The bottom-right side of the World Cup knockout-round bracket was always a double-edged sword. More upsets happened in Groups F and H than any other, with powerhouses Brazil and Germany watching the final 16 play instead of competing among them. The quarterfinals are now composed of seven heavy hitters — and Colombia. The first stage of the knockout rounds has come to a close and every longshot to make a deep run at the Women’s World Cup has exited the tournament but one.
Jamaica, Morocco, South Africa, and Nigeria all deserved to advance out of the group stage. Then the quality from other groups became an issue. Jamaica was the only member of that quartet to not play a team ranked No. 9 in the world or higher in the Round of 16, falling to No. 25 Colombia on Tuesday morning 1-0, the difference representing the only goal the Reggae Girls conceded in the entire tournament. The most prone of the heavy hitters, England, who will be without star Lauren James for the quarterfinals and only advanced over Nigeria on penalty kicks, will face Colombia with a spot in the final four on the line. Every other heavy hitter faces one of their own in the next round.
For all the parity shown in the group stage with Canada bowing out and the United States nearly joining them, it’s as close to chalk as the bigger football federations could’ve hoped for in the quarterfinals. Yet, an Australia-France quarterfinal, where the winner plays the England-Colombia victor, feels completely one-sided. The other side of the bracket holds the Netherlands, Spain, Japan and Sweden, where any of those four teams could be in the final. This is why the tournament gets played however. Raise your hand if you had an England-Colombia quarterfinal. Congrats, you’re a liar.
Five European teams are left in the field. Co-host Australia, upstarts Colombia, and the only previous World Cup champion, Japan, left in the tournament represent the other trio. The Aussies have hit their stride after losing to Nigeria in the group stage and Sam Kerr is finally healthy. The Matildas’ quarterfinal matchup against the 2019 hosts France should serve as the de-facto semifinal. I can’t see either of those teams losing to England or Colombia. The French were knocked out in Paris by the Americans. The hosts usually can’t have nice things, as the last hosting nation to make it past the quarterfinals were the United States in 2003. Yet, Colombia will try to punch above its weight and play spoiler with all the daunting foes left in its way.
Morocco started its knockout game against France with the wrong defensive strategy, and it cost it dearly, allowing three goals in a 9-minute span midway through the first half. That proved to be too deep a hole for the Moroccan attack, losing 4-0 and ending the World Cup for the lowest-ranked to ever make it to the knockout stage. The jarring part of watching France’s victory wasn’t that the longer-standing women’s soccer powerhouse won. It was how Morocco’s Nouhaila Benzina couldn’t play for France or a French club, as the country’s soccer federation bans wearing a hijab as part of a soccer uniform, a decision upheld by a French court in June.
If there’s a country from the two senior-level World Cups held over the last nine months that improved its standing in world soccer the most, it’s Morocco. A semifinal appearance for the men, who also lost to France in the knockout rounds, and a miraculous run from the country’s women’s team, who rebounded from a 6-0 defeat by Germany in its first game of the group stage to advance to the final 16. It might’ve ended in a 4-goal defeat to the French, but few teams made a domestic difference more at the Women’s World Cup than Morocco.