Few could have predicted the eight teams still standing when the Women’s World Cup kicked off three weeks — and more surprisingly, the teams who are gone.
In the most wide open World Cup in history, Colombia and France were the last two teams to clinch quarterfinal berths Tuesday, joining Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, Sweden, Australia and England to close the curtain on a breathtaking first two rounds full of delicious twists and turns.
When the tournament was expanded to 32 teams, there was apprehension around whether lower-ranked sides could compete at this level. But the exact opposite happened. Concerns about blowouts were blown out of the water in a changing of the guard.
Japan are the only previous World Cup champions remaining, having climbed the winners’ podium in 2011.
Gone are four-time champions the US, who were gunning to become the first team to win three in a row but were sent spinning out before the semifinals for the first time in history.
Also gone: twice champions Germany, 1995 winners Norway, Olympic champions Canada, and Brazil, who had not been ousted in the group stage since 1995.
“Nothing is easy in this tournament,” coach Sarina Wiegman said after England survived a last-16 scare from Nigeria before winning in a shoot-out.
“That’s very exciting because we see the women’s game has improved so much. You saw in the group stage many games were equal, and it’s not that the expected teams have won all the time.”
In an end of an era, the elimination of the US, Canada and Brazil marked inauspicious World Cup finales for some of the game’s biggest trailblazers in Megan Rapinoe, Christine Sinclair and Marta.
Others such as Colombia’s dazzling teenager Linda Caicedo, Spain’s integral midfield cog Aitana Bonmati and France’s consistently excellent striker Kadidiatou Diani have stepped into the spotlight.
Who will win now is anybody’s guess.
Japan’s “Nadeshiko” — named for a pink flower that symbolises Japanese beauty — are on a mission to erase the memory of their last-16 exit four years ago, and are tournament favourites after trouncing Norway 3-1 in the last-16.
They will test their credentials on Friday against Sweden, who dumped the US out of the tournament on a decisive penalty shot measured in millimetres.
Spain’s La Roja have already made history with their quarterfinal appearance in three tries. They bounced back from an ugly 4-0 loss to Japan to dispatch Switzerland 5-1 in the last 16.
La Roja are in quarterfinal action Friday against the Netherlands, who went undefeated in the group stage of their ninth World Cup appearance, including a 7-0 win over Vietnam in the tournament’s most lopsided score.
Australia’s Matildas have enjoyed a terrific run to the quarters despite missing the team’s leading scorer Sam Kerr. She was a 78th-minute substitute in the host team’s 2-0 last 16 win over Denmark and will surely start Kerr in what should be a thrilling quarter against France on Saturday.
Les Bleus are keen to bury their heartbreaking last-eight elimination four years ago in France, and coach Herve Renard said the pressure as hosts could weigh heavily on Australia.
“We’re hoping to put Australia through exactly what France went through when they were the host country in 2019,” Renard said after France’s 4-0 win over Morocco on Tuesday.
Fourth-ranked England, who are unbeaten in 36 of their last 37 games, would seem the favourites on Saturday against Columbia, the lowest-ranked team in the final eight at 25, but the Lionesses staggered into the quarters, fortunate to stave off a terrific Nigeria team through 120 minutes to win in a shoot-out.
England have more big-game experience as reigning European champions, but Colombia have enjoyed better fan support than any team except Australia. England will also be without top scorer Lauren James, who received a red card for a stamp to the back of Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie.
Women’s World Cup quarterfinals (all SA times):
Spain v Netherlands (3am)
Japan v Sweden (9.30am)
Australia v France (9am)
England v Colombia (12.30pm) –Reuters.