AUCKLAND, New Zealand — There are six different languages, four different continents and seven true contenders remaining at the 2023 Women’s World Cup. There is a captivating underdog and a co-host whose team has enchanted its nation. There is one sumptuous, stylistic clash and countless world-class players among the eight quarterfinalists who’ll kick off the latter stages of the tournament Friday here in New Zealand (Thursday night stateside).
In other words, there is just about anything you could ask for in a World Cup’s quarterfinals — except, of course, the United States.
The American women fell to Sweden in a penalty shootout Sunday, and failed to reach this stage for the first time ever.
But their demise, and now their absence, has helped produce a wonderfully wide-open field of potential successors to their throne.
The following is a primer on those challengers, and a preview of the quarterfinals, which begin in a U.S.-friendly time slot — because FIFA, the World Cup’s organizer, thought the USWNT would still be here.
Spain vs. Netherlands — Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, Fox (Friday, 1 p.m. in Wellington)
The Dutch are one of many reasons the USWNT is not here. They held the U.S. to a 1-1 draw, then won Group E. But they haven’t quite hit top gear at this World Cup — and it’s unclear whether they even have a top gear. So the favorite in the first quarterfinal, and a favorite to reach the final, is Spain.
La Roja is a paradoxical team, a brilliant collection of talent that has never been past this stage at a 21st-century major tournament. Talent has also been thinned by a stubborn, male-dominated federation that went to battle with more than a dozen of its players last year. Fifteen of them resigned from the team, with support from a few others. Only three of the 15 have returned for the World Cup, with some voluntarily skipping it.
But one of the three, fortunately, is Aitana Bonmatí, the Ballon d’Or favorite, a stealer of souls.
Bonmatí is emblematic of Spain’s elegance. It will monopolize possession, morphing from one triangle to the next, seemingly controlling games and probing for openings in an opponent’s defense. The question, as ever, is cutting edge. Spain played pretty soccer against Japan … but lost 4-0. The Netherlands hasn’t conceded a goal from open play all tournament. This game’s equilibrium will tilt toward the Dutch defensive half, but their rock-solid back three are capable of stymieing everything Spain throws at them.
Japan vs. Sweden — Friday, 3:30 a.m. ET, Fox (7:30 p.m. in Auckland)
New Zealand’s second quarterfinal is why we love the World Cup. It’s trees against technicians. It’s Sweden, a team that doesn’t need the ball to dominate, versus Japan, a team that uses the ball to pull opponents apart.
The Japanese have wowed at this World Cup with their passing and movement. They’ve dazzled with in-sync patterns of play and rhythmic runs. They all came through a youth system built on aesthetic principles. And some of them have played under head coach Futoshi Ikeda ever since he led the Under-20 team and they were teens. Five of their 10 outfield starters won the 2018 U-20 World Cup together. Five years later, they’ve been the most impressive team at a senior World Cup.
Norway’s Caroline Graham Hansen, who plays for Barcelona, called them “the strongest team I have ever seen.”
They have only one weakness: They are relatively short and slight, physically. And Sweden is gigantic.
The Swedes will concede possession. They’ll eschew clockwork attacks for hopeful, vertical balls. They probably won’t create too many chances. But whenever they win a corner, or a free kick in the attacking half, they’ll strike fear into Japan. They’ll pack the box with four players who tower over Japan’s entire starting 11. Seven of their nine goals at this World Cup have stemmed from crosses or set pieces, and they’ll arrive at Eden Park eyeing an eighth.
This is a clash of opposites for the ages, and probably the most appealing game of the round — though Australia and France might dispute that.
Australia vs. France — Saturday, 3 a.m. ET, Fox (5 p.m. in Brisbane)
France appears to be growing into the tournament. Australia, on the other hand, is producing scenes comparable only to 1999 and that transformative World Cup in the United States. Stadiums are filling. Home crowds are roaring, and propelling Australia to new heights, even without star forward Sam Kerr.
Kerr finally returned from an ill-timed calf injury to play 10-plus minutes in a 2-0 Round of 16 win over Denmark. And more importantly, the Matildas, as a team, seem to have overcome the public’s poisonous obsession with her injury. They’ve won the past two games convincingly with Kerr on the bench.
But now comes the stage where they might need her. France is a new caliber of opposition. Kadi Diani and Eugenie Le Sommer are firing. Australia might have to win a shootout.
England vs. Colombia — Saturday, 6:30 a.m. ET, Fox (8:30 p.m. in Sydney)
On paper, the fourth of four quarterfinals is the most lopsided. England is now the title favorite (+250 at BetMGM). Colombia is the only true outsider (at +2500). But it would be fitting if this Women’s World Cup, with more upsets and fallen giants than ever before, produced one more stunner. And Las Cafeteras are capable.
They have one of the breakout stars of the tournament, 18-year-old cancer survivor Linda Caicedo. They have one of the most passionate followings, with Australian stadiums full of yellow and astounding viewership figures back home.
England, meanwhile, is without Lauren James after her red card in the Round of 16. It is wobbling a bit, and needed penalties to survive a scare from Nigeria after 120 scoreless minutes. Head coach Sarina Wiegman had inserted James into the lineup mid-group stage to spark a sputtering attack. Now she’ll have to adjust again to see England through to the semis.
They will likely get there, and the last of several Cinderella stories will likely end. But now, this World Cup is poised as finely as ever. Four years ago, it was seven European nations and the U.S. Now, there is unprecedented diversity and unpredictability.