The long-time rumblings towards FIFA Women’s World Cup expansion have finally come to fruition. For the 2015 tournament in Canada, 24 nations will pursue soccer’s ultimate prize.
After starting as a 12-team tournament in 1991 and 1995, the tournament grew to 16 teams for the historic 1999 event in the USA. The number of participants remained the same for the subsequent three competitions, but the increased number of berths for next summer’s competition reflects a significant growth for the women’s game worldwide, the reverberations of which will be felt for years to come.
Although the expansion of the field could lead to a few lopsided scores, the impact of new opportunities for the women’s game and the inclusion of numerous competitive teams far outweigh the potential for a few goal-fests.
“There might be some teams not quite up to par with the top countries in the world during this World Cup, but that’s part of the process of growing the sport,” said U.S. forward Alex Morgan, who played in her first Women’s World Cup in 2011 and played in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Chile in 2008. “The expansion only continues to develop the women’s game internationally and will encourage more federations to fund their women’s sides because they see what can be achieved. Every team has to take that first step, and I think things will start to even out more and more over the years.”
Europe is the biggest benefactor with four much-needed additional direct berths, but each Confederation (outside of Oceania) was awarded at least one additional spot, giving players, fans and media from even more countries the chance to enjoy everything about the world’s biggest sporting event for women.
The impact of a country qualifying for the Women’s World Cup can be felt at many different levels. Increased media attention is assured and helps supplement vital financial and commercial support, but most importantly, it gives young players a very real picture of what it looks like to play at the highest levels for their country. It’s a dream that can inspire in many different ways, not only for the emerging soccer nations but also for the established ones.
The USA will be competing in its seventh Women’s World Cup, but for the likes of debutantes Switzerland, Spain, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Costa Rica and Thailand, 2015 represents a whole new world of opportunity.
“Every European Championship and World Cup has a positive effect, especially on the host countries,” Swiss coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg told FIFA.com. “I’m happy that there will be 24 teams participating at Canada 2015 instead of 16. That is a reflection of the positive developments in the game and the esteem it is held in.”
Perhaps the biggest news of qualification was Thailand making its first Women’s World Cup. Thailand defeated host Vietnam 2-1 in May for fifth place in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup and became the first team to wholly benefit from the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams.
Thailand’s long road to Canada actually started a year before in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where they secured a spot in the Asian finals with easy wins over Iran and the hosts, as well as a 1-0 victory against the Philippines. In Vietnam, Thailand lost to China PR and Korea Republic but gutted out a 2-1 win vs. Myanmar that put them into the fifth-place match. Kanjana Sungngoen scored both goals to qualify her team for its first Women’s World Cup.
“It's already beyond overwhelming to have the chance to participate in the World Cup,” said Sungngoen to FIFA.com. “We will do our best without pressuring ourselves too hard."
The expansion of the field of course means a change in the format and a longer road to the Final. Instead of four groups of four, there will be six groups of four. Instead of six games to win the World Cup, it will now take seven, with a new Round of 16 match inserted. That means that the top two teams in each of the group will advance to the knockout round along with the best four third-place teams. With 52 total matches to be played next summer, it is sure to be a delicious smorgasbord of women’s soccer for fans. And with FOX Sports going all-out to cover the tournament for the fans in the USA, everyone will get an up-close look at teams and players from all over the world.
The 24 Nations of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup
CONCACAF: USA, Mexico, Costa Rica
UEFA: Switzerland, England, Spain, France, Norway, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.
CONMEBOL: Brazil, Colombia
CAF: Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast
OFC: New Zealand
AFC: Japan, Australia, China PR, Korea Republic and Thailand
CONCACAF/South America Playoff: Either Trinidad & Tobago or Ecuador
A Look at the Expanded Field and Additional Berths by Confederation
Confederation 2015 Berths Change from 2011 Berths
CONCACAF 3.5 + host, Up from 2.5
UEFA 8 Up from 4.5 + host
CONMEBOL 2.5 Up from 2
CAF 3 Up from 2
OFC 1 Same
AFC 5 Up from 3