By Paul Kennedy
FIFA has messed up a lot of things with the 2015 Women's World Cup, but
one thing it got right was expanding the tournament.
It was only at the 12th World Cup, in 1982, that the men's tournament was expanded from 16 to 24 teams. It took only seven tournaments
for FIFA to expand the Women's World Cup from 16 to 24 teams.
While the favorites have so far struggled to stamp their mark on the tournament -- only Brazil (2-0 and 1-0) and Japan (1-0
and 2-1) won their first two games -- six of the eight newcomers have come out and taken at least one point.
Indeed, there are parallels to 1982. Like Ivory Coast's 10-0 loss to Germany
and Ecuador's 6-0 and 10-1 blowouts, there was an outlier at Espana 1982: El Salvador's 10-1 defeat to Hungary.
But many of the minnows held their own in 1982. Algeria beat West Germany
and Chile but was famously eliminated in the Shame of Gijon. (Unlike now when the top four third-placed teams join the group winners and runners-up in the second round, just the top two teams moved on
from each group to a second round of pool play in 1982.) Also in its first appearance at the World Cup, Cameroon tied all three games and was only eliminated by eventual champion Italy on goal
difference. Honduras, another newcomer, played to a 0-0 tie with host Spain in their opener.
The expansion of the Women's World Cup resulted in the first tickets to the finals for the
Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain. All three teams entered the final day of group play with a decent shot at qualifying. It's all relative, but women's soccer is fairly well established in Europe.
Where the expansion of the Women's World Cup will have its biggest impact is in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, all soccer hotspots where opportunities for women to just play
soccer, let alone pursue the sport at a competitive level, have been limited.
When Ivory Coast qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 2006, its national team had already been
playing competitive soccer for more than 40 years. Les Éléphants had a reservoir of European-based talent to draw up upon, players like Didier
, who was raised in France. One might question the commitment of African federations, often embroiled in disputes with players over bonus payments and the misappropriation of funds, but
one could never question that the men's national team was a state affair of the highest importance.
Women's soccer has been an afterthought in Africa. Clementine Toure
's Éléphantes arrived all of four days before the start of the Women's World Cup, and if they looked like they didn't often play together in their 10-0
defeat to Germany, it's because they had not. In the eight months before the start of the Women's World Cup, they had played one game. And in the last 10 years, they played just six friendlies.
A 10-0 loss would discourage most teams, but Les Éléphantes came out and played the game of their lives against Thailand. Some dreadful goalkeeping (and a blown offside call) put
Ivory Coast in a deep hole, but it came back to make it, 3-2, and was close to equalizing in stoppage time when Christine Lohoues
hit the crossbar -- the third
time in the game the Ivorians had been denied by the woodwork -- and fell to the ground in tears.
In Vancouver the next day, Cameroon's Lionnes Indomptables, another of the eight
debutants, trailed defending champion Japan, 2-0, when Ajara Nchout
, who signed to played in the NWSL this season, pulled a goal back in the 90th minute, and
then, improbably, Gaelle Enganamouit
came close to equalizing when her header went agonizingly wide of the far post and she covered her face with her shirt
Women's soccer has a long way to go in Africa before it begins to rival the interest on the men's side, but the success of the Lionnes Indomptables, whose 6-0 victory over
Ecuador has them in good shape to claim at least one of the four third-place spots in the round of 16, has piqued interest back in Cameroon.
Cameroon coach Enoch Ngachu
told the Camfoot.com
his players were receiving so many phone calls and texts
with congratulations and encouragement that he confiscated their phones so they could prepare for Tuesday's group finale against Switzerland in peace.
"We have the right to dream," he
That's all anyone can ask for.