The 31/7 email logotype in purple and orange

So, you survived the Round of 16. Congrats! Eight teams didn’t, while England fans all over have been reporting concerning symptoms.

I’m now off to my final stop on my tour of Australia. It ends where it began, in Sydney, where a tournament winner will be crowned on August 20th.

Time’s flying by and I’m acclimatising, slowly, to this phase of the competition in which every game is do or die. Help! It’s frightening! I think I preferred the group stage, when it felt like it was all just a bit of fun.

The stakes are increasing, women are crying, the drama is rising. What a time to be alive. I just hope I can stay just that — alive, breathing, coherent — for the duration. As documented in my last newsletter, the Nigeria game had me questioning whether sport is good for my health.

I hope you’re enjoying yourself.


The American dream

Billed as the most exciting tie of the Round of 16, the United States vs Sweden should have been an exciting battle between two competitive sides ranked first and third in the world. But it was a weird game, and the energy was grim from the very start.

Sweden looked like they were stuck in the mud every time they got the ball. They complained to the referee about the USA’s physicality, looked mildly threatening at one or two set pieces, but offered nothing else. The States were giving it everything and reeked of desperation, as though they knew what was coming.

Ten minutes in, the journalist sitting next to me said, ‘this has got extra time written all over it’. When the ninety was up, I would rather it had gone directly to spot kicks, as I couldn’t see an extension resolving a rigid game that was beginning to feel like purgatory.

The shootout seemed to play directly into Sweden’s hands since their goalkeeper Zećira Mušović was having a good night. Stopping eleven on-target shots — including a real wrist-sprainer from Lindsey Horan — Mušović had all the confidence you need to throw yourself at the ground again and again while the stadium watches and whistles, the fate of your nation yours alone to defend.
Musovic and Naeher
But her experience paled next to 35-year-old twice World Cup champion Alyssa Naeher who watched on, while Mušović checked in with the referee on the rules about encroachment and how many feet she’d need on which line when the ball was struck.

Mušović’s mileage didn’t matter, in the end. Did she even need to be there? Three of the United States’ players failed to hit the target. Not saved, but missed. Surprising from a side who have prized themselves for generations on their unshakeable winning mentality.

Sophia Smith was the worst-affected by the ordeal. She looked shaken up, as she shivered her way through the mixed zone, shepherded to safety by a broad-shouldered man in a suit. It was clear that this one was not for probing. Her red, weepy eyes were a different picture from the horrifying, soul-shaking image portrayed of her in Nike’s advert in which the attacker’s haunting smile follows around a fictional defender.
Sophia Smith creepy smile ad
Smith was born the year after the United States set out their stall as a dominant force with their iconic Rose Bowl World Cup win in 1999. She was 14 when the US won it in 2015 and 18 when they did it again in 2019. She didn’t have to learn to be the best, she’s been bred that way. Having been the number 1 pick in the NWSL college draft she was the division’s Most Valuable Player just two seasons later. Everyone was tipping her to be the breakout star at this tournament.

After Naeher stopped Rebecka Blomqvist’s penalty, the stage was set for Smith to write headlines. Trailing 3-2, Sweden had no way back if Smith scored. She stared at Mušović, took a deep breath then sent the ball sailing into the stands.

As Smith recovered from the shock, Hanna Bennison stepped up to show that youth doesn’t have to stop you taking responsibility for the fate of your country. The 20-year-old Everton midfielder had to score to save Sweden’s tournament — but she dispatched hers in style, and with very little fuss.
Alyssa Naeher gives young Sophia Smith a cuddle
Smith may have dreamed of walking to the final, as USA teams have done all her life. Crashing out in the round of 16 was a failure, the manner of their departure depressing. Despite dominating, the States didn’t really have a go at goal. Mušović was dependable but there were no miracles between the sticks. So the USA just slipped away, without injustice or struggle.

Playing catch-up

When England beat the USA in a friendly at Wembley way back in October, my optimism was irrepressible. We’d only recently hoisted the St George’s flag over Europe and here were the World Cup holders, defeated by Ing-er-land. It was a sure forecast that the Lionesses would march unchallenged to their rightful place as world champions down under the following summer.

But this World Cup has shown that England aren’t the only side to have raised their game enough to be able to look the USA square in the eye. The States are no longer the undisputed queens of women’s soccer. They’re just another team, like the rest of us.

Is this a mere mentality malfunction? Was manager Vlatko Andonovski really such a terrible appointment? Or is everybody else simply catching up, as long-overdue investment is raising the form and quality of athletes and teams outside America?
bart says the line about teams thriving with money
It’s likely a combination of all of those things, but only the third point applies to the also-rans of years gone by. To understand why the US have dominated at major tournaments, it helps to look at where players spend the rest of their time.

American women have enjoyed access to top-drawer football opportunities since as early as 2001, when the Women’s United Soccer Association became the world’s first full professional soccer league. For decades, soccer in the States has been the holy grail for outsiders like Jess and Jules in Bend it like Beckham, who refused to stick around in the UK, their talent wasting away.

They were right not to wait. In 2010, the Women’s Super League was established on a ‘semi-professional’ basis. Only the division’s best players got full time contracts, with each club’s wage bill estimated to be about one tenth of their Stateside counterparts.

Think back to the summer of 2019, when England lost narrowly to the United States in the World Cup semi-final. It strikes me as an admirable result, given that tournament fell at the end of the 2018/2019 WSL season, the first term of fully-professional competition. The likes of Lucy Bronze and Steph Houghton will have had full-time contracts already, but they would not have been challenged by regularly competing against teams which didn’t.

What does fully professional actually mean, and why does it matter? Let’s return to the source of the USA’s downfall, to Sweden’s Zećira Mušović and goalkeepers, more generally. Female shot-stoppers have always been the focus of vitriolic critique of the women’s game, and for a time there was serious talk about making the goal smaller to give them a wittle helping hand. Fast forward to 2023 and Mušović is one of three keepers (alongside Mary Earps and the Netherlands’ Daphne van Domselaar) to pick up a player of the match award at this tournament.
successful goalkeepers at the wwc23
Three years ago, Mušović signed for WSL giant Chelsea, one of the UK’s pioneering women’s sides. Blues head coach Emma Hayes recently wrote a great column on how misunderstanding women’s bodies is impacting the women’s game. She revealed that Chelsea use a women’s health coach and a pelvic floor coach. A pelvic floor coach! A coach, dedicated to the pelvic floors of the 24 women comprising Chelsea’s squad.

That’s in addition to movement coaches, performance analysts, a specialised goalkeeping coach, and Hayes’ three assistants. It’s no wonder Mušović is a terrific athlete when there are so many people dedicated to looking after her body and helping her improve her craft.

This advancement is not exclusive to the UK. Look at the surprise packages to have come out of the group stage. Colombia’s professional women’s football league is just six years old, and Morocco are following in the footsteps of their male counterparts, semi-finalists at Qatar 2022, as both sides reap the benefits of their football federation’s four-year investment plan as supported by King Mohammed VI.
Morocco celebrate qualifying from the group stage
Whether the early exits of historic trail blazers USA and Germany is evidence of a seachange or just bad luck, I can’t say. But when it comes to the impact of funding and professionalisation, as they say in Colombia, la proof está en el pudding.

Can we talk about Lina?

With extra time looming at the end of the second half, the sight of Lina Hurtig at the fourth official’s elbow caused me to snort. I’d done the same when she replaced Stina Blackstenius with Arsenal trailing Wolfsburg in the Champions League semi-final in May.

I don’t think she has ever been the answer to anyone’s prayers.
Line Hurting waits to come on the pitch
Something of a figure of ridicule in women’s football, Hurtig has gravely disappointed Arsenal fans since her highly-anticipated arrival from Juventus last summer. Unfortunately, there’s something about her which is quite easy to laugh at. She has a very strange running style which reminds me of Shrek and, when called upon, she emerges with a naivety, a charming enthusiasm which is never converted to ruthlessness — not what you want from an attacking player.

Her appearance against the USA was no different. She wasn’t the only Sweden player who lacked sharpness, but none of her teammates could say they got merked by Lindsey Horan or managed to slap the ball with their hand in one cameo appearance. I suppose consistency is key in this game, and in many senses she was delivering precisely what many in the stadium expected of her.

Given all this, it was quite funny when Kelley O’Hara struck the post. Sweden’s qualification was there for the taking and who should step up to seize the moment of glory?

This was a banana skin which Sophia Smith had already slipped on. One shot, to decide your nation’s fortunes? Horrendous! Maybe Hurtig was what the moment asked for; Sweden needed a clown to out-wit the prat-fall and birth one of the most dramatic, meme-worthy moments of the tournament so far.
Lina Hurting celebrates her winning penalty
She was absolutely loving it.

Spectacular disappointment of the day

Before I left Melbourne my sister Lucy insisted that I visit St Kilda, a seaside suburb where she used to live. I was very excited to read that a colony of 1,400 Little Penguins live at the breakwater by St Kilda pier, where you can see them toddling in and out of the sea at sunset and sunrise.
Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) can grow to be around 30cm tall, which is around the same size as a two litre bottle of Coca-Cola :( and are also known as Blue Penguins or Fairy Penguins :(

Unfortunately the pier is currently under construction and so the optimum penguin viewing perch is not accessible. Sad! They look really cute. But hopefully they are getting some peace and quiet with no one around to harass them.

I'd like to come back one day and meet some of these birds but for now, I may have to settle for another wacky encounter with Tazuni, the Women's World Cup 2023 mascot who is inspired by Australia and New Zealand's tiny penguin friends.

"Tazuni is the word combination of Tasman Sea, unity, universal and unique. It’s a very suitable name for this penguin who radiates fun, charm and confidence," reads the FIFA press release.
I love her, I hate her, I don't know what to make of her.

What I think about badges

Apparently New Zealand is home to more than 200 species of ferns, 40% of which grow NOWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD so they are really leaning into their niche here.

It's distinctive, it's curvaceous, it's a silhouette of a really pretty leaf.

Given their flag is basically a Union Jack with knobs on, I won't be mad that they've totally disregarded it.
Another nation playing to their strengths.

An emu :( and a roo :( in green and gold. Beautiful and unique.

Only criticism is these iconic critters have absolutely zero fear factor. I'd just be lining up for kick off like awwhh cuties.
It's the badge of Australia
it's the badge of Spain
The imperialism is strong with this one.

There's a lot going on here that I don't understand but it's making me feel like I'm going into battle which I don't mind on a football field.

And that latin motto, 'plus ultra'? It means 'further beyond'. FIFA LOVES it.
Those animals are pretty cool and you can't say it doesn't look Chinese.

Sorry but the squareness of the font is giving me big dictatorship energy.

And the edginess plus the circle doesn't really work. Couldn't they put something in those big red spaces at the side? I almost like it but it doesn't sit right.
It's the badge of China
It's the badge of USA
They've got stars, they've got stripes. I approve.

I tell you what though, the men's edition (having won, like, nothing) doesn't look quite so good without the stars.

Take away the glory and it looks kind of naked. As it is, the gurlz have played their way to a striking emblem.
A rooster. Somehow majestic AND humble.

I respect its simplicity but if you look at previous editions it's sad to see what has been stripped away.

Why not jazz it up a bit. Chuck a little tricolour in those tail feathers? Dullsvilleeeeee.
It's the badge of France
It's the badge of Sweden
It's extremely classy.

Hasn't tried too hard, foregrounds the nation instead of the federation, bold shape, great colours, tiny football which doesn't dominate, and some little stripes for good measure.

No notes.
That eagle is doing a LOT of heavy lifting here since, without it, we've got some gold concentric circles.

The bird is German enough that they can get away with erasing the flag colours here, just.

But this badge is definitely scarier in black.
It's the badge of Germany
If you have any thoughts, feedback, anecdotes, birds, or memes you'd like to share then do not hesitate to drop me a message at [email protected] or just hit reply to this email.
31/7 logotype in purple and orange