Brazil starts the Women’s World Cup trying to remain undefeated in opening matches, and then take superstar Marta deep into her sixth and final tournament.
It shouldn’t be difficult to move to 9-0 in opening matches for the Selecao, who start Group F play on Monday against tournament newcomer Panama in Adelaide, Australia. Brazil is one of seven teams to qualify for all nine Women’s World Cups, while Panama is one of eight teams playing in the tournament for the first time.
Marta’s sixth World Cup will be her last, but she has a chance to make history as the first player — male or female — to score in six tournaments. She’s already the all-time leading scorer in the Women’s World Cup with 17 goals.
But more important to Marta is winning the World Cup, something the women’s national team has never done. Brazil lost in the 2007 final to Germany, made it to the quarterfinals in 2011, but was eliminated in the round of 16 in the next two tournaments.
Marta was in tears after the 2019 loss to France and pleaded with the next generation of Brazilian football players to take their country to the next level.
“It’s about wanting more,” Marta said four years ago after Brazil’s elimination. “It’s training more. It’s taking care of yourself more. It’s about being ready to play 90 plus 30 minutes. This is what I ask of the girls.”
The national team has seemingly answered her call under coach Pia Sundhage, who as a player retired as Sweden’s top scorer and as a coach led the United States to two Olympic gold medals. Sundhage has made Brazil more balanced, which was shown at the Women’s Finalissma in April, when the South American champions lost in a penalty shootout to European champion England.
Brazil rallied just five days later to beat Germany in a friendly, and notched a 4-0 win over Chile earlier this month to head into the tournament on a roll.
Marta has experience around her in Debinha and Rafaelle, but it is 23-year-old Kerolin who is poised to become Brazil’s breakout star. The midfielder has scored eight goals this season for the North Carolina Courage in the NWSL.
“We have taken big steps in these four years,” Sundhage said. “We’ve brought in new players and I think we are in a good place. We have got a chance.”
Panama, meanwhile, most recently faced a South American team in June in a 1-1 draw with Colombia. But Panama has been routed twice since, giving up 13 goals in a 7-0 loss to Spain at the end of June and a 5-0 loss to Japan earlier this month.
Argentina holds the men’s World Cup trophy following the Lionel Messi-led run last December in Qatar, but the women’s team has never won a match in the global tournament.
The women are hoping that changes Monday night when Argentina meets Italy in a Group G match in Auckland.
La Albiceleste are making their fourth World Cup appearance, and they had a tough go four years ago in France with a draw and two losses before elimination. Argentina’s group included England, Japan and Scotland in 2019. Its group this time contains Italy, Sweden and South Africa.
Argentina came into the tournament winners of five of six matches this year.
“We will always try to achieve, and to see our dreams come true,” Argentina coach German Portanova said. “Once you win one match, why not achieve more? We have for years tried to improve our operation and our game. It’s because women’s football is nurtured by results. So a good result here would be another step forward for women’s football.”
Aldana Cometti, a defender who plays for Madrid, said she’s grateful the Argentine federation has been devoting more resources to developing the women’s game.
“There have been many, many changes. For example, the medical team told us that when we went to France in the past World Cup, we had only two people in our medical team. Today there are six. This is an enormous achievement for all of us, to have all this support,” Cometti said through a translator.
Italy has had more success at the World Cup, advancing to the quarterfinals in 2019 after a 2-0 round of 16 victory over China. The Italians were stopped by the Netherlands, which went on to lose to the U.S. team in the final. That result gave the U.S. women’s team back-to-back titles.
Portanova had a message for fans back in Argentina, where the game is set to start at 3 a.m. local time on Monday.
“Please trust us, put your confidence in us. We are going to do our best, our very best on the field. We’ll sacrifice and make an effort for every ball, every kick,” he said. “Our heart will be in it.”
Morocco enters its first Women’s World Cup hoping to put together the kind of fairy tale run the men’s team did last year in Qatar, when the national team made it to the semifinals in Qatar before losing to France and then Croatia in the third-place game.
Morocco is the first Arab nation to play in the Women’s World Cup, qualifying as runners-up in the Africa Cup of Nations. The Atlas Lionesses open their Group H match in Melbourne against Germany, winners of back-to-back tournaments in 2003 and 2007.
“We are really proud in Morocco for the achievements we have made so far. We feel a sense of pride and honor to represent our country on the world stage,” captain Ghizlane Chebbak said through a translator. “We have great motivation and are eager to make our mark in this tournament.”
Women’s soccer is still in its infancy in the northern Africa country, where religious conservatives object to women playing sports. Morocco has a large Muslim population.
FIFA allowed Muslim players to wear a hijab during competitions in 2014, and at this World Cup, Nouhaila Benzina will be the first player to wear a hijab at the senior women’s tournament.
“This is a great milestone for us and we hope that our match with Germany tomorrow will pave the way for other matches,” Chebbak said about the team’s debut.
There was a tense moment at Sunday’s pre-match news conference when a reporter pointedly asked if there were any LGBTQ players on the team because same-sex relationships are against the law in Morocco. FIFA moderators shut down the line of questions.