The World Cup that keeps giving
Defending World Cup champions, the US, are out. Olympic champions, Canada, gone. South American champions, Brazil, crashed out. Germany, dumped in the group stages. The US had survived till the round of 16 only thanks to their goalpost. Spain was goal shy and shocked. European champions, England, struggled with Haiti. It has undoubtedly been the most open Women's World Cup ever.
Kicked off just a fortnight ago, the tournament has kept up with the theme of the 2022 Men's World Cup – there have been goals, epic celebrations, shocks of grand proportions and rise of unexpected underdogs. This World Cup has been the gift that keeps giving.
The very first night an inspired New Zealand, co- hosts with Australia, shocked the tournament's dark horse, Norway and won their first World Cup match. When the final whistle blew, Eden Park broke into euphoria. Captain Ali Riley's passionate and heartfelt post-match interview made headlines. "The energy helped us get through it. This morning, something really tragic happened," referring to the shooting incident that had taken place just hours before kick-off, causing numerous fatalities, in downtown Auckland. "We wanted to bring something positive tonight. And we thought of the victims and the first responders, and they made us so proud. And we wanted to just help bring something amazing today."
Though they've now been eliminated, the most successful women's national team, USA kicked off their campaign against debutants Vietnam. On paper and logically, this was the most uneven matchup and while a three-nil score line does not flatter Vietnam, it does reflect the brilliance of Vietnamese keeper, Tran Thi Kim Thanh, who made several important saves to keep the score line down. When England took on Haiti, they were made to work extremely hard for the three points. Haiti's 19-year-old Melchie Dumornay mesmerised the crowd with her speed, technicality and physicality that seemed way beyond her age and maturity.
For a few long minutes the two attackers from two different countries, representing two different generations, both of whom had their own battles to fight, embraced each other. Displaying sportsmanship at its finest, Shaw gave her condolences and perhaps even thanked Marta for the contribution she made to this beautiful game. After all, who can forget Marta's inspiring 2019 plea: "Women's football depends on you to survive."
Colombia put on a show that deserves its laurels. Beating South Korea and then serving one of the shocks of the tournament, by beating Germany, Linda Caicedo announced herself in the biggest stage. Just 18 years old, Caicedo has played three world cups this year - U18, U20 and now the Women's World Cup. If that was not inspiring enough, Caicedo's story is much more profound than just football. It is a story of resilience, perseverance and self-belief that has helped the youngster recover from cancer at the age of 15. There is a reason why her first coach said, "Caicedo is one of those people who was touched by God, who was born for this." And she really was born for this. Her goal against Germany may just be one of the goals of the tournament.
Leaders lead and some are natural born leaders. Katie McCabe of Ireland is one of them. Helping her country qualify for their first World Cup, her brilliance and leadership gave Ireland a faint hope of almost winning their first ever World Cup match. Scoring directly from the corner, an 'Olimpico,' in the first six minutes, McCabe set the entire stadium ablaze in jubilation. Nigeria on the other hand, one of many teams that have fought tooth and nail against their Federation for support and finance, silenced the hosts, Australia with a win that will live long in African football folklore. Nouhaila Benzina of Morocco made history as the first player to wear a hijab while competing at a senior-level global tournament. She stood firm against the tirade of South Korean attack and inspired her country to its first ever World Cup victory. A few days later Morocco's resilience helped them secure a spot in the last sixteen, at the expense of Germany. Germany who has never lost before the Quarters tripped by Morocco that has never even been to the World Cup before.
When Japan took on Spain, few expected the game to end the way it did. Spain's most talented generation of midfielders, including two-time Ballon d'Or winner, Alexia Putellas and this year's front runner, Aitana Bonmati, struggled to break through Japan's defensive structure. Japan had four shots on target, and all four ended up in the back of the net. Portugal, another debuting team played inspiring football and came agonisingly close to winning and knocking the US out in the final group match. The US's saviour in that game was the goal post that prevented a Portuguese shot from going in, just five minutes before full time. South Africa, a team that has often been subjected to lopsided score lines against them, broke new boundaries. They beat Italy to secure a place in the Round of 16 for the first time in their history.
Panama, who took on France in the last game of the group stages, began the game with a stunning free kick goal from Marta Cox who curled into the top corner just 65 seconds after kick-off. Cox's emotions spilled on the field and her entire team ran to her. Scenes that are usually reserved for when you win a match were displayed despite them already being knocked out of the tournament. At that moment, it did not matter. Some of these players probably never imagined that one day they would be playing on such a big stage. Despite going on to lose 6-3, their determination, the thrill they ex while playing, never faded and the fans loved it. In fact, at one point, even the French supporters wanted the referee to give them a goal, just to witness the purity of the happiness it brought to Panama's fans and players.
Often, a few matches in World Cups leave you divided. Brazil had to win their final group match in order to advance. Before the tournament, the legendary Marta, one of the most decorated players to ever play, announced this would be her last World Cup. Having won the Copa America, many, including myself, believed that this may be their year; that perhaps, Marta too would have her 'Messi moment,' and her legacy would be complete. But then when does football really go the way you want it to? Their opposition, Jamaica, who had not conceded a single goal in the tournament so far, had its own adversaries to face. Since 2008, the team has been disbanded, defunded and ignored. Bob Marley's daughter, Cadella Marley, by chance in 2014, received a flyer from her son's school coach, asking for donations to help restart the Women's team. She did everything in her power to help the 'Reggae Girls,' and yet, their federation continued failing them, cutting off funding, making them play against local clubs to save money, instead of playing other countries. A few months prior to the tournament, a player's mother set up a GoFundMe page to help the team finance their journey to Australia.
Now, the Jamaica has made everyone take notice of them as they withstood the torrent of crosses Brazil put into their box. When the final whistle blew, Jamaica's coach ran around attempting cartwheels like he had promised if they made it to the knock-out stages. Drew Spence of Jamaica screamed at the camera "We told you!" properly ensuring that their battle does not go unnoticed. Khadija "Bunny" Shaw fell to the floor and broke into tears as Marta, dejected but somehow still content, walked up to her. For a few long minutes the two attackers from two different countries, representing two different generations, both of whom had their own battles to fight, embraced each other. It was sportsmanship at its finest, where Shaw gave her condolences and perhaps even thanked Marta for the contribution she made to this beautiful game. After all, who can forget Marta's inspiring 2019 plea: "Women's football depends on you to survive."
As major shockwaves rumble through the Women's World Cup, each of them as volcanic as the previous one, a newfound admiration is engulfing women's football. The tectonic plates of the sport are shifting, paving the way for a new generation of footballers to spread their wings. As we bid farewell to our Martas, Rapinoes and Sinclairs, and welcome our new Dumornays, Caicedos and Shaws, it is essential to acknowledge those who came before and fought to elevate this beautiful game to its current heights and beyond. Everyone wanted to be Marta, and now anyone can be, because of Marta.
Raiyan Binte Rafiq is a sports columnist at The Daily Star. She is pursuing an LLM, while freelancing for Football.Co and INDIVISA to cover UEFA Women's Champions League and Women's Super League, while overseeing recruitment in Next Level Sports Management, based in Bangladesh.