The 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany marked the 20th anniversary of the competition, which had evolved enormously in its two decades of existence. While FIFA ultimately decided against increasing the number of finalists to 24, instead keeping it at 16, that it was strongly considered spoke of the growing appetite for the women’s game. That progress would be maintained in the sixth staging of the tournament.
2011: Japan end Germany’s domination
The profile of the Women’s World Cup was raised further in 2011, with all matches broadcasted in high definition for the first time and a tournament-specific Panini sticker album released. Also, a new Twitter record was set during the final, with 7,196 tweets per second an unprecedented rate for one event, surpassing that year’s UK royal wedding and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.
Hosts and holders Germany cruised through Group A as expected, with France signalling their intent as a coming force. England also caught the eye in the group stage, topping Group B and beating a fine Japan side in doing so, with Jill Scott and Rachel Yankey among the standout players.
In Group C, Sweden and USA had far too much for Colombia and North Korea, although the Americans appeared to be weaker than in previous years and lost to Sweden in the final group game. There was a real upset in Group D where Australia, who had been outclassed at previous World Cups, came from behind to beat 1995 champions Norway and secure second place behind Brazil. It was a result that knocked the Norwegians out and highlighted the scale of their descent from previous years.
The group stage was bookended by two doping controversies, an unwelcome first for the Women’s World Cup. On the eve of the tournament, Colombian goalkeeper Yineth Varón tested positive for a banned substance and was suspended by FIFA. The day after the group stage ended, the North Korean pair of Song Jong-sun and Jong Pok-sim were provisionally suspended for failing a dope test; three of their team-mates would also test positive a few days later.
On the pitch at least, the quarter-finals began with a bang. England were two minutes away from beating France when Élise Bussaglia equalised and Les Bleus won the subsequent penalty shoot-out. Later that evening, Germany’s eight-year status as world champions ended with a 0-1 defeat to a Japan side who were now to be taken very seriously. In the other two quarter-finals, Sweden got the better of Australia 3-1 while the USA needed penalties to knock out Brazil in a thrilling contest – and even that only came about from Abby Wambach scoring in the second added minute at the end of extra time.
The U.S. may have been fortunate to get past Brazil but they saw off France 3-1 to reach yet another final, scoring twice in the final 15 minutes to vanquish a vastly improving French side. Japan, an emerging superpower in the women’s game, came from a goal down to beat an established giant in Sweden and reach their first final.
Almost 49,000 supporters flocked to the Commerzbank Arena in Frankfurt for what turned out to be a thrilling final, even if it was a slow burner. It took until the 69th minute for the opening goal, which came from Alex Morgan. A late Aya Miyama equaliser took the game into extra time, during which Wambach put the Americans back in the lead on the stroke of half-time. With only three minutes remaining, Golden Ball winner Homare Sawa restored parity and ensured that we would have a penalty shoot-out. The U.S. blew it badly from the spot, missing three of their four kicks as Saki Kumagai scored the penalty that won a first world title for Japan. It was a memorable finale to an eventful tournament.
2015: USA exact revenge as England reach new heights
The finals returned to North America 12 years after USA hosted two tournaments in a row. This time Canada played host, with the home team hoping to improve rapidly on their pitiful showing in 2011. It was fitting that the world’s second largest country would host a tournament that had now expanded to 24 finalists, seven of whom were making their debut appearance. Other new measures for the Women’s World Cup were the introduction of Hawk-Eye goal-line technology and the playing of every match on artificial surfaces.
In a tightly-contested Group A, Canada emerged as winners just ahead of China, with first-timers Netherlands also progressing to the last 16. Germany and Norway breezed through Group B, with the former inflicting a 10-0 defeat on Ivory Coast in the Africans’ tournament debut. Holders Japan had a 100% record in Group C, in which Switzerland stuck 10 goals past fellow debutants Ecuador yet still only came third in the group.
USA were Group D winners ahead of Australia, with third-placed Sweden doing just enough to advance to the knockout stages. Brazil won all their games in Group E, with Spain and Costa Rica both falling at the group stage in their first finals. England recovered from losing their first Group F game to join France and Colombia in the last 16.
The first knockout round saw Norway and Sweden, two Scandinavian sides with a rich history in the tournament, knocked out by England and Germany respectively, while Australia stunned Brazil 1-0 to further enhance their growing stature in the women’s game. The Matildas’ dreams ended in the quarter-finals, though, with a narrow defeat to holders Japan. The USA edged out China for a semi-final place while Germany defeated France on penalties. In the other quarter-final, England broke into unchartered territory by beating hosts Canada 2-1, early goals from Jodie Lee Taylor and Lucy Bronze proving decisive.
The highly-anticipated semi-final of USA v Germany went the way of the Americans, with Carli Lloyd and Kelley O’Hara scoring the goals that secured victory. They would have a chance to exact revenge on Japan in the final as the holders overcame England in Edmonton. Level at 1-1 going into stoppage time, an agonising own goal from Laura Bassett proved a cruel and undeserved way for the Lionesses’ dreams to end. However, they would return home as bronze medallists after beating Germany in the third-place match.
Could Japan join Germany as back-to-back Women’s World Cup winners or would USA win a record third title? We got our answer inside 16 minutes; that was how long it took Lloyd to register a hat-trick, with Lauren Holiday also netting as the Americans romped into a 4-0 lead. Lloyd’s third goal was iconic, a shot from the halfway line completing the hat-trick in some style.
Yuki Ogimi would deprive the outspoken Hope Solo of a clean sheet and a Julie Johnston own goal early in the second half briefly raised hopes that a contest remained. Two minutes later, Tobin Heath made it 5-2 and it really was all over then for Japan. Sixteen years on from their previous title, USA conquered the world in front of an American TV audience of 26.7 million, the highest ever for women’s football in the country, and returned home to a tickertape parade through Manhattan. It was a stylish homecoming for a stylish team with some of the greatest female players of all time in Lloyd, Wambach, Solo, Morgan and Christie Rampone.