By Victor Okoye, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
THERE were fairy tales in the first two weeks of the ongoing Women’s World Cup being hosted by Australia and neighbours, New Zealand with Nigeria, South Africa, Morocco, Norway and Australia emerging group-stage winners.
The notable losers? Second-ranked Germany, seventh-ranked Canada, eight-ranked Brazil, 16th ranked Italy, 21st ranked Portugal, 28th ranked Argentina, the other co-hosts New Zealand, Ireland and China.
In spite of starting off on a largely disappointing note, African teams made history at the 2023 edition of the World Cup.
Three of the four sides that represented the continent namely; Nigeria, South Africa, Morocco and Zambia made it to the knockouts, the first time such will happen in the competition.
Nigeria (40th), South Africa (54th), and Morocco (72nd) all reached the tournament’s round of 16, while debutants Zambia (77th) were eliminated after losing two of their first ties.
While none of the African teams won their first games in Australia and New Zealand, they did not lose their last round of matches at the competition.
That was enough to earn three of them places in the next phase of the football showpiece.
Being the first African side to reach the Women’s World Cup knockout phase, the Super Falcons once again set the pace for other teams from the continent in Australia and New Zealand.
They were the first African team to reach the next stage of the tournament, earning five points to finish runners-up in Group after drawing Canada and Ireland with a win over co-hosts Australia.
Coach Randy Waldrum’s girls are to square up against England’s Lionesses in their next match.
Days after the Nigerian side sealed qualification for the knockouts, South Africa followed in their footsteps.
The Banyana Banyana needed a late goal to see off Italy in their last Group E game to book a spot in the round of 16.
South Africa are not used to dominating outside their own continent and the nation erupted in celebration after Banyana Banyana knocked out the Italians.
The Italians were quarter-finalists four years ago with bottom-placed Argentina also bowing out of the world cup without a single win.
It was even more historic for the African champions being their first ever World Cup win.
They will now face the Netherlands, winners of Group E, on Sunday for a place in the quarter-final.
After the qualification of South Africa and Nigeria, attention shifted to debutants, Morocco.
Morocco were expected to make an early exit as the 72nd-ranked team, but bounced back from a 6-0 defeat in their opener to become the lowest ranked side ever to make the knockout round with their 1-0 win over Colombia in Perth.
They still needed South Korea to prevent a Germany win in Thursday’s other group match and had a few nervous moments while waiting for the final whistle in Brisbane.
In spite of the 6-0 bashing from Germany in their first match, the North Africans had enough to change the narrative.
They beat South Korea in their second match before shocking high-flying Colombia 1-0 to write their names in the country’s football folklore.
Thanks to Germany’s stalemate against the Asians on Thursday, as the Reynald Pedros’ tutored side finished second on the log.
But against France in the Round of 16, the first Arab team to feature at the Women’s World Cup will hope their fairytale in the tournament continues.
Meanwhile, the stunning upsets sent two-time champions Germany packing in their first exit from the group stage in nine editions of the World Cup.
The fairytale continued on Wednesday as Jamaica also clinched a spot in the last 16 of the Women’s World Cup at the expense of soccer giants Brazil.
Jamaica’s joy meant despair for Brazil, who exited from the group stage for the first time since 1995, following Canada’s premature exit at the hands of co-hosts Australia on Monday.
That left the tournament without two of the game’s greatest players with Brazil striker Marta and Canada’s talisman captain Christine Sinclair, who both bowed out of their sixth World Cups in the worst possible way.
Australia’s chances were on a razor’s edge before they crushed Canada 4-0 without needing injured forward Sam Kerr, their leading scorer.
Their advancement was a huge shot in the arm for the tournament after the loss of New Zealand.
Their courageous win made Canada the first reigning Olympic champions to get knocked out in the group stage.
The image of shell-shocked keeper Kailen Sheridan in tears before the final whistle captured Canada’s collective heartache.
Revived Norway were big group stage winner, brushing off a turbulent two weeks to squeeze into the knockout rounds on goal difference over New Zealand.
Norway’s advancement sealed New Zealand’s fate, In spite of the Football Ferns having edged the Norwegians 1-0 for their first win at a World Cup at the tournament’s opening match.
The game itself was a big winner in the Island nation of five million people, with 42,958 fans at Auckland’s historic Eden Park for Portugal versus the U.S., the largest crowd for a soccer match in New Zealand.
Defending champions, the United States, did not lose a game in the group stage but scrapped through to the knockout rounds in second place with a nervy 0-0 draw against debutants Portugal.
Also, China’s Steel Roses, once titans of women’s soccer with silver medals from the 1996 Olympics and 1999 World Cup, were shock losers in the group stage, bowing out in a 6-1 thumping by England.
Shui Qingxia, who coached the team to the Asian title last year, vowed China would regain its status after the fall, just like England did.
For now, the qualified African teams and their army of fans in the continent are still basking in the euphoria of reaching the next phase of the competition. They will be hoping to go at least one more step further to reach an unprecedented quarter-finals stage and make it a truly remarkable world cup campaign for Africa. (NANFeatures)