SYDNEY -- If there's a catchphrase that sums up the 2023 Women's World Cup, it's one you've probably been hearing since the opening round of games: The gap is closing.
What does that mean? In short, the difference in quality between the top-ranked teams in the tournament and the lowest-ranked teams has gotten smaller and smaller. As a result, we've been treated to a Women's World Cup that is far more exciting, more competitive and more unpredictable than ever before.
Some of the strongest evidence that women's soccer is growing, of course, came at the expense of the back-to-back champion U.S. women's national team, which got knocked out in the round of 16 after a sputtering group stage. Before this tournament, the U.S. had never failed to reach a semifinal in a Women's World Cup, and the team won the trophy in 2015 and 2019.
Other powerhouses crumbled too, making room for lower-ranked teams. No. 2-ranked Germany, No. 7-ranked Canada and No. 8-ranked Brazil all got knocked out in the group stage, thanks to a slew of upsets and tight matches. Morocco, one of eight tournament debutants in this first 32-team format, reached the round of 16.
There's plenty more. Look no further than 40th-ranked Nigeria beating 10th-ranked Australia in the group stage -- a genuinely stunning upset. How about 54th-ranked South Africa beating 16th-ranked Italy, or 77th-ranked Zambia beating 36th-ranked Costa Rica? No one would've expected the 46th-ranked Philippines, in the country's first-ever World Cup, to beat 26th-ranked co-host New Zealand in the group stage.
If these upsets make it seem as if FIFA's world rankings are wrong, that's not really the case. There are ongoing debates about the best way to rank teams -- including whether there are better systems than the one used by the sport's ruling body -- but the fact is, FIFA's rankings historically have done a pretty good job of predicting how teams would perform at the World Cup.
The average FIFA world ranking for the teams that reached the knockout rounds of tournaments tells the story over the years. In 2019 and 2015, it was almost the same, at an average of less than 13. In this tournament, the average world ranking was more than 20. Back in 2003, the average ranking was just 5.5.
Some of that is due to the expanded format of the Women's World Cup -- it went from 24 teams in 2015 and 2019 to 32 for this edition. From 1999 to 2011, it had just 16 teams. And yet, the constant blowouts people feared with the expanded format never really came to pass. According to data gathered by FIFA, the average winning margin in matches decreased from 2.06 goals per game in 2019 to 1.92 this year, as of this round of 16 -- and the games have only been even closer since then. The percentage of matches ending in a draw increased from 8% to 21% through the round of 16 as well.
"People expected really lopsided scores," two-time World Cup-winning coach Jill Ellis said this week. "We saw competitive games. People have asked me, 'What's your inspiration moment?' For me, it's Morocco getting to the knockout round."
"That's what the narrative of this World Cup has been: competitiveness, balance, parity," added Ellis, who has headed FIFA's technical study group for this tournament. "We've seen giants fall. We've seen newcomers do very well."
Indeed, the unpredictability hasn't just extended to results -- in terms of winners and losers -- but to the way games have played out, which means if you weren't actually tuning in to the games, you were missing out on all the fun. England, ranked No. 4 in the world, had to go to extra time and a penalty shootout to get past Nigeria (ranked No. 40) in the round of 16. England, a team that reached the final, also only barely edged past No. 53-ranked Haiti in the group stage.
In fact, more knockout games had to be decided in extra time or penalty kicks in this World Cup than ever before.
Teams have been savvier throughout this tournament -- it's not just the very best teams that excel in their technique. Per FIFA, for instance, corners being delivered directly into the six-yard box increased from 36% in 2019 to 43% in 2023 through the round of 16, which suggests better execution. Yet the attacking team is winning the first ball less often, down from 41% in 2019 to 36%, which suggests defending has gotten better too.
Goalkeepers are punching the ball more often, too -- an average of 3.8 punches per game in 2023 compared with 3.5 in 2019 -- which points to riskier in-the-box situations where goalkeepers can't make a simple catch.
So what has brought on this growth in women's soccer that is fueling excitement and unpredictability at the highest level during the World Cup? One big reason is the growth of domestic women's leagues around the world, which has been responsible for developing the best players on just about every team in the tournament.
Mark Ogden and Alexis Nunes give their thoughts on the Women's World Cup after Spain took the crown vs. England in the final.
England and Spain, the two finalists in 2023, comprise players who compete almost exclusively in the Women's Super League (WSL) in England, and Liga F in Spain. But then lower-ranked teams have their own stars who have grown in the European leagues, such as Colombia's Linda Caicedo (Real Madrid), Nigeria's Asisat Oshoala (FC Barcelona), Jamaica's Khadija Shaw (Manchester City) and Switzerland's Ramona Bachmann (Paris Saint-Germain).
The WSL was the most widely represented league in the 2023 tournament, with nearly 100 players from the start, 70 of whom reached the knockout round. Liga F had 51 players in the knockout rounds, while France's Division 1 Féminin had 37 and the U.S.-based National Women's Soccer League had 36.
"You have the women's leagues around the world becoming financially stable, giving a chance to so many female footballers to play year-round," USWNT forward Alex Morgan said on the eve of the round-of-16 exit to Sweden. "It was only a matter of time for the game to get where it is. Us players have been saying that this is going to be the most competitive World Cup ever, and you're seeing that."
But FIFA has also dangled larger rewards for Women's World Cup teams, incentivizing federations to take their women's programs more seriously. Teams that qualified received a $960,000 stipend to their federations for tournament preparations. Meanwhile, prize money for teams competing in the tournament has tripled from 2019, with the total pool rising from $30 million to $110 million. The last-place teams in 2019 could win just $750,000, but this time around they will have won $1.6 million, with the numbers increasing from there. Teams no longer need to be favorites to win the entire thing to earn a nice chunk of change.
The gap might be closing, but when American forward Trinity Rodman was asked whether it gave the U.S. players any comfort to be in the company of Germany, Brazil and Canada as top teams that were knocked out early, her answer was unequivocal.
"I don't think it's comfort," she said. "It only speaks volumes to where the women's game is going. To know that top teams from the past and present are getting knocked out early proves that all teams are getting better and have the resources to do so."