The identity of all 32 teams that will compete in this year’s Women’s World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand, is now known.
Although the draw for the group stages already took place last November, several spots were yet to be confirmed, pending the outcome of qualifying play-offs which have now concluded.
The outcome of those matches has seen Portugal, Haiti and Panama as the last three countries to book their places.
The 2023 Women’s World Cup
This will be the ninth edition of the tournament that was first staged in 1991, but the first to feature 32 teams.
Australia and New Zealand qualified automatically as joint hosts, whilst other teams qualified through regional qualifying tournaments, similar to those used for the men’s tournament.
Teams that failed to secure direct qualification by topping their groups then entered a series of knock-out games to determine who else would progress.
Finally, a ten-team Inter-Confederation play-off was staged, with three remaining spots up for grabs.
Portugal had finished second in their original group behind Portugal and advanced to the play-offs after beating Belgium and then Iceland last October.
Courtesy of their world ranking, they were spared from playing in the initial play-off matches, which were staged in Hamilton, New Zealand. Instead, they played Cameroon, who had earlier defeated Thailand. A 2 -1 victory was enough for the Portuguese.
That win means they have now joined the defending champions, and pre-tournament favourites the USA, Vietnam and the Netherlands in World Cup Group E.
Haiti had finished third in their CONCACAF group behind the US and Jamaica.
They had advanced directly from there to the Inter-Confederation play-offs, where they first thrashed Senegal, before edging out Chile.
Their reward is a place alongside European champions England, Denmark, and Chile in World Cup Group D.
Panama also came via CONCACAF qualifying, originally settling for third place in their group behind Canada and Costa Rica.
Like their Central American neighbours, they gained direct access to the Inter-Continental play-off, where they first overcame Papua New Guinea, before narrowly beating Paraguay.
As a result, they have joined France, Jamaica and Brazil in World Cup Group F.
The format of the tournament
As in the men’s World Cup, the 32 teams have been drawn into eight groups of four teams, with the top two in each group advancing to the knock-out stages.
The tournament will begin on 20th July, with New Zealand hosting Norway, whilst Australia will play the Republic of Ireland.
Has the tournament expanded too quickly?
Whilst the decision to expand the tournament to 32 teams has been taken by FIFA in order to give as much countries as possible the chance to play in the biggest tournament there is, it comes with its risks as well.
That is because of the stage of development of the women’s game varies considerably. On the one hand, it is a professional sport in countries like the US, England, Germany, Spain and France, and the top players are very well paid. However, in less developed countries, the sport is still in its infancy, players cannot make a living out of playing football, and the facilities are generally poor.
There is a fear, therefore, that some of the group stages in the world cup could see some very one-sided scorelines, which could undermine the credibility of the tournament.
Saudi sponsorship row continues
Meanwhile, the row over a major proposed sponsor of the tournament shows no signs of diminishing.
Last month, FIFA announced Visit Saudi, an arm of the Saudi Arabia tourist board, as a major sponsor for the tournament, apparently without any prior consultation with the joint hosts. The government of both countries has since sought urgent clarification on the issue, amidst growing concern among players and fans.
There is concern that this is another example – after the Qatar World Cup – of FIFA ignoring the human rights record of a Middle Eastern country in return for lucrative endorsement deals.
And, with a number of high-profile women players in same-sex relationships, there appears to be a fundamental contradiction in allowing sponsorship from a country who would not be prepared to welcome them should they ever choose to visit.
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