Auckland, New Zealand – Megan Rapinoe’s final appearance on the world stage begins as the United States begins their quest for an unprecedented third straight Women’s World Championship.
The 38-year-old American announced this month that she will be retiring after the tournament – an announcement meant to help the squad avoid distracting questions about Rapinoe’s future.
“I’m just grateful to be able to do it this way,” Rapinoe said. “I understand that it’s extremely rare for athletes of all stature to be able to hit the road in their own way, on their own terms, at the time they want and in a way that feels really peaceful and relaxed to them.”
Their final World Cup begins on Saturday when the USA play Vietnam in Auckland. While it was Rapinoe’s desire to help her teammates focus on the tournament and not their future, their impending departure still weighed heavily on the squad.
Kelley O’Hara nearly burst into tears this week when asked what Rapinoe meant to the team and to football.
“I know the world sees the Megan Rapinoe who sees the world, but we get to see her up close and personal, and the ‘Pino’ who sees the world is an incredible person and an incredible human being, and she is.” She brings a sense of humor and lightness, but also intensity and empathy,” O’Hara said. “She is unique. There has never been anyone like her, and probably never will be anyone close to her.
“It’s sad to think that this was her last but she has done such incredible things for this team and for the world,” O’Hara continued. “I hope we send them all into overdrive.”
And midfielder Andi Sullivan said she has yet to accept that there will be a US team without Rapinoe when the Americans finish the tournament.
“I don’t really think of the team without her, and even when she announced it, she did it with so much grace, humor, joy and ease,” Sullivan said. “We’re trying to soak up as much ‘Pino’ as possible.”
Rapinoe is not expected to play a major role for the Americans and Vietnam is unlikely to pose much of a challenge in their World Cup debut. One of eight nations entering the tournament for the first time, Vietnam has never played the United States.
The USA have never lost to an Asian nation at a World Cup.
Vietnam prepared for the tournament with a respectable 2-1 defeat by Germany, but then lost 2-0 to co-hosts New Zealand and lost 9-0 to Spain.
One of the tournament favorites meets a newcomer at the Women’s World Cup when England play Haiti in a Group D match in Brisbane, Australia.
England are the reigning European champions and are looking to become the only team alongside Germany to win the World Cup while retaining the continental title. Germany did it in 2003 and 2007. The Lionesses have qualified for five straight World Cups and are one of only three teams, along with the USA and Germany, to have made it to the quarterfinals in each of the last four tournaments.
England and USA are the only two teams to have reached the semi-finals of the last two World Cups.
The game in Brisbane is the teams’ first meeting and the Lionesses have never lost a group stage game against a CONCACAF side.
Haiti are another of eight sides making their World Cup debut, having qualified by beating Senegal and Chile in the inter-confederation play-offs. Haiti is run by Daelle Dumornay, also known as “Corventina”. She scored both goals in Haiti’s victory over Chile.
Haiti are attempting to become the first CONCACAF team to win a game in their first World Cup since the USA won all six games at the inaugural tournament in 1991. Four CONCACAF teams have drawn three and lost nine together in their first World Cups. And although England are favourites, the Lionesses have won just one of their last eight games against CONCACAF sides.
But Haiti came to Australia in a crisis, losing four games in the last month.
Zambia are making their debut at the Women’s World Cup against Japan and are a questionable contender in the elite tournament.
The Copper Queens qualified due to the African qualification format. As they are ranked 77th in the world, critics have questioned whether the team would be here if they had competed for another continental federation.
But then Zambia surprised on a three-game tour of Europe, leading in every game while drawing against Switzerland before ebbing a surprise win over Germany.
The next challenge is a Group C game against Japan, to be played in Hamilton, New Zealand. The group also includes Spain and Costa Rica.
Zambia have a long-term plan and only one player in their squad is over 28 years old. Barbra Banda, captain and the team’s top player, is only 23 years old. She has scored 22 goals in 10 games for Zambia.
Zambia are not known for their defense and often looked tired at the end of their last games, conceding eight goals on the European tour. The team has also been embroiled in controversy with reports claiming that coach Bruce Mwape has been accused of sexual misconduct. He has denied any wrongdoing, but FIFA is investigating.
Japan maintains its status as a powerhouse, having won the title in 2011 and reached the final in 2015. His squad is largely made up of players who won the U20 Women’s World Cup five years ago. More than half of the squad is aged 24 or younger.
The veteran is 26-year-old Yui Hasegawa, a central midfielder who started each of Manchester City’s 20 Women’s Super League games last season.
China are participating in the Women’s World Cup for the third straight season, starting with a Group D match in Perth, Australia against Denmark, who are returning to the tournament for the first time since 2007.
Denmark ended their 16-year absence by winning all eight qualifiers and scoring an impressive 40 goals. Denmark need to maintain that level of play if they have a chance of breaking out of their group – which also includes England and Haiti – for the first time since 1995.
China is participating in a World Cup for the eighth time after winning the Asian Cup for the ninth time. China, who have reached the knockout stages of their last seven World Cup appearances and lost in the final in 1999, have not won their opening game since 2007.
The Danes will look to go deep into the tournament to bid farewell to coach Lars Søndergaard, who will end his almost six-year international career after the World Cup. He will rely on captain Pernille Harder, who is making her tournament debut. Harder recently ended her time at Chelsea and signed for FC Bayern Munich.
China is led by striker Wang Shanshan, who was named the country’s player of the year in April and scored five goals at the Asian Cup. She has also scored at a previous World Cup, scoring twice in 2015.
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