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The Final Three: How Portugal, Haiti and Panama qualified for the World Cup

For the first time, the FIFA Women’s World Cup will expand to 32 teams this summer. This was not a universally popular move at the time it was made, but it has given opportunities for new teams to qualify. Eight in total have made the tournament for the first time, three of which came through the inter-confederation playoffs.

These playoffs were a categorical success. They provided a non-stop supply of drama, with high stakes and quality play. Even teams who didn’t make it, such as Paraguay and Chinese Taipei, got an opportunity to showcase their ability, with games shown on the FIFA Plus platform. In the end, Portugal, Haiti and Panama came through, with two of the three teams coming from Concacaf.

Here’s how they did it.

Group A: Portugal

As expected, Portugal claimed a place in World Cup Group E alongside the United States, the Netherlands and Vietnam, beating Cameroon 2-1 in their playoff. Their route to the finals was more complicated than it perhaps should have been, though — after controlling the game for long spells, they let Cameroon in to equalize in the 89th minute, eventually sealing progress with a Carole Costa penalty in extra time.

The Cameroonians will regret having ended up in these playoffs in the first place. At last year’s African Cup of Nations, they finished second in their group behind Zambia, meaning a quarterfinal against Nigeria, which they lost. They have talent, but under head coach Gabriel Zabo have not yet put it all together to find a fluent system. Here, Zabo switched from a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2, meaning experienced winger Gabrielle Onguene started on the bench. In the playoff semi against Thailand, she came on, scored twice and secured a 2-0 win. 

Portugal were by far the better team in the final, dominating possession and threatening consistently from set pieces. After hitting the woodwork off a corner early on, they found the opener when a Kika Nazareth free kick rebounded off the post for defender Diana Gomes to tap in. Up front, the two Silvas — Jessica and Diana — led the line with speed, skill and direct running. Both players struggled to make an impact abroad at club level, but thrive on international duty and were vital again here.

Cameroon’s attack remains almost entirely reliant on Ajara Nchout. The Inter Milan forward is a skillful player, and eventually she worked a goal out of nothing to force extra time. In the end, though, Portugal’s attacking efforts paid off, finding the match-winning penalty after a VAR check. With the quality they have up front, and in midfield playmaker Andreia Norton, they can cause problems for the United States and the Netherlands in World Cup Group E, and will no doubt be aiming to make the knockout stages.

Group B: Haiti

Haiti triumphed in this section, beating Chile 2-1 in a dramatic playoff final. That win puts them into World Cup Group D, alongside reigning European champions England, Asian champions China, and a good Denmark side. They will do well to get a result in such a tricky group, but with their frontline, anything is possible.

They saw off Senegal in the playoff semi, winning 4-0 thanks to two goals from Roselord Borgella and one each from Kethna Louis and Nerilia Mondesir. Senegal were disorganized defending set pieces, conceding their opening two from this area, before falling apart tactically and allowing Haiti to finish off the game on the counter.

Haiti set up in a 4-2-3-1, and every one of their attackers plays in the French top flight. Mondesir of Montpellier is a fast and direct player who can operate up front or on the wing. At club level she is increasingly potent, with six goals so far this term. Batcheba Louis, a tricky and technical forward, has been a frequent scorer over the last two seasons, first with Issy and now Fleury. Then there’s the 5’10-tall Borgella, who provides more of a physical presence. Melchie Dumornay, however, is the real star of the show.

Dumornay recently agreed to join Lyon from Reims in the summer. The 19-year-old is widely regarded as one of the best young players around, and showed why against Chile. She opened the scoring with a magnificent solo goal, controlling a long ball effortlessly with her chest, playing a give-and-go with Borgella before finding the far corner from a tight angle. Then she scored the second, firing home on a Mondesir assist. Chile pulled one back in the 11th minute of second-half stoppage time, but it was too little too late. Dumornay had done the damage, and Haiti were through.

Group C: Panama

Panama qualified after beating Paraguay 1-0, sealing a spot in World Cup Group F alongside Brazil, France and Concacaf rivals Jamaica. A stunning Marta Cox overhead kick and a brilliant solo goal from Riley Tanner—selected in the 2023 NWSL draft by the Washington Spirit—got them past Papua New Guinea, before a Lineth Cedeno header earned them the win over Paraguay.

In truth, Paraguay had the tougher route to this playoff final. They came back from 2-0 down against an impressive Chinese Taipei to win on penalties. There was no shortage of drama in that game — Hsin-Hsuan Pao experienced the heartbreak of missing three penalty kicks, one in the final minutes of extra time, then twice in the shoot-out after re-taking her initial miss. Alicia Bobadilla, the Paraguayan goalkeeper, made the saves, and Lice Chamorro stepped up to score the winning spot kick.

After a chaotic slog to reach the final, Paraguay faced a tough Panamanian side who set up in a 3-4-3. Panama were expansive in possession, thanks mainly to goalkeeper Yenith Bailey’s comfort coming well out of her area to start play, and Tanner — nicknamed ‘Frozen’, after the Disney princess, by her teammates — ran the line constantly, pulling a presumably fatigued Paraguayan defense this way and that.

Much of Paraguay’s play went through Jessica Martinez. The Sevilla striker dropped into midfield to link things up, but Panama’s three-back were assertive and marked tightly. The 20-year-old Wendy Natis was particularly impressive, imposing herself and making some good tackles. It was a tight game, and all it took was a poor bit of defending from a set piece to let Panama in to score the winner, Cedeno heading home unmarked on a Cox free kick.

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