SYDNEY – Change is happening fast in women’s soccer.
A leveling of the playing field is being highlighted at the Women’s World Cup, which saw two-time champion Germany crash out of the tournament on Thursday.
In the biggest upset of a World Cup that has been full of surprises, the second-ranked Germans, two-time World Cup winners, were eliminated in group stage for the first time in team history.
Copa America champion Brazil and Olympic gold medalist Canada were also eliminated in the first round, while Morocco, South Africa and Jamaica all advanced to the knockout stage while making history along the way.
“If I’m candid, I really am surprised,” said Jill Ellis, who coached America to World Cup wins in 2015 and 2019. “I think when you suddenly see a Germany or a Brazil get knocked out of a World Cup at the group stage, I don’t think any of us could have predicted that.
“Am I excited by the development? Of course, for sure. But I think I was thinking that (there would be) one more iteration of the World Cup before we started to see even more parity that we’re starting to see right now.”
Back-to-back defending champion America, the No. 1 team in the world, has looked vulnerable in its quest to win an unprecedented third consecutive title. The United States has won four of the first Women's World Cups and has never finished lower than third.
But the Americans skirted into the knockout stage and look very vulnerable.
So, too, does fifth-ranked France.
The growing parity in women's soccer has made for a thrilling group stage of the World Cup, which concluded with Thursday’s wild finale as Morocco beat Colombia 1-0, while Germany was held to a 1-1 draw by South Korea.
The Associated Press looks at how the gap has closed in the women's game between the traditional powerhouse and the fast-closing underdogs:
Gone are the days when the underdogs were in awe of the traditional powerhouses. Jamaica held France to a 0-0 draw in its opening game of the tournament and repeated that trick as it eliminated Brazil in the final match in Group F.
"I think the smaller nations are jumping on the bandwagon and saying, ‘We can do this too,” said Jamaica coach Lorne Donaldson.
Marta Cox played extremely confident and curled in a spectacular free kick after two minutes of Panama's 6-3 loss to France. And even after the French recovered to lead 5-1 after half time, Panama kept going to score twice more in a late fightback.
South Africa, meanwhile, stunned Italy with a 92nd-minute winner to advance to the knockouts.
Teams are getting savvier.
Jamaica, for instance, is yet to concede a goal after three group games.
“It’s hard to break down teams that are very, very organized,” said Ellis. “The level of coaching has added a level of sophistication. If you can keep teams tight you are always in with a chance, with a penalty kick, a set piece or even a quick transition.”
Haiti caused England problems with the speed of its counter attacks in the Lionesses' opening game. European champion England needed a twice-taken Georgia Stanway penalty to win 1-0.
"We might not have the resources the bigger countries do in terms of equipment and traveling and games, but I think there’s an understanding there with coaches and technical staff and everything that our preparation is a little bit better all around,” said Donaldson.
The physical approach of some teams has been noted in the group stages. Established teams are not being allowed to play with as much freedom as in the past, as opponents have hustled and harried them out of their stride.
“Before we can't see at the women's level the teams with this physical aspect,” said France coach Herve Renard. “Now we can see some teams are physically very strong, so women's football has changed.”
Part of FIFA's work to develop women's soccer has focused on tailoring preparation to female athletes, while soccer has traditionally relied on data and research gathered from the men's game.
FIFA says it has invested $1 billion into the women's game with around 168 development programs are being carried out across 211 member associations.
“We work on programs which are focused on increasing the quality of leagues, the competitions that the players are playing in on a day-to-day basis,” Bareman told The Associated Press. "We are working on professionalization. We have the data and research to understand what makes a successful club and how to replicate that and take that success into other countries.
Soccer, said Ellis, is “becoming a truly global game.
“We are the game for women in the world,” Ellis said.
There were doubts about FIFA's decision to expand the tournament to 32 teams, up from 24 in 2019. The fear was that it would lead to more one-sided games and a dilution of quality.
The opposite has been true, while the new format also means only the top two teams in each group can advance. That removed the safety net of third-place providing a route to the knockouts.
“You’ve got Jamaica, South Africa, Morocco qualifying for the knockout stage for the first time ever. Teams like New Zealand, the Philippines, Zambia, each winning for the first time ever at World Cup, incredible moments,” said Bareman.
While smaller nations have come up quickly, could some of the favorites be accused of failing to move with the times?
Canada went into the tournament with 40-year-old striker Christine Sinclair, who failed to add to her record 190 international goals.
“Things have to change,” Sinclair said. “We don’t have a professional league. We don’t have that pathway for players to make the national team. If this isn’t a wakeup call, I don’t know what is.”
Brazil legend Marta, aged 37, bowed out of her final World Cup, while the 38-year-old Megan Rapinoe is in her farewell tournament for America and has not been able to inspire the two-time defending champions, who have made an underwhelming start to the tournament.
Even star Alex Morgan, aged 34, has struggled to find her form for the United States.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
More AP Women’s World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/fifa-womens-world-cup