In a packed Stadium Australia in Sydney on Sunday, Spain’s captain Olga Carmona scored to help her team win the Fifa Women’s World Cup title for the first time.
But beyond Spain’s 1-0 win against England in the final , and the resounding celebrations that followed, this edition of the Women’s World Cup has had intriguing stories, surprising match-ups and numbers to take note of for fans of the sport.
While some troubles continue to exist – Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s strange comments before the final for example – there was much to cheer about at the end of the world’s biggest footballing event this year.
Here are a look at some takeaways from the 2023 Fifa Women’s World Cup:
A final between Spain and England was not on the cards, although the latter were considered favourites coming into the tournament.
Before the final, England, under coach Sarina Wiegman, had lost just once in two years – in a friendly against Australia in April. That run of results included the 2022 European Championships title, and was built on a solid defence.
Led by eventual Golden Glove (best goalkeeper) winner Mary Earps, the English backline featuring the likes of captain Millie Bright, Alex Greenwood, Jess Carter along with wingbacks Lucy Bronze and Rachel Daly had been solid. The Lionesses conceded just four times in seven games at the World Cup and kept three clean sheets.
But they were up against a Spanish side that had something to prove. Until their Round of 16 win over Switzerland, Spain hadn’t won a single knock-out game at a World Cup. They didn’t get past the group stage in their debut appearance in 2015 and lost to eventual champions United States in 2019 in the pre-quarter-final.
Ahead of this edition, their star, double Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas, was recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury. The squad itself was in a rebuild process after a player boycott in September 2022 against coach Jorge Vilda – whose methods, player-management skills and tactics were questioned by players.
The 23-member squad that turned up for their first game against Costa Rica in Wellington featured only three of the 15 players from the boycott – eventual Golden Boot winner Aitana Bonmati, defender Ona Batlle and forward Mariona Caldentey. Many of the players were either making their World Cup debut, like Carmona, or making their senior debut for Spain, like goalkeeper Cata Coll.
Meanwhile, an experienced England team were rarely rattled in their run to the final, bar a thrilling penalty shoot-out against Nigeria in the Round of 16. The only dent was playmaker Lauren James getting a red card in the same game and being banned for two matches – though she was eligible to play the final.
Spain, on the other hand, entered the knock-out stage on the back of a humiliating 4-0 defeat to Japan. But once they exorcised the ghost of not winning a knock-out game in the World Cup, they didn’t look back.
Spain were fluid in their passing and creative in their playmaking. Bonmati was a star in the midfield with veteran Jennifer Hermoso and youngster Salma Paralluelo scoring at ease up front. Coll herself proved that she wasn’t deterred by the blinding lights and occasion. Her crowning glory came in the final, making some impressive saves and ensuring that her captain’s goal in the 29th minute wouldn’t go in vain.
Surprise exits and dream runs
An expanded 32 teams was bound to throw up more than just an increased amount of World Cup football.
Two years after beating Sweden to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Canada limped home to end a disappointing campaign. They also saw their talismanic captain and leading goal scorer in international football, Christine Sinclair play at a World Cup for a final time.
The 2019 champions US barely made it past the group stage, courtesy a goal post and Portugal’s Ana Capeta missing a clear shot on goal. The US would go on to crash out in the next round, losing 4-5 on penalties to eventual third place finishers Sweden.
Two-time champions Germany began well enough with a 6-0 rout of debutants Morocco. The European side went into their final game against South Korea, needing a win themselves and Colombia to beat Morocco. What resulted was a manic final day as Morocco knocked out Germany with a tetchy 1-0 win over Colombia.
First-timers Philippines, Zambia, Portugal all secured their first wins, with Zambia’s captain Barbra Bandi scoring the tournament’s 1000th goal. Morocco were the only debutant side to progress into the knock-out stages.
Among the non-debutants, co-hosts New Zealand, Jamaica and South Africa all won their first World Cup game. New Zealand also became the first host side to be knocked out in the group stage of a Women’s World Cup.
But the most astonishing run was that of co-hosts Australia, culminating in a heartbreaking 3-1 loss to England in the semi-final.
Their talismanic striker Sam Kerr was ruled out of the opening two group games due to injury, but once she came back, it was the cherry on top. In their marathon penalty shoot-out win against France, the Matildas became the first Australian team, men’s or women’s, to reach the semi-final of a football World Cup. The 20-shot penalty shoot-out was also the longest ever in tournament history.
The grip that Australia had on their home fans was so strong that according to reports from water companies in Melbourne and Sydney, water usage (either to use the toilet or make tea) surged during half-time or after the game in the knock-out games, especially the quarter-final against France.
Over 11.5 million watched from pubs, restaurants, their individual phone screens and homes as Kerr thundered in a long-range effort, one of the best goals of the tournament, in the semi-final loss. But for many, the Matildas’ run and its resulting effect on the country was a blueprint for future hosts of the World Cup.
Arguably the biggest Women’s World Cup in terms of live attendance and viewers via broadcast/streaming, the tournament hosted in Australia and New Zealand has been nothing short of record-breaking.
Nearly all the crowds at the games, be it Brisbane, Auckland, Sydney or Melbourne, has seen overwhelming support with those in attendance crossing numbers of 20,000 regularly. Not to mention the deafening noise from the unabashed and vociferous Colombian supporters to the fierce home fans decked in green and yellow, fans were definitely a highlight of the tournament.
Infantino, before the final on Sunday, hit back at critics and detractors who had said that an expanded World Cup would “not work”. In his address at the Fifa Women’s Football Convention in Sydney on Friday, the Fifa president said that the 2023 edition had “generated over $570 million in revenue”, recording the second-biggest income of any sport, besides the men’s World Cup in Qatar last year.
But in a bizarre twist, the Swiss-Italian would then go on to put the onus on the women (apparently those in the sport itself) to “push for equality” in the game.
In a time when conversations around equal pay and treatment are dominating negotations between players and federations, Infantino’s comments about the women trying to convince ‘the men in-charge’ that they deserve funding and support was simply reckless and unnecessary. That too during a World Cup that had proven to be gripping and entertaining.
“Pick the right battles, pick the right fights,” he said. “You have the power to change. You have the power to convince us men what we have to do and what we don’t have to do. You do it. Just do it.”
Players of the women’s game have been constantly fighting battles, whether it was England trying to revive professional women’s football after its ban in the 1990s or Nigeria battling an uncaring federation. The fact that Infantino made a statement asking women players to prove their worth was rather unbecoming of a Fifa president trusted to ensure the growth of the sport.