of Nations, which is a friendlies tournament consisting of four teams – Australia, Argentina, South Korea and the Ferns themselves, who suffered losses to the Matildas and South Korea but beat Argentina 2-0. They also played a friendly against Norway, which they won 1-0 and is considered a huge win for the side. New Zealand is going to play some more last minute friendlies before the World Cup, going up against the US on the 17th of May, England on the 1st of June and Wales on the 4th of June, before they kick off their World Cup campaign on the 11th.

That’s a wrap on the New Zealand team, and this inspirational group of athletes is surely one to keep an eye out for. But will they be able to make it past their group that contains tough opponents like Canada and Cameroon? Let us know what you think in the comment section below!

WC Countdown: Group D – Argentina

The next team out in group D is no other than Argentina.

It is a triumphant return to the international scene for the Argentinians, who last participated in the 2007 World Cup in China, 12 years ago, and which they’ve only participated in twice –  never managing to get out of the group stage. It has been a tough road to get to France for this team, and not solemnly from a qualification-route point of view. Only last month did the country finally decide to make the women’s league professional (by no means on the same level as the men’s, but still) after a lot of fighting, from the national team in general who went on a strike for equality  last year and were seen posing cupping their ears (‘is anyone listening?’), a photo which went viral at the Copa América and the issue finally got some recognition. Furthermore, players like Macarena Sánchez have played a huge role and they’ve used social media to draw attention to the fact that female football players in Argentina get very little to no help from their clubs or their national team whatsoever, whether that regards training clothes, food or treatment for injured players.

On their way to qualification, they played in the Copa América Femenina and they beat Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia, but lost to Brazil twice and then to Chile, causing them to end up in third place. This, in turn, caused them to face a play-off in the CONCACAF-CONMEBOL and they had to play Panama over two legs, winning 4-0 and drawing 1-1, and qualifying them for the World Cup.

Estefania Banini is captain of the team and the midfielder is dangerous in front of the goal as well as from outside the area. The 28-year-old, who is an important cog in the Argentinian set-up, scored three goals in seven games at the Copa América. Another important cog is the forward Soledad Jaimes, who scored five goals in the seven Copa América games, and who has just signed for one of the biggest football clubs in women’s football. Florencia Bonsegundo and Mariana Larroquette are two other attacking options with a record of scoring goals. Another, more unbacked goalscorer is Eliana Stabile, who is a defender but scored two vital goals in the playoffs.

Belén Potassa two-time goalscorer
Belén Potassa scored twice for Argentina against CSN Lady Coyotes Soccer. Picture source.

The coach of the team is Carlos Borrello, who first took over the team back in 2003 and managed them until 2012, when he was replaced by Luis Nicosia, after having led the team to their first two World Cups as well as their only title, the 2006 Copa América win. But in 2017 he returned and got to guide his team to yet another World Cup qualification. The coach has tried out a few different formations, but one that seems pretty constant is the 4-2-3-1.

Argentina participated in the Cup of Nations back in March, that took place in Australia, but the team lost all three games against New Zealand, South Korea and Australia with big goal margins and failing to score a single goal.

“Coming here is our preparation (for World Cup) and our players are trying to experience top-level matches playing against good teams,” Borrello said.

“We have to look beyond the final result because we are trying to get experience for our players.

“We are far away from the best teams, we know that but it’s a long way and we know that, it’s just the beginning.”

That’s a roundup on the South American team, that has been placed in a very tough group – going up against Scotland, England and Japan. It remains to be seen whether this team can surprise everybody and turn this group on its head. Let us know what you think in the comments below!

WC Countdown: Group D – Scotland

The next team in group D are the arch-rivals of EnglandScotland! They share the same wee island, but that’s about it. Since the dawn of time, England and Scotland have fought it out, on and off the football pitch, and as faith would have it they landed in the same group at the World Cup, which will make for a very exciting first game in group D.

The Scottish women’s national team and head coach Shelley Kerr has a very different squad at hand to the injury-plagued one that featured at the Euros 2017, where Scotland made an early exit after losing 0-6 to England and 1-2 to Portugal, and a 1-0 win against Spain could not save them. Their road to the World Cup in France worked out better than the Euros, but the Scots left it to the last game to secure qualification and did not make it easy for themselves. They won seven out of their eight games, but four out of those seven involved them fighting their way back from a losing position, and only on the last matchday it was confirmed that they finished above Switzerland in the group and qualified. Scotland then went to Portugal to play in the Algarve Cup in March, where they lost 0-1 to Canada, but won against Iceland 4-1 and against Denmark 1-0, in their preparations for the World Cup.

Looking at this Scottish team, there is undeniable talent in the squad. Just take young Erin Cuthbert, the 20-year-old who can’t stop scoring, for club and country. In her eighth games for Scotland in the qualification, she scored four goals, and she shares the top-scorer spot in the team with Jane Ross. Kim Little is another big name, and the creative midfielder has long been lauded s one of the best, but this will be the first time she gets to take her Scotland to a major tournament, as she was out injured for the Euros. In each of the last three qualifiers, she contributed with a vital goal, helping her team get a step closer to France. Lee Alexander is another emerging star between the goalposts, and the goalkeeper has managed to establish herself as the number one choice of coach Kerr.

Scotland women national team
Scotland WNT. Photo: Anders Henrikson

Something that has further helped develop the talent in the team, and allow them to focus on the football, is the financial help from the Scottish government, who went in with £80,00 of funding, which has enabled the squad to be full-time from January leading all the way up to the tournament in June.

“This announcement gives our home-based players an opportunity to train more, but also to rest more,” Kerr said to BBC Scotland.

“Some of them have to juggle full-time or part-time employment, or full-time education, as well as training with their clubs four or five times a week, on top of a strength and conditioning program as well.

“It is a big ask for those players who are not in a professional environment, and we need to make sure we support them as best we can. It is a huge weight off my shoulders and I know it is the same for the players.”

Midfielder Joanne Love, 32, who plays for Glasgow City is one of Scotland’s part-time players, who faces the struggle of balancing her day job with the demands of football.

“Particularly at my age, it’s getting a bit harder,” she said. “Some days I’m out the house for 12 hours between training in the morning, going to work then training at night.

“Elite athletes will tell you that you can’t go at 100mph all the time. Hopefully, I’ll find that balance and be top of my game come the World Cup.”

Shifting the focus over to Michelle “Shelley” Kerr. The former defender, who herself represented Scotland as a player, has previously managed teams such as Hibs and Arsenal on the women’s side, before becoming the first female manager in the UK to manage a men’s side when she took over Stirling University. The team constantly finished in the top five and she led them to the British Universities Championship final in 2014-15. In April 2017 she was appointed manager of the Scottish national team and have since led them to a historic first World Cup final.

Kerr is one for switching up the formations, and she’s had success with different ones. Her go-to choice seems to be the 4-2-3-1 but she is not afraid to switch it up and has also tried the 4-5-1 and 4-4-2 amongst others.

Scotland has a few games coming up, such as their game against Chile on the 5th of April 18:00 (UK time), they’re then going up against Brazil on the 8th of April, before welcoming Jamaica to Glasgow and Hampden Park on the 28th of May. The games will all be available on BBC Alba.

That concludes a little bit of insight on the Scottish squad. A lot of the buzz around this team will of course circulate around the England game, but they will also have to take on Argentina and Japan, two other big footballing nations. Do you think that the Scots can do it? Let us know in the comment section!

WC Countdown: Group D – England

Onto group D we go, and the first team out is no other than England.

The football crazy nation that is England has quite a strong team, also called the Lionesses (further emphasising their strength), and they’ve steadily worked their way up to establish themselves as one of the top teams in this tournament. At the World Cup in 2015, they grabbed the bronze medal after beating Germany 1-0, and at the 2019 SheBelieves cup, they won against Brazil and Japan and drew with the United States to win the whole tournament for the first time. They were full of confidence throughout the qualification stages and on average they scored three goals a game and conceded only once. Still, neighbours Wales kept up with them and gave them something to fight for, but England managed to secure their qualification spot with a 3-0 win in Wales, with one game to spare.

This is a team that is full of big and promising names, and one of the biggest ones is without a doubt, Fran Kirby. The 25-year-old is, despite her wee frame, a huge threat to any defender she comes up against and the striker, both creative and intelligent in her play, scored two goals and set up another five on England’s road to France. Other dangerous goal scorers include Toni Duggan, Nikita Parris (six goals in six games!), Beth Mead and Izzy Christiansen, and it just shows off the broad range of talent coach Phil Neville has to pick from. But not only do they have great attacking options, but they also have a strong defensive line that keeps goals out – and contributes to them. Steph Houghton, centre back and captain of the team, scored two goals in six games and curled THAT freekick in against the USA in the SheBelieves cup. Lucy Bronze is another defender with two goals in eight games and an eye for the game. To top things off they’ve got solid goalkeepers like Carly Telford, Karen Bardsley and Siobhan Chamberlain to choose from between the sticks. This also leaves out Jordan Nobbs, a fantastic creative midfielder who tore her ACL back in November and who will, unfortunately, miss out on the tournament.

Fran Kirby for England
Fran Kirby for England, source

There was a lot of controversy surrounding the appointment of Phil Neville. The famous former Manchester United player had never been a manager of a team, let alone a women’s side, and here he was going to come in and take over after Mark Sampson, the previous manager of the Lionesses, who was sacked back in September 2017 after evidence surfaced of “inappropriate and unacceptable” behaviour from when Sampson was coaching Bristol Academy, as well as allegations of racism against several of the players, which took a long time to sort out, so naturally, people had doubts about another man coming in, and an unqualified man at that. But after a year and a half on the post, Neville has proven the doubters wrong, by putting together a good England side that has performed well and even went and won the SheBelieves cup, a testament to their good form.

Neville likes to put his team up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but he has also tried out a 4-3-3 format sometimes, and he has been rotating the players a fair bit, especially in the attack.

England has quite a few games coming up before the World Cup, and the good news is that you can follow them all on BBC! They will live stream all England’s games, and tomorrow (Friday the 5th of April) they kick off against Canada at 19:15 (UK time). They play Spain on the 9th of April, Denmark the 25th of May and New Zealand on the 1st of June, before heading to France and their first group stage game against Scotland on the 9th of June. That is quite a few meetings to look forward to!

That’s some insight on the Lionesses ahead of France. In a group with Scotland, Argentina and Japan, it will be very tight and even though they are favourites to get out of the group on top, they are up against pretty tough team. Do you reckon they’ll make it? Fire up the comment section below!

WC Countdown: Group C – Jamaica

Last but not least in group C, we’ve got another newcomer to the World Cup – Jamaica.

It has been quite a dramatic route to France for the ‘Reggae Girlz’, who were disbanded back in 2008 after failing to get out of the group stage of the qualification for the Olympics, a group which also featured both Mexico and the USA. A lack of funding made the Jamaica Football Federation halt the senior women’s football program in the country in 2010, and the team lost their FIFA ranking because of three years inactivity. Thanks to Cedella Marley, daughter of Bob Marley, becoming the ambassador of the team in 2014, the program could be revived and she has helped the team a lot by raising awareness, encouraged the development of the players and the team as well as financially aiding them. This is the first time that Jamaica has managed to qualify to the World Cup, and they did so in quite the fashion. They sailed through the group stages, losing to Canada but grabbing a win against Costa Rica and Cuba, which secured them second in the group. That meant a semi-final game against the USA, which they lost, but they took it all out on Panama, and after an impressive game they secured the WC-spot after a penalty shootout.

Jamaica Women's National Team
The Jamaican team celebrates, sketch by The Matchday Lookbook.

Jody Brown is a name to remember in this team. The 16-year-old was voted best young player of the tournament in the CONCACAF Women’s Championship, and in the vital game against Panama, she scored one of the goals. She has an eye for the game and even though she’s still so young, she has already heavily influenced the team with her skills and she can bring a lot to the table for Jamaica in France.  Another player to be on the lookout for is the 19-year-old goalkeeper Sydney Schneider, who pulled out some amazing saves in the tournament to keep Jamaica on track to the World Cup. Khadija Shaw has been a force of nature in the Jamaican game for a long time, and when she was only 14 years old, she represented Jamaica’s U-15, U-17 and U20 football teams. In the WC qualification tournament, she scored an incredible 11 goals in nine games. Other names to keep an eye out for is Dominique Bond-Flasza, Trudi Carter and Sashana Campbell. The squad is very young and the average age is just under 23 years.

A lot of credit shall go to the head coach, Hue Menzies, as well as his assistant Lorne Donaldson, as the pair have managed to get the team to climb 66 places in the FIFA international rankings in only 12 months, starting out on 119th place at the end of 2017, only to now sit in 53rd place. When the team was playing the CONCACAF Women’s Championship in October 2018, both coaches were employed on a voluntary basis by the JFF and only their expenses were covered.

“We want to help give back to the country because of what the country has done for us in football, so we volunteer our time,” Menzies said to The Jamaica Gleaner in August last year.

The team usually plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation and have been very successful with this style of play this far.

Jamaica will travel to Scotland shortly before they make their way down the continent to France, and they will play the Scottish national team at 19:35 BST on 28 May at Hampden Park.

That’s an initial look at the Jamaican team, one of the four newcomers to the World Cup. In a group that contains veterans like Australia, Italy and Brazil, can they make any sort of impact? Discuss in the comments below!

WC Countdown: Group C – Brazil

The countdown continues and as we are heading closer to spring and sunnier months – hopefully – it’s already time for the third team in group C, Brazil.

The Seleção (means ‘the national squad’) is the most successful team in South America and did not have any difficulties qualifying for the World Cup. They have won seven out of the eight editions of the Copa América Femenina, the tournament through which one team, the winner, automatically qualifies for the World Cup and the runner-up gets to play a play-off match against a team from North/Central America or the Caribbeans for a place at the WC. Brazil played Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador in the group stages, going up against Chile, Argentina again and lastly Colombia in the final, winning all games throughout the tournament.

However, they have not had the best run of games since the Copa América, and they’ve lost all of the games they’ve played since August last year, including their games in the She Believes Cup against England, Japan and the United States.

There are a lot of big names in the Seleção, which is not weird considering Brazil is such a football crazy country. The biggest of them all, not only in the country but in the world, is Marta. The forward holds the record for most goals scored at a World Cup (15), she’s been named FIFA World Player of the year six times (five consecutive times between 2006-2010 and then again in 2018, which just goes to show that the 33-year-old just keeps delivering) and she won the Golden Ball (for best player) as well as the Golden Boot (for top scorer) at the World Cup in 2007, where Brazil got to the final before losing to Germany. She’s been a pivotal part of the development of women’s football worldwide and she’s a force of nature. Cristiane is another important player that has been part of the national team for 16 years (since 2003), and the forward is still a great asset for the team. There are also some younger attacking players that are coming through and putting their best feet forward. Adressinha is only 23 years old but scored three goals in five games at the Copa América, and Beatriz, 25 years old, stepped up getting six goals in five games.

Marta for the Brazilian national team
Marta. Picture source: Wikimedia

This is a goalscoring side, that’s for sure, but the team is also equipped with a set of great defenders – that keep the goals out but can also score them. Mônica, 31, got four goals in six games and Érika, also 31, got two goals in two games. But one of the most impressing players is Formiga, the 41-year-old midfielder who is still kicking it, and grabbed two goals in her six games at the tournament.

The head coach of the team is Vadāo, who already coached the team once between 2014 – 2016, when he lead them to the round of 16 at the World Cup in 2015, they won the Pan American games as well as finishing fourth at the Olympics in Rio in 2016. Since he’s been back in September 2017 he’s lead the country to another Copa América title. There was quite an uproar in the team following Vadāos return, as he was fired in 2016 to be replaced by Emily Lima, the first female coach of the Brazilian national team. However, she only lasted 10 months, during which she recorded seven wins, five losses and one draw, before being fired by the Brazilian Football Association. This caused for a lot of upset in the national side and five players announced their retirement from international football as a protest, amongst them Cristiane (who then returned), Francielle and Rosana, whilst Marta remained on the team.

“I already imagined that this was going to happen, not because of the results in itself, but because of the lack of support from the technical coordination. I was looking for results from the Vadão (former coach) … there were several negatives … 3 to 0 … 4 to 0 … but in his case that never mattered…” Lima said, speaking to espnW after her dismissal, which shows the structural opposition women’s football in Brazil is still struggling with.

From what it looks like at the moment, there are no more games scheduled for the Seleção before the tournament in France, but something might pop up along the way. That was a brief look at a team with some really great ballers in it. Or, what do you think, is Marta past her time? Let us know in the comment section!

WC Countdown: Group C – Italy

We’re already in March (how did that happen!) and it’s time for the second team in group C, which is Italy.

The Italians are back on the biggest international stage there is – they returned roaring and without a single doubt. They won seven out of their eight games to top the group in the qualifiers, and their only loss was against Belgium in the last game, with the result not being of any importance to the outcome of the group. It has been a good start to their World Cup campaign and it is just about time that the Azzure (nickname for the team, means ‘the blue’ in feminine) get back out on international stages, only having qualified to two previous World Cups (reaching the quarterfinals in the inaugural version of the competition in China, and not getting out of the group stages in USA 1999) and managing so-so in the European Championships, alternating between having reached the quarterfinals and not getting out of the group stage since 1997, when they finished as runners-up.

Azzure have a lot of good players in their squad, many of them playing in the country’s own league, mainly in JuventusSara Gama is the captain of the squad and the defender, being a longstanding member of the national team, brings the experience at the back. Aurora Galli and Manuela Giugliano are two young and strong midfielders who have experience, coming up the ranks of the U-17 and U-19 teams before landing in the national team, and they’ve both been getting plenty of playing time. Up top Italy has got two reliable goalscorers in Barbara Bonansea and Cristiana Girelli, in between them scoring nine goals in eight games, with Girelli – on absolute fire – averaging almost a goal a game with her six goals in the qualification round.

Milena Bertolini
Milena Bertolini, head coach. Picture source

The coach for the Azzure is Milena Bertolini, who took over from Antonio Cabrini in August 2017, after the Euros, and she’s been the one to lead the team back to glory, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years. Bertolini is a former central defender and she played in Italy’s top league for 15 years. Thereafter she moved onto coaching and has previously been in charge of VeronaReggiana and Brescia. Bertolini started off playing her team in a 4-4-2 formation but has since branched out into other possibilities, including a 4-3-3 and variations thereof, as well as 3-5-2.

Bertolini and her team has had a rather steep hill to climb in terms of being recognised and taken seriously in Italy, and the work is far from over in a country where there’s still a lot of work to be done. A recent controversial comment made by one of the members of Italy’s 1982 World Cup-winning side, Fulvio Collovati, only goes to prove the point.

“When I hear a woman speak about tacticts it turns my stomach. A woman doesn’t understand like a man,” the pundit –  for the state broadcaster RAI – said. Luckily the comment did not go unchallenged and Collovati was suspended from the channel.

Bertolini has underlined the importance of this World Cup, in terms of further development in the country.

“It can help little girls, as well as all Italians, understand how normal it is for girls to play football,” she said. In Italy, there are only about 23.000 registered female players, compared to countries like Germany with 200.000, or England with over 100.000 players, and it is clear that there is a lot of work to be done, and the Italian national side can do a lot just by representing their country on the world stage.

Italy have been busy recently, playing in Cyprus Cup where they played and won against HungaryMexico and Thailand in the group before going up against Korea DPR in the final. It was a tight game where Korea had to play with one player less after the 44th minute, and after full time the score was 2-2, which saw the game go into extratime, where it got even more exciting as Korea first scored, only to then have another player sent off and Italy scoring minutes later. This meant that things were once again level after extratime and it went onto penalties, where Korea managed to turn it around to win 7-6 on pens.

Is a silver medal in the Cyprus cup preparing the way for bigger things ahead? Italy is just making a return onto the big stage but who knows what they can come up with! Let us know what you think about this Italian team in the comments below.