This should be pretty straightforward. It’s a matter of whether Spain or Japan advances from Group C as the winners, and who heads to the knockout stage as runners-up. That leaves Costa Rica and Zambia leaving Oceania early, but does anything exactly go to plan on the world stage? Group C has as clear a top pair and bottom pair on paper as any group at the Women’s World Cup. That’s not just on FIFA ranking alone, but the experience coming from the heavy hitters compared to the unknowns emanating from the minnows.
Japan is the last Women’s World Cup champion not named the United States. The countries met in the 2011 and 2015 finals. The former went to penalty kicks with the USA’s three-peat already not being complete because of the Japanese triumph a dozen years ago. The Carli Lloyd first-half hat trick came four years later in Vancouver. This Japanese squad isn’t as talented or poised to make a deep run on paper as those two squads were, as it’s not the top-ranked team entering the tournament in Group C. However, Japan may be the country with a world ranking that’s the most deceiving. Japan can win this tournament, again. Jun Endo and Hina Sugita may be the most recognizable players to American fans, as both play in the NWSL. The Japanese squad is mostly made up of players who play for domestic clubs, with nine going to foreign teams, with all the non-NWSLers playing in Europe.
Speaking of club teams, every call-up from Spain plays domestically except for two. That’s due to the strength of the Primera División, as very few other countries of either gender could pull off that statement and be a world power, with the United States being one of the only stronger examples with only one member of the USWNT, Lindsey Horan, not playing in the NWSL. Jennifer Hermoso is the only Spaniard to not play in her home country currently, with Esther González leaving Real Madrid at the end of last season. The unattached González should still be a force in this tournament despite not currently having a club to call home. We saw how that affected Cristiano Ronaldo during the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after departing Manchester United.
Spain has never won a knockout-stage game at the Women’s World Cup, bowing out of their first appearance past the group stage in 2019 with a loss to the United States. Two Megan Rapinoe penalties ended the Spaniard’s hopes of an upset, with the aforementioned Hermoso scoring Spain’s goal in the match. While Japan’s rise led to a World Cup title a dozen years ago, Spain’s rise is just beginning with this tournament possibly being the catalyst for tons of international success. The Spaniards’ lack of experience late in major tournaments is their biggest red flag.
That leaves the two wild cards of Costa Rica and Zambia to play spoiler. Costa Rica were the second-lowest ranked team out of Pot 3, only besting fellow CONCACAF nation Jamaica. Zambia is the lowest-ranked team in the tournament and compared to the rest of their combatants, one of the most inexperienced. No Zambian player has more than 28 international caps heading into the showcase. That’s a staggering figure until you look at Costa Rica, with defender María Paula Porras being the only call-up to Australia and New Zealand with double-digit caps. This group is night and day in terms of projections. Two heavy hitters, two Cinderellas hoping to play spoiler. What could go wrong?