Women’s World Cup 2023 group stage review: Morocco’s triumph, Japan or England to win it all?

The 2023 Women’s World Cup is in full swing, and after an incredible group stage that saw shocks galore — Germany, out! Brazil, out! Italy, out! Nigeria in! The U.S. finished second in its group! — we’re given a scant 48 hours (or less) to breathe, digest and regroup ahead of the round of 16.

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With the knockout rounds set, what better time than now to reflect and react to the past 15 days of high-octane soccer? ESPN’s reporters in Australia and New Zealand weigh in with their best moments from the group stage and their predictions as to who’s going to take home the World Cup on Aug. 20.

Your favourite moment of the group stage?

Jeff Carlisle: Seeing the Moroccan players huddled together, awaiting word on Germany‘s result against South Korea, and then bursting into tears of joy after they realized they’d qualified for the knockout stages after the 1-1 draw in the other Group H game. This is what the Women’s World Cup is all about. Seeing new women’s teams break barriers and get rewarded for their hard work. Absolutely fantastic.

Sophie Lawson: Picking one moment is incredibly tough when we’ve seen so many unexpected results, at least according to the odds. From Nigeria‘s ripping win over Australia to Jamaica‘s defensive resolution and Colombia‘s result against Germany, there have been results to being tears of joy.

Or we could talk about the jaw-dropping goals from Panama‘s Marta Cox, Colombia’s Linda Caicedo and Argentina‘s Sophia Braun, or even pivot from the football to talk about the fans and their joy. But for me, that first night at Eden Park — before the rain started — when New Zealand pulled off their own “shock” and finally, after decades of trying, got that first World Cup win in front of a record crowd, beating Norway 1-0… that was tops for me. Even though their tournament once again ended at the group stage, no one could take that heady night away from the Kiwis.

Caitlin Murray: New Zealand winning their first game — the opener of the 2023 tournament — was a special moment. The atmosphere at Eden Park was electric (although I was not prepared for the windchill) and you could see how much it meant for the Football Ferns to finally win their first-ever World Cup game. It was such a thrill that I immediately went shopping for Ferns gear on Queen Street here in Auckland. Too bad the co-hosts couldn’t make it out of the group.



Laurens: Colombia’s win vs. Germany one of greatest moments in World Cup history

Julien Laurens reacts to Colombia’s incredible win vs. Germany at the Women’s World Cup.

Julien Laurens: Manuela Vanegas‘ 97th-minute winning goal for Colombia against Germany. Like I wrote in my match report, this is what World Cups are all about: one of the biggest upsets ever and an incredible achievement for the Colombians. The atmosphere in the stadium was incredible, with 35,000 South American fans who went through every emotion possible until they exploded at the end! And before all of that, there was Caicedo’s magnificent goal to give the Cafeteras the lead.

Marissa Lordanic: Colombia’s victory over Germany had all the hallmarks of a great match. Caicedo’s ridiculous footwork and sublime finish to open the scoring are imprinted into my brain. Throw in the atmosphere for the match between France and Brazil, and the two games served as much-needed reminders (after some stressful days being an Australian) that World Cups are fun and should be enjoyed.

Tom Hamilton: Watching the development and subsequent impact of Lauren James. She received 29 minutes off the bench against Haiti, but then needed just six minutes to score a glorious winner for England against Denmark. Then came the masterclass against China, in which she scored two phenomenal strikes and chipped in with three assists. She was the talk of the World Cup and justified the pre-tournament hype.

Her nickname in the England camp is “cheat code,” and it’s easy to see why. Whether out wide or through the middle, James is a game-changer for England.

Sam Marsden: Personal bias, as I was at the game, but it is South Africa‘s historic win over Italy in Wellington. Not only was it their first-ever World Cup win, but it also took them through to the knockout rounds for the first time. On top of that, it was done in dramatic fashion with Thembi Kgatlana, who after the game revealed she has lost three family members while in New Zealand, scoring the winner in a five-goal thriller in the 92nd minute.

The smiles on the faces of the players after the game was a demonstration of what the World Cup is all about. The singing — from those that hadn’t lost their voices! — and dancing carried on long into the night.



‘Determined’ Jamaica reach WC knockout stage for first time ever

Joey Lynch recaps a “momentous” goalless draw between Jamaica and Brazil that sends the Caribbean nation to its first-ever World Cup knockout match.

Joey Lynch: The impact that rising nations are having on the tournament has been tremendous, but how they’re doing it and what it could portend is really intriguing.

A lot of the success has come from finding ways to win without the ball — Jamaica, South Africa and Colombia all secured enough points to advance despite averaging 29.5% possession between them in draws with France and Brazil, and wins over Italy and Germany. No longer able to rely on a resource-driven chasm in talent and physical development against these opponents, how the old guard responds to this challenge could define the years ahead.

Your personal favourite moment covering the World Cup so far?

Carlisle: I’d have to say going to Hobbiton. I’m an unabashed “Lord of the Rings” fan, and to get to see the movie set up close was a real thrill. The surrounding scenery is spectacular; then there was having a beer at the Green Dragon. A great diversion in the middle of the tournament.

Lawson: Tempted to say the odd day I’ve not had to leave early to board a plane. My World Cup experience has been rather different to that of the other ESPN writers, so I could mention Zorbing in Rotorua or meeting a 2-year-old koala in Adelaide, but on the football side: witnessing Japan‘s ridiculously proficient counterattacks against Spain, the flexibility of the team coupled with the most unlikely goal return, was an absolute treat.



How South Africa made history vs. Italy at the World Cup

Sam Marsden recaps South Africa’s first-ever win at a Women’s World Cup after their 3-2 victory against Italy sent them into the last 16.

Murray: I’ve been following the USWNT and they haven’t been playing too well, but it’s been fun reconnecting with my friends and colleagues who are normally spread around the United States. One night after leaving the stadium, a few of us went out to dinner and in our booth we stacked our backpacks and rested my laptop on the stack, where we streamed World Cup games while we chatted and ate french fries. Little moments of camaraderie help long tournaments like these go by.

Laurens: Seeing Marta play live for Brazil in her sixth and final World Cup was such a special moment and a privilege. She came on only for the last few minutes against France and didn’t touch the ball much, but to hear the crowd roar when she ran onto the pitch, and to see the adulation of all the thousands of Brazilian fans, was incredible. She is the GOAT of women’s football and I felt very lucky to see her penultimate World Cup appearance. I will be able to be to tell my children and grandchildren that I saw Marta the Great, who changed women’s football forever, play in person.

Lordanic: Waru, Germany’s crocheted koala mascot, and his adventures around Australia have brought so much joy. Forget Caicedo, James and Dutch midfielder Esmee Brugts: Waru may well be the breakout star of the tournament. As a biased Australian though, seeing sold-out crowds for midday kickoffs in the middle of the week between neutral teams has been the surest sign that football in this country matters. Also, the full-time whistle following the Matildas’ win over Canada ruled.

Hamilton: I’ve loved seeing the likes of Colombia, Jamaica, South Africa and Nigeria upset the bigger nations. Watching Jamaica (albeit from a distance) has been one of the great joys, playing their way every game with a rock-solid defence and brilliant strategy. There are a group of teams here who are thriving in spite of the system, and as Jamaica’s Lorne Donaldson said, “Everyone is looking at these smaller countries. Governments and everybody, cut the bulls—: it’s time to step up and support women’s football.”



How ‘achingly clinical’ Japan dismantled Spain in Wellington

Sophie Lawson reacts to Japan’s stunning 4-0 win over Spain at the Women’s World Cup.

Marsden: The players make the tournament and the best thing about covering it is getting to speak to them during some of the most emotional moments of their careers. I would highlight Malia Steinmetz‘s chilled attitude to becoming a national hero in New Zealand after their win over Norway, speaking to Racheal Kundananji about her burning desire to return to the World Cup after Zambia‘s KO, and sharing a moment of joy with South Africa’s heroes — Kgatlana, Hildah Magaia and Kaylin Swart — after they created history.

On the other end of the scale, Aitana Bonmati‘s impassioned dissection of Spain’s defeat to Japan was compelling.

Lynch: Australia avoiding disaster against Canada with a buzzsaw-like 4-0 win was great, but it’s hard to go past watching what Jamaica is doing, culminating in their draw with Brazil on Wednesday and progression to the round of 16.

There is a sense of history and purpose around this team and despite all the challenges they’ve faced with their federation, the vibes around the players and staff — whether at training at the “Home of the Matildas” in Bundoora or on game day — feel immaculate. Beyond masterminding their on-field success, coach Lorne Donaldson is also one of the tournament’s great characters.

Ok, so the field has cut from 32 teams to 16. Who is winning the World Cup, and why?



Lordanic: We’re running out of words for James’ brilliance

Marissa Lordanic and Mark Ogden react to England’s emphatic win over China in their final group stage game.

Carlisle: I think this is Sweden‘s time to shine. They’ve come close before, having finished in the top three at World Cups and Olympics a combined six times, but I think this is the tournament where they have to get it done. Of course, they’ll have to get past the U.S. in the round of 16 first.

Lawson: Before the tournament, I thought/hoped it would be a good World Cup for AFC nations, specifically Australia and Japan. After three games apiece — and some very serious wobbles from the Matildas — both seem to have found joy on the pitch and a groove to pay in. The hosts may be the bigger wild card given their first two games (was Canada the outlier or just the beginning?) but Japan have been outstanding game after game; as long as they can keep their heads, this will be a tournament to remember for Nadeshiko.

Murray: It’s telling that Spain looked like world-beaters, humiliating the lower-ranked teams they faced… until they came up against Japan, who somehow made Spain look like a lower-ranked minnow. This Japan team is so in sync, and playing such captivating soccer, that it’s hard not to see them as a favorite right now. Maybe that lack of adversity in the group stage will come back to bite them, but right now it looks like 2011 could repeat itself.

Laurens: I think it is a very open tournament, without really one outstanding favourite. I will go for Spain. I know Japan battered them, but it was a weird game and pitch-perfect performance from the Japanese. All is not perfect, of course, with Jorge Vilda as manager, but this team is so talented with star players who will be decisive. I expect Alexia Putellas‘ form to get better and better too, and that this team will learn from the Japan disappointment and come back stronger in this knockout phase.

Lordanic: England and Japan are popular responses, and rightly so. But I think this could be the year for Sweden. A tough test awaits in the USWNT in the round of 16, but if they are able to knock the two-time reigning champions out of the tournament, why can’t they go on and win the whole thing?

Hamilton: Rule Spain out at your peril, though I fear the likes of Colombia and Nigeria may just fall short. The Netherlands are bubbling nicely while we’re still waiting to see the USWNT arrive at the tournament. Australia could yet stun the world and deliver on home soil, but they need Sam Kerr back. So the early pace-setters are Japan and England.

Japan’s group stage was spectacular, while England’s got progressively better despite losing superstar Keira Walsh. So at present it’s between Japan and England, but don’t rule out Sweden.

Marsden: It genuinely does feel wide open, but basing my prediction purely on the group stage, I will say Japan or England — can I have two? The reason I have been most impressed by them is their tactical flexibility as they won all of their games. Japan’s win over Spain and England’s against China were especially impressive.

Lynch: Right now, it’s tough to say anyone other than England or Japan. The former’s win over China was the most ominous warning that any nation has sent thus far, while the latter’s win over Spain showed incredible adaptability. Really, though, by my count, there are at least nine countries still standing that wouldn’t be considered unprecedented winners if they went all the way — it’s that wide open!

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