One of the defining images of the Women’s World Cup is an exultant Brandi Chastain at Pasadena, California’s Rose Bowl in 1999. Shirt ripped off, dropped to her knees, fists pumped, roaring in triumph—she had just scored the penalty that gave the United States another World Cup, and this time on home soil.
It overshadows a much, much smaller piece of history that also happened that day: the Cup’s first ever scoreless stalemate. There had never been a 0–0 game at the Women’s World Cup, yet it happened twice on championship day—first in the bronze medal match, and then again in the final.
The usual complaint about soccer is that there aren’t enough goals. The women’s Cup has historically been plagued by the opposite problem—there have been too many goals. More precisely, there have been too many blowouts. Earlier in the 1999 tournament, when the scoring average approached 4 goals per game, the U.S., Brazil, Germany, and Norway all notched up victory margins of 6 goals. China actually won one game by 7 goals, and took the semifinals over Norway by a score of 5-0. In the previous tournament in 1995, the Norwegians outscored all of their opponents by a ridiculous 23–1 margin. One evening in 1991, Japan and Brazil were pummeled by a combined margin of 13–0.
“It’s the same as in men’s football years ago,” says Colin Bell, who coached FFC Frankfurt to the Women’s Champions League title last month. “Lots of countries didn’t have the education of the game like they did in England or Germany, so they got hammered. As the education becomes better in those countries, then obviously the games also become much closer.”
Which is exactly what we’ve been seeing in women’s play. There’s been a distinct drop in goals since the days in Pasadena. From 3.84 goals per game in 1999, the number fell to just 2.69 goals per game twelve years later at Germany 2011. This drop in scoring has, not accidentally, coincided with an improvement in competitiveness and in the state of world play more generally.
Take out the anomaly of Argentina’s 11–0 loss to Germany in 2007, and the largest margin of victory at each tournament has been dropping steadily—from 8 goals in 1995 to 4 in 2011. The average winning margin, meanwhile, is now half what it used to be. At the same time, the women’s game is becoming more professionalized. As American midfielder Megan Rapinoe recently noted in an article in the Players’ Tribune, this year’s tournament—which starts on Saturday when hosts Canada face China in Edmonton—will be the first one where the majority of players on the best teams are playing full-time in pro leagues.
So while goals have become almost as scarce as they are in the men’s game, tension at the women’s Cup has been ratcheted up. And not only are previous noncontenders becoming more competitive, but one of them—Japan—even broke the U.S.–Germanic–Norwegian stranglehold on the Cup the last time around.
Ironically, the increased competition should end the downward trend in scoring this year in Canada.
For the first time, the Cup has been extended from 16 to 24 teams, an acknowledgement of the expanding quality of the competition around the globe. All of eight teams will be making their World Cup debuts. In other words, despite the overall improvement in quality, expect a return of some blowouts.
Another reason we might see more scoring is that the possession style of play made famous by the men’s Barcelona team, which Japan adopted to great success the last time around, has proliferated. (Of course, as Rapinoe pointed out, the artificial turf in Canada—against which the players fought but failed to have removed—might hurt the “more technical, possession-oriented teams,” which could result in a more “run-and-gun, disruptive style” coming to the fore.)
One of the first-time teams playing a more possession-based tiki-taka style of play is Spain. At 14th in the world, the Spanish should be one of the most competitive newcomers, but even they come into the tournament with significantly lower expectations—and support structures—than recent powerhouses like the Germans, the Swedes, the Japanese, and the Americans.
“I come from Spain, so usually we have like 50 people in the stadiums,” Spain captain and FFC Frankfurt attacking midfielder Verónica Boquete tells me. “I hope we have a great World Cup, and that we can push our sport in Spain. If not, we will come back with our head up, because it’s already a great success for Spain to be in the World Cup.”
The other newbies will have an even tougher time. Spare a thought for the Ivory Coast (at 67th, the worst-ranked team at the Cup) and Thailand (ranked 29th). They have been grouped with Germany and Norway, who, between them, have appeared in five finals and won three titles. Don’t be surprised if the group produces at least one 10–0 day.
Three debut nations, meanwhile, have been grouped with reigning world champions Japan, which could result in some bad days for Switzerland, Cameroon, and Ecuador.
A lack of those support structures is also to blame when mismatched teams surrender massive deficits in what could otherwise be close games. If teams start to lose, “they’ll throw everything overboard and instead of losing 3–0, you’ll get 6–0, or 7–0, or 8–0,” says Bell. He thinks that this reflects a lack of more high-quality coaching in the women’s game. “It’s a question of how much are the countries prepared to invest in the education of their young girls—at club level, at international level,” Bell says. “A lot of countries are trying, but they are still not as far along as they are say, here in Germany, or America.”
One group in particular should produce more than its fair share of close, exciting matches, whatever else happens at the 2015 tournament. This year’s group of death features four of the Cup’s most experienced sides; 2007 and 2011 quarterfinalists Australia; a team tied for the most World Cup appearances in Nigeria; 2011 third-place finisher Sweden; and, finally, 2011 runners-up, the United States. It should be interesting.