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The Women's World Cup expanded to 32 teams this year. Has the quality suffered?

Betina Petit-Frere of Haiti controls the ball against Alessia Russo of England during the teams' opening game at the Women's World Cup in Brisbane, Australia on July 22, 2023. Haiti is one of eight newcomers at the tournament this year.
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Betina Petit-Frere of Haiti controls the ball against Alessia Russo of England during the teams' opening game at the Women's World Cup in Brisbane, Australia on July 22, 2023. Haiti is one of eight newcomers at the tournament this year.

Not long after FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced the 2023 Women's World Cup would expand from 24 teams to 32, the murmurs began.

Would the addition of another eight countries lead to a lower-quality of play?

The WWC is the premier women's soccer tournament and held every four years. It began in 1991 with 12 countries. Starting with the 1999 tourney, FIFA allowed 16 teams to participate - a number it kept in place for the next four tournaments. It increased it to 24 countries at the 2015 WWC and bumped it up to 32 at this year's tournament in Australia and New Zealand.

When Infantino announced this latest increase in 2019, he celebrated what it would mean to soccer globally. "From now on, dozens more member associations will organize their women's football program knowing they have a realistic chance of qualifying," said Infantino.

At the 2023 Women's World Cup, eight countries are making their debuts: the Philippines, Ireland, Zambia, Haiti, Vietnam, Portugal, Panama and Morocco. Six have already played matches. But none have won. In fact, the newcomers haven't scored a single goal.

So were the naysayers right? Not exactly.

Louise Quinn (#4) of Ireland and Alanna Kennedy (#14) of Australia battle for the ball during the 2023 Women's World Cup on July 20, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. It's Ireland's first appearance at a WWC.
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Louise Quinn (#4) of Ireland and Alanna Kennedy (#14) of Australia battle for the ball during the 2023 Women's World Cup on July 20, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. It's Ireland's first appearance at a WWC.

On Saturday, Haiti, ranked number 53 in the world, took on fourth-ranked England, the reigning European champions. On paper, England was supposed to win and win easily. But it wasn't so easy. Haiti frustrated the Lionesses all game and stymied their vaunted offense - and created many scoring chances of their own.

As the match progressed, Fox Sports commentator John Strong noted Haiti's scrappy play. "The accusation is you'll let teams into the World Cup that don't belong here. Has Haiti shown they belong [here]?" he asked his fellow commentator Kyndra de St. Aubin.

She answered that "100%" Haiti belongs in the tournament. "It's about the ability, the skill level on the ball. You can see some of the composure with some of the touches, the cleanliness, the movement. I think you see a whole lot of things from Haiti that they're going to be incredibly proud of their performance here," said de St. Aubin. England won 1-0.

Ramona Bachmann of Switzerland (white) challenges Hali Long of the Philippines (blue) for the ball during the Women's World Cup match in Dunedin, New Zealand on July 21, 2023.
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Ramona Bachmann of Switzerland (white) challenges Hali Long of the Philippines (blue) for the ball during the Women's World Cup match in Dunedin, New Zealand on July 21, 2023.

Other newcomers have also had close contests at this Women's World Cup so far. Ireland lost to Australia 1-0. The Netherlands beat Portugal 1-0. Switzerland defeated the Philippines 2-0 and Vietnam only allowed three goals to the two-time defending champion and top-ranked U.S.A. In its opener at the 2019 WWC, the U.S. throttled Thailand 13-0.

At the 2019 tournament, four countries made their debut: Chile, Jamaica, South Africa and Scotland. None of them advanced out of group play. But that experience likely helped two make it back this year: South Africa and Jamaica. South Africa lost all three of its games four years ago. But returns as the African champions.

In 2015, two countries debuted: Switzerland and Spain. And both of those are competing this year. Spain is now ranked sixth in the world rankings.

As the women's game continues to grow, FIFA president Infantino says soccer's governing body has the responsibility to introduce the sport to more audiences both globally and locally.

"The FIFA Women's World Cup is the most powerful trigger for the professionalization of the women's game, but it comes but once every four years and is only the top of a much greater pyramid," Infantino said.

Don't be surprised if future competitions of the Women's World Cup will have even more teams.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vietnam's midfielder Thi Tuyet Dung Nguyen (#7) fights for the ball with USA forward Trinity Rodman (#20) during the 2023 Women's World Cup on July 22, 2023. The USA defeated newcomer Vietnam 3-0.
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AFP via Getty Images
Vietnam's midfielder Thi Tuyet Dung Nguyen (#7) fights for the ball with USA forward Trinity Rodman (#20) during the 2023 Women's World Cup on July 22, 2023. The USA defeated newcomer Vietnam 3-0.

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As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.