Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Women's World Cup Draw

Taking a break from the Champions League action for a moment...the draw for this summer's Women's World Cup took place on Sunday in China. The top two teams from each group will go through to the quarter-finals. Here are the groups, with the teams' current world ranking in brackets:

Group A
Germany (2)
Japan (9)
England (12)
Argentina (32)

Germany are the reigning world and European champions. They're a talented and physically tough team who won all of their 8 games in qualifying, and I expect them to make it out of the group stage easily. Japan and England will probably be slugging it out for second place. Japan, whose best ever showing at the World Cup was the quarter-finals in 1995, had to beat Mexico in a playoff to qualify, after finishing behind Australia and Korea in Asia.

England also reached the quarter-finals in 1995, their only previous appearance in the tournament. The women's game has been growing in the country recently, though -- overcoming obstables like the FA banning women playing on league grounds from 1920 to 1971 (which kind of explains people like Mike Newell, eh?). They had a tough qualifying group that included France and the Netherlands, but they struggled through, and I think they could surprise people this year. The final team in the group, Argentina, upset Brazil to qualify in first place from CONMEBOL, but I don't think they've got the quality to carry them through a whole tournament.

Prediction: Germany and England

Group B
Nigeria (24)
USA (1)
Korea DPR (5)
Sweden (4)

I have to agree with YNBA about this one being the group of death. Unlike the men's World Cup, though, the USA are far from being underdogs. They won the tournament in 1991 and again in 1999 (a slightly disappointing 3rd in 2003), and they've recently regained their #1 world ranking. Sweden came second the last time around, losing to Germany in the finals, and they're one of the powerhouses of women's soccer. Another strong team that scores lots of goals, they went undefeated in their qualifying campaign.

I'm a bit surprised to see the Koreans ranked so highly, especially since they haven't made it past the group stage before at the World Cup. But that ranking is probably helped by the performance of their U20 team, who beat China to win the inaugural world championship last year. Nigeria are perennial contenders at the World Cup but usually disappoint once they're there -- their best performance was making the quarter-finals in 1999. But they're also five-time African champions, and this could be the year that they step up on the world stage.

Prediction: USA and (ooh, this is a tough one) Korea

Group C
Norway (3)
Ghana (48)
Australia (14)
Canada (10)

I'll be cheering for Canada, obviously -- it makes a nice changes from the men's game, where the Canadians are nowhere. Canada put in a strong showing in 2003 and finished fourth. They'll be without some veterans like Charmaine Hooper this time around after a dispute with the CSA, but they're going to be living together for three months in a training cap to prepare for the tournament and I expect them to do well again. Norway are the big guns in this group, though. They won in 1995 but -- missing some key players -- went out in the quarters in 2003. They've since regrouped and finished first among the European qualifiers.

Despite their lower international ranking, Australia actually finished ahead of Korea and Japan in their first attempt at qualifying through the Asian federation. They've never made it out of their group before but will be hoping for a better showing this time. Ghana, like Canada, are usually overshadowed by their continental rivals (in this case, Nigeria) -- but, like the men's side, will still be a tough team to play, trying to make the quarter-finals for the first time.

Prediction: Norway and Canada

Group D
China PR (11)
New Zealand (23)
Brazil (8)
Denmark (6)

I'm kind of surprised China are ranked so low -- but my perception of the teams' relative strength is still kind of biased by the first tournament I followed, back in 1999. China have slipped in the past few years -- they were runners-up in 1999 but were eliminated in the quarters in 2003 -- although they regained their continental title in the 2006 Asian Cup. New Zealand are making their first appearance at the World Cup since 1991. They qualified easily this year, but from the understrength Oceania federation; I expect them to get their little kiwi butts kicked.

Brazil come into the tournament wanting to restore some pride after their unexpected loss to Argentina. Their best performance so far was finishing third in 1999, and they have a good chance this year too, with Marta, the FIFA Women's Player of the Year in 2006. Denmark are one of three Scandinavian teams to qualify, but they're probably the weakest of the bunch. Their qualifying campaign was kind of a nail-biter, and they've never made it past the quarter-finals before.

Prediction: China and Brazil

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