Women’s FIFA World Cup: Group A, “The Group of Death”

We're nearing the start of the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup, which gets underway in France on June 7 and features 24 teams vying for the title. Hosts France get the competition under way with their opening group match against South Korea in Paris. The hosts are No. 4 in on world the rankings and will have the home crowd behind them, as they try to duplicate their fellow men’s side, Les Bleus’ title triumph in Russia last year and live up to high expectations in the pool that pundits, arguably, called as “Group of Death”, comprising of the hosts France, Norway, Korea Republic and Nigeria. Below we zoom into Group A of the women’s world cup and analyze each team’s chances of progressing to the next stage of the tournament.

France

As the hosts of the tournament, Les Bleues will be expected to pick up on the momentum left behind by the men's French team, with the host nation eyeing the highest honor in football by winning the tournament on home turf. The women’s team's best finish on the world stage was fourth place in the 2011 edition and they will be looking to up that in next month’s event.

The French team is one of the most talented teams in the world. The team boasts of a number of players that can rival the much fancied sides and bring the trophy home provided they (France) play their best football. Amongst these players are Wendie Renard and Dephine Cascarino. The former is considered to be one of the best defenders in the game (her rating as the top center back in FIFA 19 says a lot). Wendie is what Virgil Van Dijk is to Liverpool: reliable. She’s quick on her feet and unbeatable in the air, which has led to her prolific scoring rate (for a defender) at both the national team and club level.

Having won every trophy on offer with her club Olympique Lyon including the Champions League, the one trophy missing in Renard’s trophy cabinet is the World Cup gold, and that should be enough motivation for her to deliver her best showing for the French team. If Renard hits top gear, she could be vital in France’s quest to become the first nation to hold both the men’s and women’s World Cup trophies at the same time. Another key player that is likely to make a big impact for France is upcoming attacking player Dephine Cascarino. The 22-year-old Lyon midfielder has impressed at club level for the past two seasons, bagging seven goals apiece for two successive seasons. While Cascarino is relatively inexperienced at a full national team level, with just 11 caps, she has 12 goals at youth World Cups, and looks to get a good chunk of playing time this summer.

Apart from these enterprising players, the experience of long-serving servant Eugenie Le Sommer cannot go unnoticed. The French forward has scored 74 goals in 159 national team appearances, including 11 World Cup goals. In front of their home crowd, coupled with the right mixture of established stars and promising young players, one could argue that this would be the right time for France to finally win a major tournament.

Norway

Norway has the most World Cup appearances in Group A, having qualified for all eight previous editions of the event. It is also the only team in the group that has won the cup, back in 1995.

Perhaps the key talking point of this Norwegian side is the absence of their star player Ada Hegerberg. Regarded as the world’s best female footballer, the 23-year old who is also the current Balon d'Or winner and three-time Champions League winner, quit the national team back in 2017, as protest for what she says is a lack of respect for female players in Norway. She has scored 38 goals in 66 caps for the national team. Norway coach Martin Sjogren said in February that the federation had "tried to solve" things between them and Hegerberg but "she decided not to play". Sjogren further added: "As a coach, you need to focus on the players who want to be a part of the team and Ada doesn't. We respect that and we have been working hard with the other players and they have been doing a great job."

With this in mind, Norway will be pinning their hopes on the current crop of players and in particular their captain Maren Majelde. The 29-year old has featured for the side for more than a decade. She’s the soul and mastermind of the team. Capable of playing in central defence, as a defensive midfielder or even as a playmaker, Marelde’s sheer vision, dead-ball skills and charisma are key assets for Norway leading up to the World Cup. Apart from Marelde, players like defender Maria Thorisdottir and forward Caroline Graham Hansen are also expected to play a pivotal role in Norway’s quest for glory.

South Korea

South Korea qualified for their second straight Women’s World Cup after finishing fifth at the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian cup. This will be South Korea’s third appearance in the world cup. They were eliminated in the group stages in 2003 and only made it as far as the round of 16 in 2015. The Koreans kick off their world cup campaign against hosts France on June 7, knowing very well that a win will boost their chances of coming out of the group stages.

On paper at least, the odds are on the women from Seoul to get knocked out in the group stages. The 14th ranked South Korea is the proverbial dark horse in Group A after a lackluster performance in tournaments leading to the World Cup, most recently the Asian Cup. Nonetheless, South Korea’s powerful weapon in France would be its defense, as it did not concede a single goal in all its matches in the 2018 Women’s Asian Cup. One game that may provide the team with a lifeline of qualifying to the next stages could be their second game where they face off against Nigeria. The Africans are ranked 38th in the world, 24 places below the Koreans. Being a tactical team, South Korea’s ability to keep the ball and wear down their opposition with a possession-based style of football, could be key to South Korea’s any realistic chances of progressing further to the knockout stages.

While the Korean team face an uphill task to qualify to the knockout stages, they can still have a couple of key players they can rely on. These include Chelsea’s playmaker Ji So-Yun, who is the biggest star in the team. Credited with 54 goals in 115 appearances, she’s easily the most prolific Korean player. The 29-year-old was named the PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year for the 2014-15 season, her debut season in England. Apart from Ji So-Yun, South Korea will also be banking their hopes on talented youngster, Son Hwa-Yeon to help the team. Overall, the odds are definitely stacked against the Koreans and they are easily deemed as the underdogs of this group. Nonetheless, all that will count for nothing as football has taught in the past that anything is possible and by virtue of that, one can count this South Korean side out at their own peril.

Nigeria

Nigeria booked the ticket to France by winning the CAF Women’s Africa Cup of Nations for the ninth time. The Falcons will open their campaign against 1995 winners Norway on 8 June. The nine-time African champions will then play South Korea in Grenoble on 12 June before facing hosts France on 17 June in Rennes. The West Africans hold the record of being the only African nation to have qualified for every Women's World Cup since it began in 1991. However, they have failed to translate their continental dominance on the world stage, with their best showing coming only during the USA world cup in 1999 where Nigeria reached the quarter-finals. Since then, they have failed to go beyond the group stages in the last four editions in 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015. Coach Thomas Dennerby will therefore be hoping that the team break its duck and advance further in the competition.

As expected in any team, Nigeria boasts of a number of players that will be crucial if the team’s hopes of winning the tournament are anything to go by. One of these players is FC Barcelona striker and three-time African footballer of the year, Asisat Oshoala. She exploded to the scene back in 2014, winning both the Adidas Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards as Nigeria reached the finals of the FIFA under-20 Women’s World cup. Voted the best African player in 2014, 2016 and 2017, the powerful and aggressive striker is pivotal to the Super Falcons’ attacking potent/arsenal.

Apart from Oshoala, the leadership experience of team captain Onome Ebi will prove crucial to Nigeria’s push for the coveted trophy. Nigeria’s 2018 player of the year, Ebi, was an important figure as Nigeria recorded a title-winning success at the 2018 African Women's Cup of Nations in Ghana. All in all, the Super Falcons’ ninth title win in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations is enough proof that Nigeria is a threat to the hosts.

Both Norway and Nigeria are among the select band of teams never to have missed a single FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Norwegians have played a total of 35 matches in the competition, and the Nigerians 22. In contrast, France have only 14 matches to their name and Korea Republic a mere 7. Whether the experience (or lack thereof) will be a difference maker remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, Group A certainly has all the sparks and recipes to be an electrifying group!

The group winners and runners up are guaranteed round of 16 berth, whereas the third placed team will only progress if it happens to be one of the four best third placed teams in the tournament.