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Incredible 2023 World Cup proves women’s game inevitable (again)

There was little question that the expansion of the Women’s World Cup field to 32 teams would be good for the game worldwide, but there were questions about whether an enlarged tournament would yield improved football.

After all, the 2019 tournament saw the USWNT beat Thailand 13-0 and Jamaica lose all three games by three or more goals in a tough group. Germany pasted the Ivory Coast 10-0 four years earlier and it wasn’t even the only 10-star performance as Switzerland clobbered Ecuador 10-1.

[ MORE: Spain beats England in World Cup Final ]

And only 16 teams went to the 2011 World Cup.

Well, those questions are decidedly gone after the most complete Women’s World Cup in the tournament’s history, one featuring stunned favorites and knockout round combatants from Europe (8), Africa (3), North America (2), Oceania (1), Asia (1), and South America (1).

Three of FIFA’s top 10 teams failed to make the Round of 16, and the top-ranked United States exited at that stage. The quarterfinal featured 13th-ranked Japan and 26th-slotted Colombia.

Fittingly, at the end of a wild month, the best team won an engrossing final on a spectacular team goal. And those who want to dismiss it as a wild card are a special breed of disillusioned cynic.

If Brandi Chastain’s 1999 celebration was a clarion call to the American sporting public, then this entire tournament should echo that vibe on a worldwide scale.

Opportunities for women’s game limitless, non-negotiable

Nigeria v Canada: Group B - FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 21: Ashley Lawrence of Canada and Uchenna Kanu of Nigeria fight for the ball during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group B match between Nigeria and Canada at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on July 21, 2023 in Melbourne / Naarm, Australia. (Photo by Elsa - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

FIFA via Getty Images

No longer can a nation’s success at the World Cup or an Olympics seemingly guarantee future success for several more. The USWNT has to feel this in a still-tender way. The two-time reigning World Cup champions came a goal post from missing the knockout rounds. Olympic gold winners Canada scored two goals in a group many picked them to summit.

As some pundits discussed whether anyone can catch Spain’s possession style in the future, there really isn’t much question for most of us: The answer is yes. Yes. 1000 times yes.

We also saw a lot of younger rosters promise more for the future. While the USWNT faces a generational shift in the program, Japan brought only one player older than 29. England’s oldest player is 32. The tournament’s leading scorer, Hinata Miyazara, is 23 and plays for a club in Sendai that didn’t exist when Japan beat the USWNT in the 2011 final.

[ MORE: 2023 World Cup hub — Results, video highlights ]

Much has been said stateside about the influence of the United States women’s national team and the early-adopting USSF on the sport’s growth, as well as the investment from massive clubs like Arsenal, Barcelona, Lyon, and Bayern Munich.

And that’s all true — look at the American college soccer experience strewn throughout the rosters and coaching staffs, as Pitt coach Randy Waldrum led underfunded Nigeria to the knockouts — but the signs are everywhere. Nine of Morocco’s players are domestic, and the African side overcame a 6-0 tournament-opening loss to Germany to beat those same opponents to a place in the knockout rounds. Jamaica has never made the Olympics and had a minus-11 goal differential in their World Cup debut last tournament. They beat out Brazil for a knockout round spot this year.

Was there luck involved? Sure. Three of the tournament’s top xGD/90 teams — Brazil, Germany, and New Zealand — failed to escape the group stage. Two more — the USWNT and Norway — were shooed away in the Round of 16.

This all doesn’t mean we won’t see a 10-goal day at another World Cup. But it does mean we can count on almost every game featuring a team with a puncher’s chance, and nearly as many being difficult to predict the outcome.

There’s plenty of work to do on the progress front. We’re far from mission accomplished status, as evidenced by the off-field problems between the champions and their federation, Jamaican players fundraising to get to the tournament, and Waldrum’s public fight for Nigeria vs its federation. All stakeholders and FIFA must not leave well enough alone, even with the World Cup champions’ federation having won despite a very sticky situation. But the progress is undeniable and the football better than ever.

And the fact that neither of those are up for debate should both inspire those in the throes of golden generations as well as those who continue to fight for better. And it’s just an added bonus here in the United States that it’s going to force history’s best ever program outside of its comfort zone.

We can hardly wait to watch. Is it Paris 2024 yet?