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The Guardian Preview: Group D

ENGLAND

Overview

England travel to Australia and New Zealand as Euro 2022 winners, intent on global domination. Crucially, Sarina Wiegman’s side understand the perils of more haste less speed and will remain patient as they endeavour to win a first Women’s World Cup. They also harbour few fears about shape-shifting from their preferred 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations. During last summer’s Euro quarter-final against Spain, when England looked close to defeat, Wiegman switched to a 3-4-3 and was rewarded with a watershed victory. It also helps that the Lionesses’ Dutch coach and her influential assistant, Arjan Veurink, are no slaves to philosophy and happily tailor the team’s style and tactics to opposition strengths and weaknesses.


England’s shirt.

Although England are generally big on patient passing they are not afraid to go direct or counterattack at speed. Under previous managers the aim was for the Lionesses to be fitter, stronger and quicker than every rival. But, while Wiegman’s sport science staff remain hugely influential, there is a bigger emphasis on nuanced ball work. She also excels at gauging precisely when to introduce impact substitutes. Yet caveats remain: there is a performance-related bonus issue rumbling on and England are without the injured trio of Beth Mead, the Golden Boot winner as they eclipsed all comers last summer; their captain, Leah Williamson; and the attacking playmaker Fran Kirby. Meanwhile record goalscorer Ellen White and the experienced midfielder Jill Scott have retired. Key defender Millie Bright is still not fully recovered from knee surgery, so Wiegman may ultimately regret exiling the Lionesses’ former captain, 35-year-old Steph Houghton, following a stellar season in Manchester City’s backline. England’s coach can be ruthless and, while in charge of the Netherlands, was noted for unemotionally phasing out older players.

Few, however, question her outstanding clarity of thought and communication skills. “Sarina’s a top, top coach; one of the world’s best,” says her Chelsea counterpart, Emma Hayes. “She’s got the skills, the experience, the personality and the right staff.” Scott agrees. “Led by Sarina we can win the World Cup,” she says. “We’ve got a few injuries and it’s a young squad but it’s still very strong. It’s a great opportunity.”


The coach

Sarina Wiegman succeeded Phil Neville as England’s manager in 2021 and led the Lionesses to Euros glory in a Wembley final against Germany a year later. The former PE teacher from The Hague had previously won Euro 2017 with her native Netherlands and steered the Oranje to a World Cup final defeat by the USA in 2019. A former defensive midfielder, the University of North Carolina graduate was capped 104 times by her country. After moving into coaching Wiegman accepted a secondment with Sparta Rotterdam men where she became the first Dutch women to coach at a male professional club. Routinely described as a control freak by former colleagues, she is famously unsentimental and a firm believer that the devil really is in the detail.


Star player

Many decent judges believe Keira Walsh is now the world’s best central midfielder and she arrives in Australia having just helped Barcelona win the Champions League. The general rule is that if Walsh plays well, so too do England. Nick Cushing, her former manager at Manchester City, describes the Rochdale-born 26-year-old with an unerring eye for a pass as “the most tactically intelligent player I’ve worked with”. A longstanding fan of both City and the Spain men’s team, Walsh grew up idolising David Silva.


Rising star

At age 20, Brighton winger Katie Robinson is the baby of the squad. Robinson is Cornish and grew up in Newquay where she still enjoys bodyboarding and surfing. “I’m happiest when I’ve got the ball at my feet and I’m running at a defender,” says the former Bristol City player who could prove an important impact substitute in this tournament. Has recovered splendidly from an anterior cruciate ligament rupture which sidelined her for almost the entire 2020-21 season and has already acquired five senior caps.


Did you know?

Lucy Bronze was eligible to play for Scotland (she was born in Berwick and has Scottish relatives) and Portugal (the country of her father’s birth) as well as England. Bronze is also the first Englishwoman to win the Champions League with two different clubs: three times at Lyon and once with Barcelona. England’s right-back has also undergone six knee operations.


Standing of women’s football in England?

Women’s football was wildly popular in England after the first world war but in 1921 the FA banned women from playing on affiliated grounds for 50 years. Once that edict was finally lifted it took time for the game to recapture its mainstream appeal but the Lionesses’ achievement in securing a bronze medal at the 2015 World Cup in Canada represented a watershed, while their Euro 2022 triumph turned England players into household names. The government’s recent pledge to offer all schoolgirls access to football should entrench its growing appeal.


Realistic aim at the World Cup?

Winners. After winning a home Euros and reaching the last two World Cup semi-finals, lifting the trophy is a feasible ambition. Even so, England are on the tricky side of the draw. If they qualify from a group containing Haiti, Denmark and China, England appear on course to meet Australia or Canada in the first knockout round, with Germany and France to quite possibly follow at the quarter-final and semi-final stages.


DENMARK

Overview

For the first time since 2007 Denmark are back in the world’s finest company. Having been part of the World Cup four times, including three in the 1990s, it has been 16 years of heartbreak for the Danes. “We have been so close [to qualifying] every time but didn’t make it,” Katrine Veje told fifa.com. “Getting to the World Cup was one of the last things I wanted to check off.” The expansion from 24 teams to 32 has definitely been in Denmark’s favour, as they were seeded first in qualification instead of the usually difficult second-seed spot. In a group with Russia (excluded halfway through qualification), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Azerbaijan and Malta, Denmark took charge with eight victories in eight games, scoring 40 goals and conceding two. Starting with either a 3-4-3 or a 4-3-3, Lars Søndergaard can line up his team in different formations, using strong ball-playing midfielders in Karen Holmgaard, Sofie Junge Pedersen, Sanne Troelsgaard, Kathrine Kühl and Josefine Hasbo.

Even though Denmark have no problem keeping possession and prefer this style of play, they are not afraid to defend and go for the counterattack either. Dangerous crosses from Veje, Nicoline Sørensen and Sofie Svava on the wings are a great weapon for Denmark, who will be a threat in the penalty area with their physical abilities. The focal point is Pernille Harder. But when she was out injured this spring, Denmark showed that even without Bayern Munich’s new signing, the team can play against some of the world’s best sides and win. Impressive successes against Norway, Japan and especially Sweden have been good for Denmark. “The victory gives us confidence and that is what we need before the World Cup,” Stine Ballisager said after the 1-0 win in Malmö. “Sweden are No 3 in the world and this result shows that we can reach that level too.”


The coach

The well-liked Lars Søndergaard will say his farewell after the World Cup. The 64-year-old has overseen the national team since December 2017. “I’ve had an amazing time and it has been an honour,” he said. Having previously coached Danish clubs such as AaB, Viborg and SønderjyskE, as well as several Austrian sides, this was his first time coaching women. He said early on that he did not see any major differences between coaching a women’s side and a men’s team, apart from one. “The female players ask a lot more questions and want to talk everything though,” he said. “It is very positive, but it was something that I needed to get used to.”


Star player

There is no doubt: Pernille Harder is not only the biggest name in the Denmark squad, but also one of the stars of the whole tournament. The 30-year-old will be playing in first World Cup. “This tournament deserves players like Pernille Harder,” Søndergaard said to Fifa, and it is no mystery why. Denmark’s long-serving captain and all-time leading scorer is a two-time recipient of Uefa’s women’s player of the year award and has twice topped the Guardian’s list of the 100 best female footballers in the world. Now she is also a World Cup participant.


Rising star

Student by day, footballer by night: not many know of Josefine Hasbo. But if you have been following US college football, and especially Harvard, you know they have a diamond in midfield. Alongside two other rising stars in Holmgaard and Kühl, the 21-year-old Hasbo is destined to be vital to the future of this Denmark side. Mostly a starter in 2023, she has impressed roligans (Denmark’s fans) with her untiring runs. She may not start every game, but she will make an impact when called upon.


Did you know?

Denmark have won the Women’s World Cup. Albeit the unofficial one in 1970 and 1971. But it is impressive nonetheless with the final in 1971 being played in front of more than 100,000 fans in the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City. Denmark defeated Mexico 3-0 thanks to a hat-trick from 15-year-old Susanne Augustesen.


Standing of women’s football in Denmark?

Ever since finishing runners-up at Euro 2017, women’s football has been growing exponentially and more of the top men’s clubs are considering setting up a female team. With HB Køge hosting record crowds in the Danish Women’s League and the Champions League, and the national team playing in front of 22,000 fans in the Parken Stadium, things are moving in the right direction. Despite the national team’s popularity, however, media coverage for the domestic league is not great and almost nonexistent compared with the men’s game.


Realistic aim at the World Cup?

The hope for players and fans is that Denmark will qualify from Group D and that is achievable. England are favourites but Denmark should be able to defeat Haiti and China, with the latter being their biggest competitor for a place in the knockout phase. From there, anything can happen.

Courtesy of the Guardian


HAITI

Overview

“There’s a lot of unhappiness in the country and football is the joy.” This quote from midfielder Danielle Etienne says everything about what qualifying for the World Cup means to the people of Haiti. There is no doubt that Les Grenadières have written a new page in their history by reaching this stage. Nicolas Delépine’s side have finally matched the men’s achievement of qualifying for the World Cup in 1974 after coming close on several occasions. With a fulcrum based around several members of the squad that made it to the U20 World Cup in 2018, including star player Melchie Dumornay – known as Corventina – Haiti defied expectations by beating Chile 2-1 in the inter-confederation playoff.


Haiti’s shirt will be worn at the World Cup.

The Caribbean nation has been hit with a raft of crises, with the assassination of the president Jovenel Moïse in 2021 adding to the country’s insecurity amid a series of natural disasters. The country was also shaken by the sexual abuse scandals that have stained Haitian football, particularly those alleged to have involved the then president of the football federation, Yves Jean-Bart. Fifa’s ethics committee handed Jean-Bart a lifetime ban in November 2020 for alleged harassment and sexual abuse against female footballers after a series of investigations by the Guardian. That sentence was overturned by the court of arbitration for sport (Cas) in March 2022. Fifa appealed the decision but in July 2023, Swiss federal judges ruled in Cas’ favour. Jean-Bart denies any wrongdoing. A normalisation committee has been in charge of Haitian football since December 2020 when Jean-Bart was first accused but Etienne, who is the daughter of former Haiti striker Derrick Etienne and was born in the United States, is hoping the World Cup can be the start of a brighter future. “We want that for the country as a whole, to have a breath of fresh air and kind of step aside from anything going on,” says the player.


The coach

A native of Nantes, Nicolas Delépine has more than 20 years of experience in French football, particularly with Nantes, Montpellier, Guingamp and more recently as coach of the Grenoble women’s team. Having taken over Haiti in February 2022, Delépine has achieved an unprecedented feat: qualifying for the Women’s World Cup. “We had to get to know the players first, find out what drives them, their strengths and their culture, so we could get the best out of them,” he said. “That’s how you get players to play to their potential: when you go out looking for the positive points but especially when you learn to get to know each other. We didn’t want to impose things but to build together.” The 43-year-old structures his teams according to the opponent and does not seem attached to a particular setup. In their last five matches, Haiti have fielded five different formations and Delépine is confident of causing a few shocks in a group containing England, China and Denmark. “We’re going there as outsiders and we’ve said that the bigger the mountains and the bigger the challenges, the more beautiful the success,” he said. “You might think we’re a bit crazy or out of our minds, but we want to go and spring a surprise, maybe a couple and, why not, make the last 16.”


Star player

Despite her tender age, 19-year-old Corventina will arrive at the World Cup with the dreams of a nation on her shoulders. Solid, fast, technical, an excellent goalscorer and a very good passer, Dumornay participated in the adventure of the Under-20 World Cup in 2018 when she was not even 15 years old. With a new contract already agreed at one of the biggest clubs in Europe, Lyon, after shining at Reims last season, the stage is set for Corventina to become an even bigger superstar.


Rising star

Dayana Pierre-Louis is the second youngest player in the Haitian squad but dreams of one day wearing the colours of Real Madrid. Pierre-Louis, who moved to France last season and hopes to follow the example of her team-mate Dumornay, is a goalscoring midfielder who believes that hard work is the key to success. “You have to rely on discipline and always set the bar very high,” she says. “If I had one message to give to young people like me who play football in Haiti, it would be to never give up.”


Did you know?

Midfielder Etienne actively participated in Haiti’s qualification for the 2023 Women’s World Cup less than three months after giving birth to a baby. Her great talent, love and dedication to the national team has earned Etienne huge admiration from the press and the public in Haiti.


Standing of women’s football in Haiti?

Media and TV coverage of women’s football in Haiti is very low. But Dumornay’s breakthrough and the senior women’s team’s first World Cup qualification is turning the tide. Currently Haitian people shiver with passion at the approach of the tournament in Australia and New Zealand. The hope is that participation in the World Cup can boost women’s football in the country.


Realistic aim at the World Cup?

“When you take a step back and look at the women’s world ranking, we’ve got the hardest group in the tournament,” said Delépine. “We’re up against England, who are fourth, as well as China who are 14th and Denmark who are 13th. But we will certainly give it our best shot.”


Courtesy of the Guardian


CHINA

Overview

With the expansion of the Women’s World Cup to accommodate 32 teams, China found their path to qualification smoothed considerably thanks to the availability of at least five spots in the Asian Football Confederation (especially with Australia qualifying as hosts). After triumphing 3-1 over Vietnam in the quarter-final of the 2022 AFC Asian Cup, the Steel Roses secured their place.

China’s momentum remained unbroken in the semi-final against Japan, the defending champions, and in the final against South Korea. Now, 17 months later and under the guidance of Shui Qingxia, their head coach, China are poised to embark on their World Cup journey as the reigning Asian champions.


The China shirt.

Shui’s tactics are adaptable. The style of play exhibited against Japan or South Korea was markedly different from the football China displayed against teams like Iran or Vietnam. The flexibility is embodied by Wang Shanshan, the captain, a veteran who switches between striker and centre-back. The opponents China will face in Group D – Denmark, Haiti and England – represent a new level of challenge. “Europe is at the forefront of women’s football’s development. There is a significant gap between us and European teams,” said Shui during China’s European tour in April. The unexpected victory in the Asian Cup, partially thanks to the players’ strong mentality and also a bit of luck, does not indicate that China have returned to the elite level of women’s football. Nor does it mean China have outclassed Japan and South Korea in Asia. Five months after winning the Asian Cup, the Steel Roses encountered those two longstanding foes in the EAFF E-1 Football Championship. Despite ending in two draws, the matches were dominated by China’s opponents, especially against Japan, who were without some of their best players. The glory of yesteryear could turn into today’s disgrace if the debacle of the 8-2 defeat by the Netherlands in the Tokyo Olympic Games were to reoccur against England or Denmark. Shui knows the challenges that lie ahead. “We understand the difficulties without complaining about it,” she said.


The coach

Shui Qingxia, China’s first female head coach, was appointed just two months before the kick-off of the 2022 AFC Asian Cup. Amid an air of scant optimism, she led the team, which had been thumped in the Tokyo Olympics six months prior, to glory. The unexpected achievement – the first time the China women’s team have been Asian champions since 2006 – as well as the dramatic victories made her a national hero. For Shui herself, it was a seventh Asian Cup title. During her playing career, she participated in almost all the major tournaments for China from 1986 to 2001, but missed the glorious 1999 World Cup campaign, in which the Steel Roses finished as runners-up.


Star player

As it was 4years ago, Wang Shuang is still China’s standout performer. The 28-year-old, who can play as an attacking midfielder or a second striker, remains a pre-eminent virtuoso. As the most skilful player in Chinese women’s football, Wang is the source of creativity and was the only highlight of China’s disappointing Tokyo Olympics. Though she made little impact in the Asian Cup due to injury, her resolution still inspired people around her. “Prior to the final, I asked if she could play and she said yes without any hesitation,” said Shui. “This is the epitome of Chinese women’s football spirit.”


Rising star

Ten years ago, in front of China Central Television’s cameras, Zhang Linyan, a promising student of the Evergrande academy, said her goal was to help the China women’s team surpass the golden generation led by Sun Wen. At the age of 22, Zhang, having been named the Swiss Women’s Super League player of the year last season, is set to make her World Cup debut. Though the attacking midfielder stands at just 5ft tall, she has adapted well to the physical demands of European football. “Both in attacking and defending, she had a strong presence,” Shui said.

Did you know?

Zhang Linyan announced her lofty goal during a TV programme themed around David Beckham’s visit to China. During the half-time performance of a Chinese Super League game that Beckham attended, Zhang had the chance to play with Uncle Beck (as she called him), before taking a photo with the England legend. Nine years later, following China’s victory in the Asian Cup final, in which Zhang made significant impact by coming off the bench to score the equaliser, Uncle Beck’s Chinese social media account congratulated her. Ten years after playing with the former captain of the Three Lions, Zhang is now set to play against England’s Lionesses.


Standing of women’s football in China

China’s women’s team is a source of national pride. In general, though, women’s football receives little attention outside of major tournaments when the Steel Roses are expected to garner more glory. While the Chinese FA does not disclose the exact figures for registered female players, the number of women involved in football is believed to be markedly low. Overall, women’s football in China serves as a pursuit of national dignity, and the success of the women’s team acts as a stick with which to poke the men’s team, rather than a sport with widespread engagement.


Realistic aim at the World Cup?

Though Shui has said “advancing to the quarter-finals” is the goal, qualifying for the knockout stage will be a huge challenge. Shui probably understands this well, as she repeatedly mentions the remarkable progress of European football. The first match against Denmark is seen as key for the whole campaign. Finishing bottom of the group would be viewed as a bitter disappointment. However, Haiti, with several players in Division 1 Féminine, appear to be stronger opponents than Zambia. The latter, a mostly semi-professional squad, drew with China at the Tokyo Olympics.

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