Colombia and Australia Emerge as Women's World Cup Dark Horses

Tony Leighton@@Tony_LeightonSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 18, 2015

WINNIPEG, MB - JUNE 12:  Kyah Simon #17 of Australia reacts after scoring her second goal past goalkeeper Precious Dede #1 of Nigeria during the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 match between Australia and Nigeria at Winnipeg Stadium on June 12, 2015 in Winnipeg, Canada.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

So we’re into the knockout stages of the Women’s World Cup and the usual suspects are through. The world’s four top-ranked teams, Germany, USA, France and reigning champions Japan all topped their groups, while Brazil (ranked seventh) and host nation Canada (eighth) won the other two groups as expected. 

Colombia will be stiff test for USA

Not such a usual suspect to reach the last 16 was Colombia. At 28th, Colombia are the lowest-ranked team in Group F and supposedly cannon fodder for France (third) and England (sixth), while Las Cafeteras have more often than not in the past succumbed to North Americans Mexico (25th).

Did the Colombians make a mockery of the world rankings? They kicked off their campaign with a 1-1 draw against Mexico, then produced the shock of the tournament with a 2-0 win against France. They then finished the group with a 2-1 defeat by England, but they deservedly reached the last 16 and will make tricky opponents for favourites USA in Edmonton.

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 17:  Lady Andrade #16 of Colombia reacts during the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Group F match against England at Olympic Stadium on June 17, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Perhaps the system of rankings should be looked at and possibly reworked. “I think we’ve got to put the world rankings to one side,” said England head coach Mark Sampson before his team’s meeting with Colombia. “Look at Nigeria's world ranking (33). We’ve all seen Nigeria play and in that fantastic group match (a 3-3 draw) against Sweden (ranked fifth) they were maybe unlucky not to win.

“It's a bit unfair in women's football,” added Sampson, “because a lot of the South American and African countries don’t have very many opportunities to play against the top nations. So I believe that you have to take the rankings out of it when you play the South American and African regions in particular.”

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More reasons to hate FIFA?

That’s certainly something for FIFA to ponder, as are one or two other issues that have arisen to date in this World Cup.

Take the "don’t bring your own food or drink" directive to supporters, for example. Official spectator guides ahead of the tournament had said that fans could take in a sealed bottle of water up to one litre. Instead, at the Moncton venue in New Brunswick, fans were told in an official statement: “No food or beverages allowed at Moncton Stadium. This includes all plastic or refillable water bottles.”

Spectators could, of course, buy the official water. At Moncton that meant paying $3 for a 300-millilitre bottle, while over in Alberta the Edmonton Journal noted that only the Dasani brand was allowed—surprisingly or not, a brand owned by the World Cup sponsor, Coca-Cola.

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 17:  Jodie Taylor #19 of England acknowledges the fans during the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Group F match against Colombia at Olympic Stadium on June 17, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

FIFA has also been accused of "massaging" crowd figures, with venues such as Vancouver's 54,000 capacity B.C. Place Stadium being only half filled. Montreal's Olympic Stadium, capacity 60,000, was virtually empty for the Spain vs. Costa Rica and Brazil vs. South Korea Group E double-header—the official FIFA attendance was 10,175, but the Montreal Gazette claimed only 1,000 spectators were there.

There has been a lot of FIFA bashing of late, not only at this tournament in Canada, of course, but on a global scale. FIFA have been in the spotlight due to recent arrests of top officials by the FBI and the resignation of president Sepp Blatter, who is set to stand down in December—though there is speculation that he may want to stay on.

Canada delivering as host nation, but is their team performing?

Amidst all this negativity, it should not be forgotten that without FIFA, this Women’s World Cup would quite possibly not be happening. The football world’s governing body has ploughed huge resources into women’s football as well as men’s and at all levels from grassroots to elite. So while Blatter and Co. have had some deserved flak fired their way, let’s not forget the organisation’s positives that are on display here in Canada.  

We’ve seen some fine games, some great goals and some big crowds, the latter particularly in the case of the USA and the host nation. There is much enthusiasm about the Canucks right across Canada, though columnists on the country’s national newspaper the Globe & Mail have been spitting vitriol.

John Herdman’s team may have progressed to the round of 16 by topping Group A, but John Doyle of the Globe & Mail opined: “The long-awaited, much-promised transformative moment for women’s soccer in Canada just hasn’t arrived. Slinking into the next round, all excuses and more promises, won’t cut it. The Canadian team hasn’t sold itself to the country with any validity.”

MONTREAL, QC - JUNE 15:  Lauren Sesselmann #10 of Canada looks on during the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Group A match against the Netherlands at Olympic Stadium on June 15, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  Final score between Canada and the Netherlands
Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

As for the tournament as a whole, Doyle’s Globe & Mail colleague Cathal Kelly reckoned: “Nearly two weeks after it started the Women’s World Cup feels like it’s been going on for months. Possibly years. Actually, someone should probably go down and check that the Earth’s core is still spinning.”

Can women's soccer grow in Canada?

Brickbats aplenty, then, but there have been bouquets, too, as the competition unfolds across this massive country. Whether you like the tournament or not, it promises to leave a legacy that will boost women’s football in a nation where the biggest sport, hockey, totally overshadows every other game that’s played.

Codiac Soccer president Dale Briggs said: “The Women’s World Cup will probably help dispel the myth that that we are not a soccer nation, and that will go a long way to getting the profile out to folks.

“I’m hoping that the game becomes more mainstream, more of a sport of choice as opposed to a fill-in season between other sports. We are now pretty much half and half (male and female players), but one would hope that this (Women’s World Cup) will bring out the females who aren’t playing now.”

Football player registrations are in fact already higher than in any other sports in some regions. Younes Bouida, executive director for Soccer New Brunswick, wants to push the game still further. “We just need to invest and attract,” he said. “I think the population will support that because the numbers are there and we have a soccer generation coming.”

While the grassroots are sprouting in Canada and the national team are progressing in the World Cup, other nations are coming up on the blind side as the race for supremacy hots up towards the tournament’s final stages.

Matildas can test Brazil in last 16

Australia, currently ranked 10th in the world, are one such team. Heading into the so-called "Group of Death" alongside the USA, Sweden and Nigeria, the Matildas really stretched the Americans in their opening match, a 3-1 defeat, then beat Nigeria 2-0 and drew 1-1 with Sweden to finish second in Group D.

Going by their performances to date, they will make mean opponents for Brazil in the round-of-16 match between the two teams in Moncton. And they don’t intend to be going home ahead of the quarter-finals, coach Alen Stajcic told me. “Anyone ranked in the top 10 to 12 places can win the World Cup,” said the Matildas boss, “and that’s what we’re striving for. All the top teams are beatable by the next five or six in the pecking order—and I put us in that bracket.

EDMONTON, AB - JUNE 16: Caitlin Foord #9, Alanna Kennedy #14, Samantha Kerr #20, Lydia Williams #1 and Leena Khamis #12 of Australia celebrate after a 1-1 game with Sweden during the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada Group D match between Australia and Sweden
Todd Korol/Getty Images

“We’re a young team, but we’re quite experienced. The core of the group went to the last World Cup and, although we’re still in the developmental phase, I really do believe that in the next three or four years we’re going to be a world powerhouse and I want us to be one of the top two or three teams in the world. Australia is a proud sporting nation renowned for being world leaders in various sports, and we want to add football to that.”

Strong, confident words indeed from an Aussie who always seems to get the most out of his players. Some coaches from other sides have had more than the most, though not in the way they would have liked, from certain individuals.

When compared to men’s football, the women’s game is universally lauded for the lack of diving, arguing with referees and vicious fouls that are these days commonplace in the male domain.

Women's game not without blemishes

Vicious fouls, though? I can recall seeing USA striker Abby Wambach smash and break the nose of England central defender and captain Faye White at the 2007 World Cup in China, so a couple of incidents in the current edition of the tournament should not be seen as a new phenomenon. Nigeria’s Ugo Njoku was given a three-match ban for elbowing Australia’s Sam Kerr, the offence being punished retrospectively by FIFA’s disciplinary committee after the 20-year-old went unpunished during the game.

FIFA got that one correct, so why, therefore, did they not hand France midfielder Camille Abily a retrospective suspension for the same offence that damaged the cheekbone of England central defender Laura Bassett in Les Bleues’ 1-0 win?

Abily, like Njoku, was not cautioned during the game, but FIFA decided not to review it because they said that Greek referee Thalia Mitsi had seen the incident and made her decision. I thought it was a dreadful non-decision by the ref, who was well placed to see the incident, and her lack of action was compounded by that of FIFA’s. Oh dear, more flak for the governing body.

Tony Leighton is covering the Women's World Cup on location in Canada for Bleacher Report. All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated.


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