FOOTBALL FAN OR NOT, the magnitude of a World Cup is something that can’t be ignored — even by the oval-balled armies that traditionally rule the sporting roost in Australia and across the ditch. Every four years this global showcase brings together people of all ages, races and genders in an emphatic demonstration of the pulling power of what the late Les Murray called ‘The World Game’. The best part? Australia and New Zealand are hosting this year’s extravaganza, in what will be the biggest event in the history of women’s football, possibly even women’s sport.
For some perspective, the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France saw 1.12 billion viewers tune in across all platforms, with the final between the USA and the Netherlands drawing over 260 million total viewers.
Nowhere in the world is the appetite for women’s football as strong as it is in the United States, a team that will be aiming to secure its fifth World Cup since the tournament began in 1991. Women’s football is so popular in the US that the USWNT (sadly an acronym that will have to suffice in lieu of a catchy nickname) often overshadows the men’s team. Elsewhere, nations like Canada, Germany and Norway also boast strong support, with many of their fans likely to bring colour and a little personality to the stands this July.
From an Australian standpoint, hosting the World Cup means Aussie fans get to see the Matildas face off against the world’s best on home soil, in what’s likely to be a boon for youth participation among both girls and boys, inspired by the chance to see their heroes up close. The economic benefits of hosting the tournament aren’t exactly small beer, either — Football Federation Australia (FFA) is forecasting a $460 million economic windfall derived from tourism, ticket sales and infrastructure investment.
If you’re a WWC newbie, dare we say, a ‘casual’, the sheer scale of the tournament can seem overwhelming, so we’ve done the hard yards for you. Here’s everything you need to know, whether you’re watching in person, at the pub or from the couch.
When is the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup?
Soon! In fact, the tournament will officially kick-off in under ten days time, running from July 20 through to August 20, 2023.
Who’s hosting and where will the games be held?
As announced by FIFA in 2020, Australia and New Zealand won a joint-bid to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup — the first time in the history of the tournament (both men’s and women’s).
The tournament will be held in ten stadiums across nine cities in both Australia and New Zealand, including five in Australia and four in New Zealand. The full list of host cities include: Sydney (two stadiums), Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth (Australia); Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin and Hamilton (New Zealand).
The World Cup final will be held at Stadium Australia in Sydney on August 20.
How many teams are competing?
32 teams will compete at the 2023 World Cup, split into eight groups. This is the first time in the history of the women’s tournament that there will be 32 teams competing, which FIFA expanded from 24 after the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Notably, the men’s World Cup has featured 32 competing teams since 1998.
And who has qualified?
Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China PR, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Haiti, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Korea Republic, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Panama, Philippines, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, USA, Vietnam, Zambia.
What’s the format?
64 matches, 32 teams, eight groups — the top two teams from each group will advance to the 16-team knockout stage, where a win is required to progress through to the semifinals. Here, the two winners of the semifinals round will advance to the World Cup final on August 20. The losing teams of the semifinals will play for third place on August 19.
Who are the Matilda’s playing?
Australia will kick off their World Cup campaign on home soil, facing off against the Republic of Ireland in Sydney on the opening day of the tournament. The Matildas will then travel to Brisbane to play Nigeria, before concluding their group stage matches against Canada in Melbourne.
The co-hosts have a lot to prove at this year’s World Cup. When Tony Gustavsson took over as coach in 2020, the idea that the Matildas might be in contention for their first ever World Cup trophy seemed fanciful; after all, this is a team that has never made it past the quarter-finals in a World Cup tournament. But when there’s a will, there’s a way, and the Matildas have slowly and surely worked hard to prove to the naysayers that they are a team more than the sum of their veteran stars. Working on their past deficiencies — like adding depth to the squad, rectifying defensive vulnerability, attacking proficiency and ultimately investing in a team of both veterans and newcomers to coexist on the pitch for a full 90 minutes — the Matildas enter the World Cup as the 10th best team in the world, as per recent FIFA rankings.
Their recent friendly win against reigning European champions England was a massive telltale as the World Cup fast approaches. “I think there are many teams that could win the World Cup. I think Australia’s one of them,” Sarina Wiegman, England manager, said immediately after England’s loss. The Matildas will now play one more “send off match” in Melbourne against France on July 14, before their first official World Cup match on July 20 against Ireland.
Speaking to Esquire, Matilda’s Vice Captain and star defender Steph Catley says the team morale going into this year’s World Cup is at an all-time high.
“The team morale is great, everyone’s just excited to get started, it’s been a really long build up to this tournament so I think everyone just wants to be out there for that first game,” Catley said.
“Those big wins earlier this year definitely did a lot for our confidence going into this tournament as well as the fact that we’ll be playing on home soil in front of family and friends and thousands of passionate Australians.”
Catley added that the ability to inspire the next generation of footballers is definitely not lost on the players heading into the 2023 World Cup.
“I think the opportunity to inspire the next generation is super exciting,” adds Catley. “Even if the girls and boys who watch us this year don’t end up in football, if they watch us and are inspired to be brave and follow their dreams no matter what those dreams are, then that’s what excites me the most.”
Teams to watch
With four World Cups and nine years ranked the world’s best team, the US are heavily favoured to walk away with their fifth Winner’s Trophy. The USWNT come into this tournament with players at the peak of their powers. Star striker Alex Morgan, who excelled at the 2019 tournament with six goals and three assists, will again be a force up front. This tournament will be veteran winger Megan Rapinoe’s swansong and you can bet the 37-year-old (and 2019 Golden Boot winner) will be determined to exit the world stage on a high.
Currently ranked sixth in FIFA rankings, Canada will go into their eighth consecutive World Cup since 1995, with a point to prove. The team finished fourth in 2003 but more recently took home gold at the Tokyo Olympics. While star forward, Janine Beckie, will be out due to injury, expect PSG fullback Ashley Lawrence to step up and cause headaches for opposition defences. Young gun Julia Grosso also looks like a dynamic and versatile midfield package.
Let’s just say, we’ve got a shot. For starters, we’re competing on home soil. Then there’s the team’s recent victories against the likes of England (yes, it was a friendly) and Spain. Come July 20, the Matildas will field their most formidable and experienced outfit, including a potentially devastating offensive combo in superstar Sam Kerr and Arsenal forward Caitlin Foord.
“The cool thing about our team is that most of us have played at two or three World Cups, Olympics, and major tournaments where the pressure to perform is constantly there. Being in these types of moments, in front of huge crowds, sets you up for these moments,” Catley says.
“I think our team is positioned to thrive, more so than we’ve ever been. There’s also more to this tournament that just the on the pitch success. I think by just being out there, giving our all, showing young girls and boys that they can achieve their dreams, we’re redefining what success looks like.”
The Matildas have slowly but surely proven they’re more than the sum of their veteran stars. Adding depth to the squad, rectifying defensive vulnerability and becoming more potent in attack, the Matildas enter the tournament ranked 10th in the world. “I think there are many teams that could win the World Cup. I think Australia’s one of them,” said England manager Sarina Wiegman, immediately after her team’s recent loss to the Aussies. The Matildas might be entering the tournament as underdogs, but don’t be surprised if they cause an upset or two.
Players to watch
Kerr is a striker on a mission. It’s difficult to overstate her influence on women’s football, both here in Australia and internationally. Australia’s all-time leading goal scorer, the 29-year-old Chelsea striker is arguably the most dangerous forward in the world and, come tournament kick-off, will be aiming to make her mark on home soil by captaining her team to victory.
The one touch wonder is 34-years of age and will be entering her fourth World Cup campaign. But don’t expect age to slow the lethal forward, who’s scored over 120 goals for the US since her debut in 2010. Last year Morgan won the NWSL Golden Boot for San Diego Wave. Given she’ll be 38 in 2027, this might be her ‘last dance’. You can bet she’ll be hellbent on leading the USWNT to an unprecedented tournament three-peat.
Norwegian star Ada Hegerberg epitomises grit and grind. Injured for almost two years after tearing her ACL in 2020, she previously missed the 2019 World Cup in protest at the Norwegian Football Federation’s treatment of female footballers. But this might just be Hegerberg’s moment. The star striker has made her name turning defences into sieves since making her debut for Norway at just 15 years old. Could she now, at 27, help her country clinch its second World Cup?
At this stage of her career, Alexia Putellas looks set to go down as one of the greatest footballers of all time. The two-time Ballon d’Or Féminin winner — football’s highest accolade — is captain of FC Barcelona and previously skippered the national team. Earlier this year she was crowned FIFA Player of the Year for the second consecutive year. While the midfielder is still battling an injury — she tore her ACL last July and subsequently missed the summer Euros — come July 20, the 29-year-old should be fit and ready to lead her country’s campaign.
Views from the sidelines
Fair pay has long been a concern voiced by players, staff and civil rights groups involved in women’s football. Coming into the 2023 world cup, all eyes were on FIFA to increase the prize pool for participating teams. The organisation duly tripled the purse for the tournament to $226m (a 300% pay increase from the 2019 women’s world cup), however, the pay discrepancy between the women’s and men’s games remains — $648m was allocated to the men’s world cup in Qatar last year. The good
news is that FIFA has promised equity in prize money between men’s and women’s teams in time for the 2027 WWC.
World Cup Final: USA (3) v England (2)
A version of this story featured in the inaugural Esquire Australia issue.