The stars of the World Cup group stage
When it comes to a sense of spectacle, of drama, and the potential for unexpected delirium, there is nothing quite like a World Cup. The compressed format only adds to the heightened expectations and the fizzing emotions. The World Cup is where heroes are made, where dreams are forged into reality, and where hearts are broken more often than not.
Alex Morgan, after the USWNT clinically took apart Thailand 13-0, comforted and encouraged Thai striker Miranda Nild. One line of what she said stuck with me - “(I told her that) she’s living out a dream that most girls and women don’t get to.” Just getting the chance to represent your country in this tournament is an honour, and when it comes to the women’s game, there is more reason for it to be true. Always with the odds against it, the women’s game is, finally, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, in a place that bodes well for the future.
So, who were some of the stand-out performers during the group stages of the tournament?
Alex Morgan (Age 29, USA)
Despite sitting out the USA’s game against Chile so that coach Jill Ellis could spread the minutes around before the knockout games begin, co-captain and public darling Alex Morgan has five goals and to her name in three games and leads the Golden Boot pack along with Australia’s Sam Kerr.
Morgan, the Orlando Pride striker in the NWSL, seems to have it all in her footballing arsenal – headers, long-range strikes, poacher finishes, curlers from just outside the box – and she put on a rampant display of her range when the USWNT put 13 past Thailand, five of those hers, excluding another at the very start that was ruled offside.
Morgan's shot map against Thailand.
She is fast, strong, capable of creating space for herself or teammates just as well as she can be in the right place when needed. The scariest fact, however, is that this Olympic gold medallist and FIFA Women’s World Cup champion is not the only seasoned professional and winner up USA’s sleeve and the defending champions seem to be just warming up for when the really big games hit.
Vivianne Miedema (Age 22, Netherlands)
Anna Margaretha Marina Astrid “Vivianne” Miedema has made a name for herself in the world of football at the age of only 22. She was 17 when she played at Bayern Munich in a team that remained unbeaten in the Bundesliga and won their first title since 1976. After an injury-ridden first season with Arsenal, she scored a record 22 league goals to help Arsenal to their first league title in seven years.
Miedema was a huge part of Arsenal's attack in 2018/19.
As a crucial part of the 2017 European Championship winners’ side, she scored the winning goal in the semi-final versus England as well as two goals in the final versus Denmark.
Miedema made every “top players to watch out for” list prior to France 2019, but this one seems as ice-cool under pressure as compatriot Dennis Bergkamp even though her idol is the more impulsive Robin van Persie. After the Oranje struggled against a well-organised New Zealand, scraping through only thanks to a Jill Roord stoppage-time header, the game versus Cameroon meant a chance to make amends. Miedema headed a brilliant goal at the 41st minute only for Gabrielle Aboudi Onguéné to equalise within two minutes.
After Dominique Bloodworth quickly put the Oranje Leeuwinnen ahead again, it became even more of a battle in midfield, and the Dutch needed the third to seal qualification. It took Miedema until the 85th minute, but score she did, breaking the Netherlands women’s goalscoring record. She now has 60 goals from 77 games.
Christiane Endler (Age 27, Chile)
Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper Christiane Endler deserves to be on this list despite her team failing to qualify for the knockout stages.
Considering that FIFA unranked the Chilean women’s national team back in 2016 for their own federation’s lack of desire to schedule games for them, the players have been fighting an uphill and many times losing battle. Yet, they should (and hopefully will) take heart from their co-captain’s Player of the Match performance against the champions, despite Chile losing 3-0 and being out possessed 32% to 68%.
Endler, born to a German father and a Chilean mother, psyched-out Carli Lloyd enough for the veteran to miss a rare penalty, made six saves from their nine shots on target, and single-handedly restricted team USA, and particularly Christen Press. It was a performance special enough for USWNT legend Hope Solo to dub Endler “the best female goalkeeper in the world”.
Endler has also arguably been unlucky to concede as many as she has, the goals that have got past her have been incredibly well-placed.
Sam Kerr (Age 25, Australia)
Chicago Red Stars and Perth Glory forward Sam Kerr has been a star player well before she was handed the captaincy in February 2019. So, it was no surprise that she stayed cool despite fluffing her penalty in the opener versus Italy and snatched her chance on the rebound.
The Matildas may have gone on to lose that game, but they fought hard and were unlucky to concede in stoppage-time for the Le Azzurre comeback. In their next game, the first at France 2019 where both teams were in the top ten of the FIFA World Rankings (Australia on 6 and Brazil 10), Australia found themselves trailing 2-0 in the first half but, this time, clawed their way to their own comeback with Kerr a strong presence.
With everything to play for on matchday three in this tournament’s Group of Death, it was The Sam Kerr Show versus Jamaica as she became the first Australian to score a senior World Cup hat-trick and personally guaranteed second spot in a group where goal difference decided all three knockout qualifiers.
There's the Sam Kerr Show, and the edge of the six-yard box looks like the Sam Kerr Zone this World Cup.
She ensured that Australia didn’t lose their grip after Havana Solaun scored Jamaica’s first-ever World Cup goal to make it 2-1 and led equally from the front as the back, tracking their players into the Aussie box, defending, harrying, and inspiring her team.
Cristiane (Age 34, Brazil)
Cristiane, Marta’s replacement for their opening game as the star recovered from injury, lost no time in announcing her intention. At the age of 34 years and 25 days, she beat the record for the oldest player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup, previously held by Cristiano Ronaldo.
A header, a sliding finish at the back post, and a free-kick off the underside of the crossbar from just outside the box. Brazil 3, Jamaica 0, and just like that Brazil broke their run of losing nine games on the trot. It was harder for them versus Australia who completed an amazing comeback to win 3-2, but not before Cristiane scored her fourth goal of the tournament with a powerful header into the bottom corner.
With Brazil qualifying for the next round with potential opponents France or Germany, they need all experienced players in top form. Cristiane seems raring to go, and slowly but surely, so does Marta, who, with her match-winning penalty against Italy, surpassed Miroslav Klose to be the all-time World Cup lead scorer with 17 goals and counting.
Notable mention to France’s Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer, Japan captain Saki Kumagai, England’s Beth Mead, Italy’s Barbara Bonansea and Spain’s Jenni Hermoso.
Anushree Nande is a published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.