CAEN, France – The United States broke the record for the largest margin of victory in a FIFA Women’s World Cup game on Tuesday night in Reims by thrashing Thailand 13-0, a final score that raised questions about whether the Americans got carried away and also drew attention to the qualification paths and resources available to the weaker teams that reach the tournament.
But results like the one the U.S. earned against the Thais in its Group F opener have so far been the exception, not the rule in France, where all 24 World Cup participants have completed their first round of group games.
Nations either making their first World Cup appearance or returning to the World Cup for the first time in a decade or longer have mostly performed well, even against more established teams.
Some are even pulling off upsets.
Italy, which is making its first Women’s World Cup appearance since 1999, scored a stoppage time winner to complete a 2-1 comeback against Australia on June 9 in its first game. Japan, the 2011 world champions and reigning runners-up, went scoreless Monday against Argentina, which hasn’t been to a World Cup since 2007.
The Netherlands, which is playing in its second World Cup, seemed to prove Tuesday that its victory in the 2017 European Championship wasn’t a fluke and it can hack it at this level, too, as the Oranje took down New Zealand 1-0.
And teams that aren’t earning wins or ties?
They’ve shown they can be entertaining, too.
South Africa is a tournament debutant and took a 1-0 lead into halftime of an eventual 3-1 loss to Spain on June 8. Chile suffered a 2-0 loss to Sweden at wet and rainy Rennes in the other Group F match Tuesday, but it didn’t concede a goal until the 83rd minute.
Sitting back and defending is a common thread among these underdog teams, though. Many of the matches feature one team controlling most of the possession and out-shooting the opposition by an almost five to one ratio, as was the case in Rennes, where Sweden had 25 shots to Chile’s four.
Some teams appear to be embracing a defensive work ethic as well. Argentina dropped all 10 of its field players behind the ball against Japan, a highly technical and tactical team that was shutout and held to just eight shots.
“We were up against a real worldwide football force, so we had to be really intelligent about things and fully concentrate at all times,” Argentina captain Estefania Banini said. “We had to run all the time, be focused all the time, because we were facing a team that – in terms of game play – was superior to us.”
Argentina’s coach, Carlos Borello, readily admitted after the game that he told his players to drop back and stay compact against Japan and that they would follow a similar game plan for the rest of the group stage.
While clogging up space in midfield and keeping an organized back line was a well-rehearsed skill for Argentina, other teams are sitting back and defending because it’s all they can do.
Sometimes, hunkering in will pay off and earn a team a result. Other times, it’ll at least keep the score close.
As for Thailand, it stayed back and got punished 13 times for it. Thai coach Nuengrutai Srathongvian, who apologized to the nation’s fans after the game, also said her team, like others in this tournament, operates on “limited resources.”
But Tuesday doesn’t have to define the Thai women’s program forever. It can take some inspiration from Argentina, whose 11-0 defeat to Germany in 2007 was the previous record for the largest margin of victory in a Women’s World Cup.
Twelve years later, the Argentines are back in the tournament and earning results, and not by accident, either.
Borello also said Monday that the Argentine Football Association has begun investing more in the women’s program, most notably by subsidizing a professional women’s league, which will begin play next year and bring Argentina up to speed with rapidly-improving teams like Italy and the Netherlands.
Others, like U.S. forward Alex Morgan, who scored five goals against Thailand on Tuesday, want to see FIFA take the lead on getting federations to invest more in the women’s game to continue shrinking the competitive gap between teams.
“For these 24 teams, it’s a great opportunity to showcase what they’ve worked their entire life toward,” she said. “At the same time, not every federation gives the same financial support to their women’s side and that’s unfortunate.
“I hope that encourages FIFA to put a little pressure on the respective federations to put more efforts into their women’s sides.”