The biggest event on the women’s sporting calendar, the FIFA Women’s World Cup, kicks off this Saturday in Canada. For those caught off guard, we’ve already spent some time explaining why it matters. Now, it’s time go over the basics. Here’s our beginner’s guide to Canada 2015.
What it is, and what has changed
Women’s World Cup number seven kicks off Saturday night when the home team, Canada, welcomes former superpower China, who hosted the first tournament back in 1991. Back then, the viability of a women’s world championship was still an unknown, which is part of the reason why the competition was called the M&M’s Cup. The U.S. would go on to win, and come four years later, when the competition moved to Sweden, the tournament took on its real name: the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
In 1999, when the tournament moved to the U.S., the field expanded to 16 teams, a size the competition maintained until this year. Now 24 teams representing all six FIFA confederations make for the biggest and longest World Cup yet, one that serves as a middle ground between the modest, smaller fields of years’ past and the 32-team field that seems inevitable. Given the growth of the women’s game, it’s not difficult to see that full field taking place by 2023.
That growth, however, has become the underpublicized change to this year’s tournament. The bigger one: Turf. Thanks in large part to the fact that no nation other than Canada completed the bidding process (as well as a number of other factors, like venue availability, preference of the organizers, or potentially more callus reasons), the 2015 World Cup will be the first senior-level international tournament played entirely on artificial surfaces. Late last year, well after the venues had been announced, a group of famous players tried to change that, but their fight never came close to succeeding in court.
But beyond turf and tournament size, this tournament’s biggest difference is the depth and quality of the field. In previous years, a women’s soccer world divided between well-supported superpowers and growing programs gave us three, maybe four contenders and little else. Now there’s a connected hierarchy, one where the big, successful teams aren’t playing in another world.
There are a few weak teams (Thailand and Ecuador), and if you’re catching a group stage game between a tournament favorite and one that barely qualified, there’s a 50-50 chance you won’t see a competitive game. But it wasn’t so long ago that most of the competitive games were confined to the final eight. Now, as more programs have developed depth and identities, the Women’s World Cup has a parity that’s starting to resemble its better known sibling.
When (and where) does it start
The first game kicks off on Saturday in Edmonton, Alberta. In the 10 days that follow, six groups of four teams will play mini-round robin tournaments to determine the teams that reach the Round of 16. From there, it’s knockout play, with the final game taking place on July 5 in Vancouver.
As far as watching the games is concerned, FOX is your network. The broadcaster outbid ESPN (among others) four years ago for the rights to broadcast FIFA events, with this summer’s World Cup the first major deal on its contract.
Unfortunately, that means some games may prove difficult to find. The biggest games later in the tournament will be broadcast on FOX’s main channel, while FOX’s top sports channel, FOX Sports 1, will pick up much of the day-to-day slack. But a number of games will be pushed to the far less available FOX Sports 2, with some not making widely available channels at all. If you’re a diehard that needs to see every minute, consider signing up for the company’s digital subscription service, FOX Soccer2Go.
Who’s in, who’s out
The same favorites that drew attention four years ago, Germany and the U.S., are in focus again this summer, only this time, France is also stealing headline space, considered a favorite on the back of an impressive victory earlier this year in Germany.
Those teams, along with fellow seeds Canada, Japan and Brazil, are spread out among the tournament’s six groups.
Canada, China, Netherlands, New Zealand
Start: June 6
Favorites to advance: Canada and the Netherlands, though this is the tournament’s most competitive group, one-to-four. Third place will almost certainly advance to the knockout round.
Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway, Thailand
Start: June 7
Favorites: Germany and Norway, with expected lopsided goal differences meaning neither of the other two are likely to advance.
Cameroon, Ecuador, Japan, Switzerland
Start: June 8
Favorites: Japan, Switzerland, with Cameroon a long shot to advance.
Australia, Nigeria, Sweden, United States
Start: June 8
Favorites: The U.S., then Sweden, with Australia likely to reach the knockout round.
Brazil, Costa Rica, South Korea, Spain
Start: June 9
Favorites: Brazil and Spain, with South Korea a strong bet to play a fourth game.
Colombia, England, France, Mexico
Start: June 9
Favorites: France, then England, with Mexico likely to go through if it can beat Colombia.
The 10 names you’ll hear most this summer
- Abby Wambach (United States) – Wambach is the world’s all-time leading goal scorer who, at 35, is playing her last World Cup. She’s never won the event, possibly the only absence on a remarkable résumé, and took a sabbatical from club soccer to ensure she was healthy for this summer.
Homare Sawa (Japan, right) – The best player at the last World Cup, Sawa retired from international soccer a year later only to return for Japan this tournament. It will surely be her last, giving the world a chance to honor one of the best players of her generation.
- Marta (Brazil) – The best player of this generation? That’s Marta, a player who’s recently reminded the world that she can carry a team like none other. But even if she’s able to replicate performances like her winter hat trick against the U.S., Brazil will need to give its star help, an all too familiar mandate.
- Polytan – Of all the artificial surfaces that will be scrutinized this month, Vancouver’s will be under the harshest spotlight, with B.C. Place’s rug previously known as one of the weirdest in Major League Soccer. The surface has recently been replaced, though, with German company PolyTan hoping some of the criticisms of its previous product won’t be replicated this summer.
Louisa Nécib (France, right) – The France creator’s technique captivated audiences four years ago, when Les Bleues surprised some with a run to the semifinals. Now well into her prime, the 28-year-old finds herself in the same position as France’s team itself: Needing to translate splendor into results.
- Pia Sundhage (Sweden) – The coach who led the U.S. to gold at the London Olympics moved back to her homeland to push Sweden into the world’s elites. While the team’s not there yet, top-shelf stars in defense, midfield and attack leave Sundhage with team that can knock off anybody, giving the legend a chance to claim the World Cup crown that alluded her at the U.S.’s helm.
- Christine Sinclair (Canada) – Two years ago, Sinclair was considered among the best players in the world. Two NWSL seasons later, she’s no longer in the conversation, a change that doesn’t influence her being one of the most respected players in the world. Canada’s hopes hinge on her having a monstrous tournament.
Hope Solo (United States) – The one goalkeeper capable of stealing matches, Solo is also capable of relying on her athleticism too much, a qualm you’re unlikely to hear much about over the next six weeks. Instead, Solo will hope her play lives down the numerous controversies she’s cultivated in recent years, with a recent domestic violence charge (and dismissal) still lingering in memories.
- Sylvia Neid (Germany) – The star midfielder-turned-head coach has been at Germany’s helm since 2005, claiming a World Cup and two European championships in the process. But this tournament will be her last, and having survived Germany’s 2011 disappointment, Neid will be looking for redemption with a second world title.
- Alex Morgan (United States) – Perhaps you know Ms. Morgan from her Nike, Chapstick, GNC, Panasonic, Coca-Cola, Kenneth Cole, Just Dance or Bank of America endorsements. Did I miss any? Of course I did, I assume. This woman is a brand onto herself. She’s also a very important player for the U.S., one who has been hobbled by a series of injuries over the last two years. Healthy or not, you’ll hear about her in Canada.