Sports

Women’s World Cup: Italy Starts a 16-Year-Old, and Germany Leans on Its Experience

Australia’s Sam Kerr, left, at a team training session in Brisbane, Australia, on Sunday.Credit…Darren England/EPA, via Shutterstock

Australia’s team has been tight-lipped all week about the status of its star striker Sam Kerr, who was ruled out of the first two games of the World Cup last week with what team officials referred to as a calf injury.

Australian officials said at the time that Kerr’s injury would be reassessed after the second game of the group stage on Thursday, and in doing so held out hope she would return to the field.

But one of Kerr’s teammates, the 21-year-old midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross, caused a stir on Monday when she told reporters at Australia’s camp that Kerr had a torn calf muscle — a far more serious injury that would almost certainly rule Kerr out of the tournament.

“It’s unfortunate that Sam tore her calf before the game,” Cooney-Cross told reporters. “But I think, as a team, we’re just focusing on Nigeria. Sam’s doing her own thing to get back as quick as possible and that’s also important.”

Team officials immediately try to row back Cooney-Cross’s statement. A team press officer said in a text message that Cooney-Cross had misspoken, using “inaccurate wording as a young player” and “colloquial language rather than medical language.” In a separate message, a senior federation official said the suggestion that Kerr had torn a muscle was “not accurate,” and that the original diagnosis — a mild calf strain — was still in effect.

Australia beat Ireland in its opener, 1-0, but the loss of Kerr is a potentially devastating blow to its hopes of making a deep run in the tournament on home soil.

Players for the German team stretch on the field during a practice session.
Germany’s players at a Sunday training session in Melbourne, Australia.Credit…William West/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Germany kicks off its World Cup campaign on Monday with the same objective as always: to win it all. Germany, a two-time champion that has never failed to reach at least the quarterfinals, drew a favorable group this year, with Morocco, Colombia and South Korea. So even though it has a good chance to reach the final eight again, it has set its sights much higher.

Another top competitor taking the field is Brazil, a team better known for one player, Marta, than the overall strength of its roster. However, with Pia Sundhage, the former United States coach, at the helm, Brazil could be a tougher out than usual.

Germany won the World Cup in 2003 and 2007, and also has eight European Championships and an Olympic gold medal from Rio 2016 in its trophy case. But it lost to England in the final of last year’s European Championship, and its form has been erratic in recent months, with losses to Brazil and Zambia and a narrow win against Vietnam in a friendly in June.

Morocco, by contrast, is one of the eight first-time qualifiers in the field. Its qualification has won the team new fans back home. But reaching the tournament is one thing. Knocking off Germany in it is quite another.

Italy reached the quarterfinals of the last World Cup, a solid result after a 20-year absence from the tournament. But after missing the knockout stage of the European Championship last year, the team began a generational transition, with Coach Milena Bertolini dropping a number of veterans to make way for new talent.

Giulia Dragoni, a 16-year-old midfielder whom some have nicknamed Little Messi, only made her debut earlier this month in a scoreless draw against Morocco. But she started against Argentina, and she could be the face of Italy’s team in the near future.

“I have no expectations,” Dragoni said this week. “I can’t because I am still so young and I came here to learn and to have some experience.”

Argentina has never advanced past the group stage, failing to win a World Cup match and scoring only five goals in three tournaments. But the Argentines won four of their five friendlies and are in top form heading into their opener.

All eyes are on Marta. The Brazilian legend is appearing in her sixth World Cup at age 37, and still hoping to capture an ever-elusive title. Marta is considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of the game, but she has often carried the load for her national team alone.

The closest the Brazilians have come to winning the tournament was nearly a generation ago, when they lost to Germany in the 2007 final. This year’s team is not considered as strong as some past iterations, but in Sundhage it has a respected coach with a decorated history of her own.

Brazil’s first opponent is Panama, another World Cup debutante and the final country to earn a place in this tournament. Panama has its own Marta: Marta Cox, the 26-year-old midfielder who scored off a bicycle kick in Panama’s World Cup qualifying match against Paraguay.

Colombia is coming off a strong performance in the Copa América Championship, where it beat Argentina in the semifinals and fell to Brazil in the final, 1-0. Those results suggest a readiness to contend on the world stage. But that competitiveness may have gone too far in a recent friendly against Ireland: That match was called off after 20 minutes for what the Irish labeled “overly physical” play from the Colombians. Colombia rejected that characterization and defended its style; it said the Irish simply “preferred not to continue playing.”

Colombia will face South Korea, the runner-up in the 2022 Asian Cup. The South Koreans have made it to the knockout stage once in three previous World Cup appearances, in 2015. Four years ago, the Koreans lost all three of their games.

Players in red run drills on a field.
Morocco’s players on Sunday preparing for their opening match.Credit…William West/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

One of eight first-time qualifiers in the Women’s World Cup field, Morocco may not win a game playing in a group that includes a former champion (Germany), an Asian regular (South Korea) and the second-best team in South America (Colombia).

But the fact that Morocco is playing in this tournament, which began Thursday in Australia and New Zealand, and that its women’s team exists at all, is serving as an inspiration and a measurable source of pride at home and abroad.

Morocco is the first Women’s World Cup qualifier from North Africa, and the first from a majority Arab nation. Still, its squad was little known even to most Moroccans before it hosted the event that served as the continent’s World Cup qualifying tournament on home soil last July. As it posted win after win, however, the country’s stadiums started to fill with fans, many of them seeing the team play for the first time.

In a country where soccer is revered but where interest in the women’s game is a new phenomenon, that success raised the team’s profile. “They showed us that they can fill stadiums and make Moroccans happy,” the team’s French coach, Reynald Pedros, said. “They did it on the African stage. Now we are hoping to do the same on the international one.”

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