Women's World Cup 2015: England aim to gain from brave new world

Upcoming tournament will showcase a growing sport but test Mark Sampson’s evolving team, writes Glenn Moore

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It is hard to know what is the most significant landmark in the progress of women’s football: the publication of the sport’s first Panini stickers album this month or the revelation that the next issue of the Fifa computer game will include female teams?

This may sound trivial but these developments indicate the growing acceptance of women’s football in the wider game. Both are linked to the seventh Women’s World Cup which opens on Saturday with hosts Canada playing China in Edmonton. In a further indication of the sports rising status there will be live coverage on BBC TV as there will be of the tournament’s other 51 matches.

At a time when Fifa is, deservedly, being lambasted for corruption and mis-management it is worth pointing out this is an area where the organization has been a force for good. Without Fifa funding the Women’s World Cup would not exist. Moreover, without Fifa support for such tournaments as the women’s U-17 and U-20 world cups, and investment in women’s football in individual countries through the GOAL programme, the standard would be damagingly low, certainly too low for the expansion to 24 teams this summer.

When the first Women’s World Cup was staged in 1991, more than six decades behind the male version, there were a dozen teams and matches only lasted 80 minutes in deference to supposed gender weakness. Whilst the tournament, in China, drew impressive attendances, it merited little attention outside the female game’s established heartlands of Scandinavia, America and Germany. With no UK involvement awareness on these shores was minimal.

This time, while there is still likely to be greater interest in the progress of Gareth Southgate’s young lions in the European U-21 championships, Mark Sampson’s lionesses will attract attention from the committed and the curious, not least because only their matches are on terrestrial TV.

England kick off on Tuesday June 9, against France. Sampson says his players believe they are going to Canada to win but it will be a surprise if they do. The Women’s Super League has built on Hope Powell’s structural improvements and having failed to qualify for three of the first four tournaments this is England’s third successive finals. But they are yet to get beyond the last eight and not among the favourites this time.

Their final warm-up, a 1-0 loss to Canada in Hamilton on Friday night, showed why. England were poor, looking nervous and uncertain of their gameplan. There were round pegs in square holes and a lack of composure. There has been a lot of experimenting in the build-up, maybe too much, and Sampson seems to have little idea of his best team.

This England should be better. They lack the superstar quality of Kelly Smith, who has retired from the international game, but have an experienced core backed by a smattering of youthful talent. There should be goals in attack with Eniola Aluko, Jodie Taylor and Fran Kirby, nous and bite in midfield with Fara Williams and Katie Chapman, and a touch of flair in Jordan Nobbs and Lianne Sanderson. The main concern is defensive with key players only recently back from injury and a lack of stability, which may be why England played so deep on Friday.

Nevertheless the draw is favourable and England ought to escape a group that also includes outsiders Mexico and Colombia.

Then it depends who they meet in the knock-out stages, and if it is a marquee name whether they can overcome the same mental block the men appear to suffer against such opposition. England won ten straight games in qualifying scoring 52 goals to one, but have since been beaten at home by Germany and America, the twin favourites ahead of France, Brazil and holders Japan.

Sue Smith, who won 93 England caps and played in the 2007 World Cup, said: “I think we are in a better position now because of what happened against Germany. Qualifying gave them confidence but it was probably too easy. They were doing so well they maybe thought they were better than they were.

“Mark now knows he cannot be as attacking again against a strong side like Germany. Mark loves attacking football but sometimes you have to respect the opposition. Against France, for example, he may have to line up more defensively. But if the Germany game showed they were defensively naïve they had tightened up a lot against America.”

Smith played in the 2009 European Championships when England lost the first game to Italy, with Casey Stoney sent off, but reached the final through the vagaries of the draw. Something similar could happen this time (see panel). “We thought ‘we’re out, especially with Casey suspended’, but it was probably the best thing that could have happened as we got a nice route through to the final. I think that is something that could happen again if they do get beat against France – but obviously they would have to win the next two.”

That cannot be guaranteed. It is difficult to judge how good Mexico and Colombia are. Both qualified in 2011 but failed to win a match. Both also have some notable individuals and Sampson cautioned: “In the WSL now there are players coming from nations that are not known for their women’s football, but are producing players of a very high quality. I think this is the biggest tournament the women’s game has ever seen in terms of the quality.”

Whether that justifies the expansion to 24 teams remains to be seen. In the early tournaments there were several matches won by margins of six goals or more including Germany’s 11-0 thrashing of Argentina. But no team won by more than four goals in 2011 and Smith, who will be co-commentator for the BBC in Canada, said: “It is great to see more countries, you want it to expand, but you don’t want 10-0s, even 6-0s. It makes a mockery of the sport and people switch off. But women’s football is getting better, the gap between the big teams and others is narrowing. Teams are training more so they are getting fitter, technically better and tactically wiser.”

All games are being played on artificial turf, which prompted an unsuccessful lawsuit from players who felt they were risking injury, and being treated as second-class by Fifa compared to the men. However, cost and climatic conditions in Canada left Fifa with limited alternatives, 3G artificial turf is used in men’s World Cup qualifiers, and many male and female clubs use it for training.

The England players seem not to regard it as a slight. Having  modelled for Panini’s World Cup sticker book and Fifa 16 they know the women’s game has finally arrived. Their aim now is to ensure England are at its forefront.