The Indomitable Lionesses And Other Womens World Cup Underdogs

PARIS ― It’s easy to focus on the teams that will play deep into the 2019 Women’s World Cup, which kicked off Friday afternoon in France as the hosts defeated South Korea. But each squad has a story ― even the ones with a scant chance of advancing past the group stage. Like most female athletes, these players have suffered from sexism, indifference and lack of support as they worked their way up to the biggest stage in soccer. They haven’t let any of those things stop them.

The tournament’s 24 teams are divided into six groups, and during the first two weeks of competition, they will each play every other team in their group. At that point, the field of 24 will be cut to 16 teams, which will begin playing one-and-done games. Even the lowliest teams will play at least three games, and owing to the expanded format, some of them may even advance past the group stage. Here are the tournament’s most interesting underdogs.

Group A: Nigeria (with France, South Korea and Norway)


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    After winning the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria heads to France hoping to send a message back home: It’s beyond time to start taking women’s soccer seriously.

    Opening match: vs. Norway on Saturday, June 8, at 3 p.m. ET

    On some level, it’s strange to say that Nigeria is an underdog in international soccer. The Super Falcons have qualified for every World Cup since 1991 and have been the most dominant women’s team in Africa, winning the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) nine times. But they’ve only advanced out of the group stage at the World Cup once, and they struggled at AFCON in 2018, losing their first-round match to South Africa and winning their semifinal (against Cameroon) and final (against South Africa) on penalties.

    It’s been a long road since the last World Cup for Nigeria. In 2016, after winning their eighth AFCON title, they did a nearly two-week sit-in to force their federation to pay each player $23,650, the amount promised to them for the win (they had to do a similar protest in 2004). In 2017, they went without a coach, had no training camps and did not play a single game. Asisat Oshoala, Nigeria’s powerhouse striker, told CNN, “It’s obvious before we qualified [for the World Cup] we didn’t have any support and after we qualified, out of nowhere, they started to bring in friendly games and saying we should play in invitational tournaments.”

    Going up against France, Norway and South Korea is a tall order for this team still trying to find its footing after the 2017 lull.

    Why they might advance: They have a lot of experience on this stage. They are coached by Thomas Dennerby, who coached Sweden to a third-place spot in the 2011 World Cup. And they have Oshoala, who plays professionally for Barcelona, has been named the African Women’s Footballer of the Year three times, and was the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot winner at the 2014 Under-20 Women’s World Cup, where her team finished second.

    Group B: South Africa (with Germany, China and Spain)

    Thembi Kgatlanahe and South Africa finished second at the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations.

    Opening match: vs. Spain on Saturday, June 8, at noon ET.


     

    Banyana Banyana played its first-ever game in 1993. The team is making its World Cup debut in France after finishing second to Nigeria in the 2018 Africa Cup of Nations, where they beat that perennial powerhouse in a first-round game and took them to penalties in the final. In 2016, during the Rio Olympics, South Africa held its own in a tough group, losing 1-0 to Sweden and 2-0 to China, but tying Brazil 0-0.

    Currently, they are on a 10-game losing streak in international competition, their latest being a 7-2 loss to Norway. The last time South Africa beat a non-African team was in March 2018, when they defeated Hungary 1-0 in the Cyprus Women’s Cup.

    Like their counterparts in Nigeria, the women on South Africa’s national team had to protest in order to get the money promised them by their federation after their runner-up showing in last year’s AFCON tournament. In 2017, the federation promised a full-time professional league for women, which mirrored an unfulfilled promise from the federation in 2008. As of January 2019, the league’s start had been pushed to August of this year.

    South Africa is ranked 49th and going up against Germany and China, two historically successful teams. And while Spain, playing in only its second Women’s World Cup, is another team that has run up against problems with its federation, it’s on an upswing.

    Why they might advance: Former Banyana Banyana star Desiree Ellis is now their coach and she believes very much in her team. Behind Thembi Kgatlanahe, the team has a robust offense, which was on display last year when, per the Guardian, “they scored 24 goals between March and October … and managed to find the net in 10 consecutive games.” Their defense will be led by veteran Janine van Wyk, who has 159 caps.


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    Group C: Jamaica (with Brazil, Australia and Italy)

    With the backing of Bob Marley’s daughter, Khadija Shaw and the Reggae Girlz have revived women’s soccer in Jamaica and will be the first Caribbean team to appear at a Women’s World Cup.

    Opening match: vs. Brazil on Sunday, June 9, at 9:30 a.m. ET

    The Reggae Girlz are the talk of the World Cup, and for good reason. They are the first Caribbean women’s team to qualify ― and they barely existed five years ago. It was then that Cedella Marley, the daughter of Bob Marley, revived the team almost single-handedly, donating her own money, releasing a song on their behalf, launching a crowdfunding campaign, and getting other donors involved. The budget was so tight that their coach even had to volunteer.

    But they persevered as a team and managed to get through levels of qualifying to the CONCACAF women’s championship tournament ― where they placed third, beating Panama in a penalty shootout and guaranteeing them a spot in the World Cup. Jamaica is the lowest ranked team in the tournament (53rd), so even making it to France is a huge accomplishment. But the very thing that makes their appearance so spectacular ― the lack of support from their federation ― may also ultimately cause them trouble when they go up against Brazil, Australia and Italy.

    Why they might advance: Khadija “Bunny” Shaw. Learn that name. It’s hard to overstate her impact and her talent. She had the most goals in qualifying, 19 in all. Nike recently signed her. And if that’s not enough, according to the Guardian, “she was so good so young that she played for Jamaica’s U-15, U-17, and U-20 teams simultaneously starting at age 14. She made her debut for the senior women’s national team on August 23, 2015, scoring once in a 6-0 win over the Dominican Republic.” And lucky for Jamaica, they also have 16-year-old forward Jody Brown. She scored four goals at the 2018 CONCACAF contest.

    Group D: Argentina (with England, Scotland and Japan)

    Estefanía Banini (right) will lead Argentina in its first Women’s World Cup appearance since 2007.

    Opening match: vs. Japan on Monday, June 10, at noon ET

    It’s hard not to root for the Albiceste. In a soccer-obsessed country, they have been consistently overlooked and under-resourced by their federation ― what scholar Brenda Elsey described as “abject neglect.” In 2015, the team had played so little, FIFA considered them “inactive.” In 2017, the women went on strike because of their poor pay (they received less than $10 per training), lack of staff and lack of games. These women literally do this because of how much they love the sport.

    After coming in third in the Copa América Femenina and winning a spot in aggregrate over Panama, the Argentine women are back in the World Cup for the first time since 2007. This victory alone, according to Elsey, has “spur[red] the explosion of activity around women’s soccer over the past year. Grassroots organizations that have been working for decades to change the culture of soccer and develop girls’ leagues finally seem to be getting the attention they deserve.” In March, the Argentine Football Association announced it would help financially support clubs so they could sign women to contracts, the first time this has happened for women in that country.

    Still, despite things getting better in Argentina, the team that will be competing at the World Cup will most likely be outmatched by England, Japan and even first-timer Scotland. That’s what years of inactivity will do.

    Why they might advance: It’s hard to see Argentina getting out of their group, but if they do it, it’ll most likely be because of spectacular play by midfielder Estefanía Banini, the team’s captain. Here is Banini’s take on their positives: “Aside from our attitude and the will-to-win we show in every game, I’d say we’re known for our versatility and for the players we have in midfield and upfront that are capable of technically good football and prevailing in a one-on-ones.” They also have Sole Jaimes, who plays for Olympique Lyonnais, who just won the Champions League.

    Group E: Cameroon (with Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands)

    Cameroon debuted at the Women’s World Cup by reaching the Round of 16 four years ago. Now the Indomitable Lionesses are back and hoping to push even further.

    Opening match: vs. Canada on Monday, June 10, at 3 p.m. ET

    This is the toughest group in which to designate an underdog. While Canada and the Netherlands both have a chance to run deep in the tournament, it’s possible that both New Zealand and Cameroon will challenge them with runs of their own. Still, if we have to choose one, Cameroon makes the most sense. The Indomitable Lionesses qualified by coming in third at AFCON, have only played two international friendlies since qualifying, and have a head coach who only started earlier this year. Their lack of international play and weakness in their back line going into the tournament could be their Achilles’ heel.

    Why they might advance: Even though this is only their second World Cup appearance, Cameroon has experience. Four years ago, they stunned the world by getting through the group stage before losing in the Round of 16 to China. They are the only other African team, besides Nigeria, to make it into the knockout round. They have a lot of players who can score, including Gaëlle Enganamouit, Gabrielle Aboudi Onguéné and Ajara Nchout Njoya. They also have a lot of athletes who have played in the Olympics and the last World Cup.


     

    Group F: Chile (with the United States, Thailand and Sweden)

    Chile will make its World Cup debut in a tough group, but La Roja could be dangerous: Last November, they pulled off a stunning 3-2 win over World Cup dark horse favorite Australia.

    Opening match: vs. Sweden on Tuesday, June 11, at noon ET

    Chile is making its World Cup debut in 2019. Like neighbor Argentina, La Roja was neglected by its federation to the point where FIFA declared the team “inactive.” At their most dormant, they went 981 days between matches. In July 2016, some players created the National Association of Female Footballers to jumpstart progress for the women’s game in Chile, draw attention to inequity in the sport and begin to address it.

    In May 2017, the team came roaring back from inactivity, beating Peru 12-0 in a match that CNN says “had barely been advertised, not in the media nor by the country’s football federation” and yet “still more than 10,000 fans turned up at Santiago’s Estadio Nacional to watch them.” Clearly, both fans of the sport and the talent to win big existed ― the team just needed support.

    What they will be able to do in France is still unknown. They were handily beaten in a friendly with the Netherlands in April, losing 7-0. They haven’t won their last nine matches.


     

    Why they might advance: The team knows how to win big in big moments. In 2018, they hosted Copa América and won every match until the final, where they lost to Brazil. In a friendly in November against Australia, a dark horse favorite at the World Cup, they won 3-2 despite Australia’s home field advantage. They also have multiple players on clubs in Europe and South America. Their best-known player and perhaps their best player is Christiane Endler, the goalkeeper for women’s powerhouse Paris Saint‐Germain. Last year, she won the award for best goalkeeper in the French league.

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