Two countries, nine cities, ten stadiums, 32 teams, four weeks – and one World Cup!
The most ambitious Women’s World Cup yet staged requires two countries to host it. Running over a month, from July 20 to August 20, this ninth edition involves a record 32 teams playing in nine cities across Australia and New Zealand.
The distances involved are staggering. Reigning European champions England, whose victorious exploits in 2022 changed the football attitudes of a nation, are headquartered by the Pacific at Terrigal, between Sydney and Newcastle. Two of their group games take place in Brisbane 850km away and Adelaide 1,450km south-west.
Over in New Zealand, Portugal must factor in a long hop between Dunedin and Auckland, a drive and ferry journey of 20 hours. To compensate, Portuguese base camp at Waipuna comprises a pool and four-star hotel – few slum it at the higher end of the ladies’ game these days.
The ten stadia are equally impressive, in contrast to the misguided decision by the English FA to stage games at the 2022 Euros at training grounds and sports villages. The 2023 final takes place at Stadium Australia, where the hosts play their opening game against Ireland, its 83,000 capacity and Olympic heritage providing the prestige to suit the occasion.
Eden Park in Auckland witnesses the curtain-raiser, the Football Ferns and their Norwegian counterparts probably attracting a crowd above 40,000 strong. The only venue below 20,000 capacity is Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide, which makes up for in character what it might lack in size. The authorities in South Australia have used the event to add a new roof and install bigger video screens.
A 32-team competition means a straightforward format from the group stages, an even 16 progressing to the knock-out phase. While the numbers at World Cup finals for men were kept to a modest 16 for more than half a century, the women’s equivalent has come on leaps and bounds since the 12-team inaugural event of 1991.
Debut in Venice
In echoes of Montevideo, the single city that staged the first men’s World Cup in 1930, three decades ago Guangzhou and surrounding communities welcomed the best female players in the game. Golden Shoe winner Michelle Akers, second in the all-time scorers’ list for the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) behind her 1991 teammate Mia Hamm, duly made her mark on the world stage.
Akers had made her international debut in 1985. Remarkably, at a tiny ground in Jesolo by the Venice Lagoon, this was also the first occasion that USWNT had appeared at international level. This, the all-conquering America of four World Cups, including the last two in 2015 and 2019, and four Olympic golds. The occasion was the Mundialito, a four-team invitational tournament for women at pretty lakeside locations in Italy during occasional summers through the 1980s. England were ever-presents, winning in 1985 and 1988.
This was not only before Women’s World Cups, there was no women’s football at the Olympics until Atlanta 1996, Akers and Hamm again combining to earn gold for the US.
Back in 1985, Akers missed the very first game, a 1-0 defeat to hosts Italy at the 4,000-capacity Stadio Armando Picchi, but scored three days later against Denmark, kickstarting a stellar international career that would run until 2000 – although injury prevented her from appearing at the Olympics here in Australia.
Back in Jesolo, Italy’s opposing XI that day featured Elisabetta Vignotto and goalscorer Carolina Morace, the pair way ahead in the all-time scoring records for their country at 97 and 95. According to FIFA records, Betty Vignotto’s total could actually be 107, surpassed by Mia Hamm in 1999 and now towered over by Canada’s Christine Sinclair, who captained her country to gold at the 2020 Olympics while edging towards the magic figure of 200 goals. The Portland Thorns legend, now 40, is aiming to crown her career with a first World Cup, one of this summer’s lovely backstories to look out for.
Vignotto can almost match her for longevity, however, as her first cap for Italy came in 1970, when she also won the first of six Serie A titles for five different clubs (though not, sadly, for another of her employers, Gorgonzola, Italian Cup winners in 1980). These details illustrate Italy’s role as an outlier in the field of women’s football.
Their first (unofficial) international took place in Viareggio in 1968, two weeks before the national federation was founded. (Interestingly, their opponents were Czechoslovakia, whose players were permitted to travel to the West during these heady first weeks of the Prague Spring uprising at home.) Italy also staged (and won) the first unofficial Euros in 1969 and first unofficial World Cup in 1970, losing the final to Denmark before 40,000 spectators at the famed Stadio Comunale in Turin. Seven teams took part – though invited, the Czechs were refused visas by their own authorities.
England featured at both these pioneering tournaments – early champion of the women’s game Sue Lopez scored a hat-trick against Denmark yet still went home with a bronze at the Euros. Home was Southampton, dominant domestic side in the 1970s, formed by fans of the Saints’ men’s team, though there still wouldn’t be a national league until 1991. Twenty years before, Lopez had left the south coast for a season in Serie A, experiencing at Roma the regular connection of league football she couldn’t in England. (In 2005, Southampton would jettison Lopez and her 40 years’ experience in the women’s game when they disbanded SWFC to save money.)
The Women’s Football Association had been founded in 1969 – with founder members as disparate as Deal and Betteshanger, Rye and Yardley – and oversaw the national game until the FA took over in 1993. This, of course, was the same FA which had banned the ladies’ game entirely in 1921 as it ‘damaged women’s bodies’ – the same bodies all too recently used for tireless labour during World War I. Raising money for charity during and after the conflict by playing football matches, the women briefly circumvented the ban by forming their own association, ELFA, and organising the first and only Challenge Cup, won by Stoke Ladies.
Prohibition set back the ladies’ game for decades. Even half a century after the ban, UEFA had to intercede to persuade the FA to lift restrictions on the women’s game, still in place despite the active presence of the WFA. It’s all a far cry from the Euros of 2022, of course, a packed Wembley Stadium cheering on Barcelona’s Lucy Bronze and Bayern Munich’s Georgia Stanway to extra-time victory over eight-time champions Germany.
Stars on show
While no match for the men’s version financially (what is?), the Women’s Champions League has also come a long way since Turbine Potsdam lifted the inaugural trophy in 2010. Dominated by Lyon and Barcelona since 2015, its main clubs provide the stars who will be on view this summer – though sadly not Dzsenifer Marozsán, whose retirement must weaken Germany’s chances.
As for Brazil – this is a World Cup, after all – a head-to-head in the group stage with France, revived under mercurial coach Hervé Renard of Saudi Arabia 2022 fame, should reveal their intentions. Certainly, this will be the last dance for the evergreen Marta, yet to win a World Cup despite more individual honours than anyone else in the game.
Australia’s Sam Kerr should be in peak form after helping Chelsea clinch a third straight double, three-peat chasing USWNT can field teenage prodigy Alyssa Thompson alongside veterans Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, while Ireland offer up another young talent in Abbie Larkin, who needed permission from school to travel for her first cap in 2022.
Spain will rely on Alexia Putellas to compensate for a squad demotivated by disputes – it’s not all pools and five-hotels in the women’s game. England, meanwhile, look to Manchester United stars Ella Toone and Alessia Russo, and, most of all, Lauren James, to fill in gaps left by key retirees from 2022.
Tickets are available online in three categories, with prices from A$20. There are plenty of cheaper obstructed view seats, too, a common feature as few grounds are soccer-specific.
STATION TO STADIUM
Arriving and getting around by public transport
Major international airlines fly into Sydney, including Australian national carrier Qantas, its budget arm Jetstar, Virgin Australia and national carrier Air New Zealand. All offer domestic flights, too, along with Rex. Each venue city has an airport.
The rail network is Australia is state-based and disjointed – Australian Trains has a journey planner – while the interstate and intercity bus networks are equally sketchy. See Get By Bus for details.
Commuter rail networks around major cities and public transport within them are excellent, however. Services are free to ticket holders on match days – see each individual city in the guide for details. In New Zealand, InterCity buses and national rail are handy options if flying isn’t.