After several years of qualifying tournaments, the guest list is finally set. We now know the official list of twenty-four teams who will be attending the World Cup in France next summer. The latest FIFA rankings will drop on December 7, allowing for the creation of four pots from which teams will be drawn on December 8.
In the meantime, this is an opportune moment to reflect on the teams who will be attending. Who are the favorites? Who are the dark horses? Who is expected to struggle?
For sake of categorization, I’ve divided the nations into five tiers. Not every team in each tier is equal, of course, but these seemed to be the logical places to draw rough lines of separation.
Tier 1: Favorites
USA, France, Australia, England
It’s very likely that one of these four teams will win the World Cup.
Based on current form, the US arguably deserves to be in their own category (call it Tier 1A), after racing through an undefeated 2018–a year in which they played all the other major competitors apart from the Dutch. But even if the US are clear favorites, it’s not by a huge margin. All four of these teams are stacked, and if they were to face off in the late stages of the Cup, it would be anyone’s game. France has the advantage of playing at home (which is a serious advantage), so they’re probably second-favorites. But England and Australia are filled with talent, and both look ready to step into the inner circle of world powers. And who wants to be the one to bet against Sam Kerr or Fran Kirby when it’s all on the line?
Tier 2: Challengers
Germany, Netherlands, Canada
Here we find three high quality teams, each with enough flaws and limitations to keep them out of the top tier, but each good enough to beat anyone.
Germany is probably the surprise here; we’ve grown accustomed to seeing them trading spots at the top of the rankings with the United States, and looking over the roster there doesn’t seem to be any massive holes. But the results simply haven’t been there for a long time, so clearly something is missing. The biggest banana skins for them are in the defense–which is nowhere near as resolute as it once was–but they’re also missing a true world-class striker. Still, there is a boatload of talent in the team, so it would be tough to really bet against them. If Dzsenifer Marozsán plays the way we know she’s capable of, if Alexadra Popp can find her way back to being a top striker, if some of their young players take that key step forward…the potential is all there.
Then there’s the Netherlands. The European champions have already demonstrated they have the capacity to win a major tournament. The Dutch chances will rise and fall with their world-class attacking talent: Lieke Martens and Vivianne Miedema. Together, they make a strike force as dangerous as any in the tournament. But there’s quality up and down this roster. While they had a difficult route to qualification—having to squeeze through a four-team playoff—they’re here now, and no one will fancy a knockout match against them.
Rounding out this tier is Canada, who lack the depth of the other top teams, but will hope to catch lightning in a bottle and finally give Christine Sinclair a major trophy. Their tournament will probably depend heavily on Jessie Fleming. Still quite young, she can sometimes drift out of games. But on her day, she’s about as unplayable as anyone in the world. They’ll need a top quality performance from her, Sinclair, and probably a few others if they hope to take home the cup. But if the chips fall right, it could absolutely happen.
Combined, these top two tiers contain seven teams. I’d estimate that chances are probably 90-95% that one of those seven lifts the cup on July 7 in Lyon. Of the set, only the US and Germany have won the competition before. For the other five, this would be a chance to enter the narrow ranks of World Cup winners.
Tier 3: If everything breaks right
Japan, Brazil, Sweden, China, Norway, Italy, Spain, South Korea
The teams in this group all have enough quality to at least theoretically fit into the conversation for title contenders. More realistically, they should treat a visit to the quarterfinals as a strong performance, with anything more being icing on top.
Most have some specific reasons to be hopeful, though all have serious areas of concern as well. Brazil will have Marta, of course, but while still a superb player, the days have passed when she could potentially win a tournament by herself. And the rest of the squad has simply never filled in the gaps behind her. This may be her last hurrah, and it would be exciting to see it conclude with a deep run.
Japan, meanwhile, have seen their golden generation pass without any signs of sufficient replacement. Still, the 2015 finalists overachieved to make it that far, so it would be a mistake to write this version off too quickly. Japan’s main advantage is a unified style of play—technical, precise, and fluid. They lack the sheer physical dominance of the top teams, and will likely struggle against fast, aggressive attacks. But there is much to be said for a team built around a shared system.
The rest of this tier is filled with fading giants of the women’s game—Norway and China in particular, Sweden to a lesser extent—and teams looking to take a step forward into the next rank. Spain, in particular, has taken major strides in recent years (with the recent success of the Spanish U17s only demonstrating their status as a team on the rise) and might be a dark horse here.
Norway have one potential wild card in the form of Ada Hegerberg. She stepped away from international soccer last summer and there have been no signs of a rapprochement. That’s unfortunate for Norway. Without her, they are a solid team, but one with narrow margins available in tight games. With her, their chances of scraping a win against a top team would grow significantly.
The first three tiers combine to include fifteen teams. If chalk held perfectly, there would be room for all fifteen to escape their groups. However, given the vagaries of the draw, and the obvious reality that some teams will outperform expectations while others fail to clear the bar, it would be quite surprising if all fifteen did in fact make the Round of 16. To see who is likely to beat out some of these teams, you’ll want to look at Tier 4.
Tier 4: Strivers
Scotland, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, Chile
The teams in this group have fewer obvious strengths, and more glaring flaws, than those in the 3rd tier. But the gap is not enormous. I would certainly expect a few of this group to outperform some of those listed ahead of them. The question is which ones.
Scotland have the biggest single weapon here, in the form of Kim Little. Combine her with a defensively robust and well organized team, and you have a recipe for success. I couldn’t quite convince myself to move them up a tier, but I consider them the team in Tier 4 with the best chance to move up.
New Zealand offers some intriguing possibilities. The Kiwis made an excellent signing, bringing in former Orlando coach Tom Sermanni, which may do quite a bit for their chances. Sermanni would be a great addition under any circumstances, but he’s probably the best possible option for the particular case here, with recent serious allegations of misconduct and mistreatment by the former coaching staff. Bringing in someone universally liked and respected like Sermanni may go a long way toward healing those wounds.
The final three teams in this tier will face a tougher road, given their likely draws. Based on their current rankings, they will probably be stuck in Pot 4, giving them a tougher draw than the others in this group. Still, there are reasons for hope in each case.
South Africa have taken major strides in recent years. Their NWSL contingent surprised many (myself included) in 2018 with their quality, and they are emblematic of renaissance in the South African system. This is their first World Cup, and they’ll be hoping to make a splash. That compares to their CAF compatriots, Nigeria, who have attended every World Cup so far (one of only seven teams to do so). Both have enough talent to challenge the more favored teams, but they’ll probably have to ride their luck a bit as well.
The last team is Chile. When I did an initial draft of these rankings at the end of the summer, I put Chile in the 5th tier. But with their recent victory over Chile, I’ve decided to move them up a rung. I certainly wouldn’t bet on them to rack up another famous victory in the tournament itself, but they’ve demonstrated a level of performance that makes them worthy of a more serious look.
Tier 5: No expectations and nothing to lose
Thailand, Jamaica, Argentina, Cameroon
These four teams are going to be in for a tough ride. While all will certainly hope to advance to the knockout stages, more realistically they should be willing to regard even managing one or two results as a satisfactory tournament.
Cameroon fans may object to being placed in a tier below their CAF counterparts. After all, they did take Nigeria to penalties in the only direct match-up between those squads. Plus, Cameroon made the knockout stage in 2016, so they’ll certainly have reason to hope for a repeat of that performance. Still, they have less obvious talent than the teams in the 4th tier, and there is little about their record in recent years to suggest they are quite at that level.
Thailand’s qualification was heavily aided by the peculiar AFC seeding process, which put them in a group with China, the Philippines, and Jordan, while Australia, Japan, and South Korea all fought it ought in the other group. Furthermore, North Korea was actually eliminated at an earlier stage, clearing out even more space in the competition. Still, they did what was necessary to make the cut, and did manage to take Australia to penalties in the semifinal, showing that they will hardly be pushovers.
Argentina’s intercontinental qualifying match-up against Panama showcased both the strengths of weaknesses of the team. A resounding 4-0 win in the home leg illustrated the potential of the team. But they struggled badly for much of the return leg and could easily have found themselves in some trouble if Panama had been able to finish a bit more clinically.
Finally, there’s Jamaica, who qualified via two famous victories, one over Costa Rica to edge into the knockout rounds, and another on penalties over Panama. Led by the prodigious talents of Bunny Shaw, they have a solid team that was good enough to push past the traditional secondary teams of CONCACAF to take a place at the final. But their performances against the US and Canada in that tournament showed just how wide the gulf still is between them and the true world powers.
So that’s it. Twenty-four teams, who will be competing for sixteen places in the knockout stage.
We’ll certainly know more once the draw is announced next week, at which point I’ll return with an assessment of whose paths got easier or harder. Given a straight seeding system, there shouldn’t be any true ‘group of death,’ but these things can make a difference at the margins.