Just one day before the most publicized FIFA World Cup draw in history, FIFA announced Thursday that the Women’s World Cup will expand from 16 to 24 teams in 2015.
The 2011 tournament in Germany will not be influenced by the decision, but the 2015 tournament (which still has not had a location named) will see eight more teams compete on the world’s biggest stage.
This will give teams with less of a women’s soccer pedigree the opportunity to shine against some of the best players in the world and perhaps develop their game. However, there are still many questions that remain regarding the expansion of this field.
The first question is exactly where will these teams come from?
There are well over 100 countries with women’s national teams, so thereis not any lack of teams. There are, however, several inactive teams and some underrepresentedregions.
For the 2011 Women’s World Cup, the number of bids per region is as follows:
- AFC – 3
- CAF – 2
- UEFA – 4, with the 5th place team getting a playoff with the 3rd place team from CONCACAF
- CONCACAF – 2, with the 3rd place team getting a playoff with the 5th place team from UEFA
- OFC – 1
- CONMEBOL – 2
- Automatic bid to the host country (Germany, in this case)
The expansion to 24 teams should be distributed throughout the six regions in a way that reflects the overall quality of the region.
For example, CONCACAF has five teams currently ranked in the top 50 ofthe FIFA World Rankings, while the Asian Football Confederation has 11 teams inside the top 50. With more quality of competition in Asia than in the Americas, the AFCshould naturally be awarded more bids than CONCACAF.
Here is what I would mock up as a fair distribution of Women’s World Cup bids in a 24-team tournament, based on the number of quality teams in each region:
- AFC – 4 bids, with a 5th place team entering a playoff with the 8th place UEFA side
- CAF – 3 bids, with the 4th place team entering a playoff with the 2nd place Oceania team
- UEFA – 7 bids, with the 8th place team entering a playoff with the 5th place team from the AFC
- CONCACAF – 4 bids
- OFC – 1 bid, with the 2nd place team entering a playoff with the 4th place CAF team
- CONMEBOL – 2 bids
- Automatic bid to the host nation
That looks like it would play out to be a very European-heavy tournament, but 29 of the world’s top 50 teams (as of Septemember 2009 FIFA World Rankings) come from UEFA.
Such a system gives the minnows of Oceania and some of the smaller CONCACAF teams a chance to make the final stage of the Women’s World Cup, and also properly represents Africa and Asia, which both have a number of good teams.
There are still some problems that must be addressed with expanding the field, though. Currently, there are 99 teams ranked by FIFA, with 60 additional teams either inactive for over 18 months or yet to play at least five matches against ranked opponents.
Presumably, several of these provisionally ranked teams would play World Cup qualifiers, which creates a significant gap in competition and could undermine the perception of the quality of play should it carry over into the 2015 Women’s World Cup (see Germany’s 11-0 beat down of Argentina to kick-off the 2007 tournament).
A joke of a game like that is not something that should occur on a regular basis.
The knock-out stages would most likely fall in line with other FIFA competitions that feature 24 teams, where the top two teams from each of the six groups advance and the four best 3rd-place teams advance.
The move is one that is great for the development of women’s soccer, and is supported by Women’s Profesional Soccer.
“This move recognizes the continued growth of the women’s game happening at all levels around the world and we applaud the decision to increase the size of the Women’s World Cup in the future. The quality and depth of the women’s soccer is improving exponentially worldwide and this will further spur investment by countries in the women’sgame,” said WPS Commissioner Tonya Antonucci in response to the announcement. “We know that WPS, as the premier soccer league for women in the world, is an important part of the global growth of the game and we look forward to seeing our U.S. and international WPS stars shine at World Cups in 2011, 2015 and beyond.”
Still, don’t expect to see anything beyond the norm of Germany, Brazil,the U.S., China and Norway dictating play (for the most part) any timesoon.
The Reverse Club Effect
One situation that will be interesting to monitor will be the effect that this expansion of teams has on women’s club soccer.
WPS strives to be the best league in the world, but still primarily recruits its international talent out of Europe. The 2009 WPS season featured zero African internationals, just nine Asian internationals (five of which were Australian) and no CONMEBOL representation outside of Brazil.
This off-season, WPS has tapped into the high quality of English national team players quite a bit, but there is still ample talent from places like China, Japan and Nigeria that is yet to be identified.
With more teams getting exposure at a higher international level, it should give WPS more of a truly international recruiting tool. Should coaches take advantage of hidden talent in other places of the world, it would add quality to the league and give some players professional opportunities and ways of life they may have never had otherwise.
Also check out Tom Dunmore’s piece on Pitch Invasion. He was one of the first to pick up the news of the decision to expand the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
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