In seven months, the world’s best will be back in action for another mouthwatering international tournament. The seventh edition of the Women’s Olympic tournament will take place in Japan and feature 12 nations from six confederations, with Japan automatically qualifying as the hosts. Half of the 12 team field has already been set, while 18 teams from four confederations battle for the remaining six spots.
The last time the world came together for the Summer Olympics, Germany finished on top of the podium in Rion de Janeiro. The Summer Olympics have been dominated by the United States, who have won four of the previous six tournaments but the USA fell surprisingly to Sweden in the quarte-final in Rio. Besides the two previously mentioned powerhouses, Norway is the only other nation to have won gold, when they beat the USA at the start of the century in Sydney. Only five other nations have made their way onto the podium in Olympic history.
Last summer’s World Cup saw 16 nations make a statement on the world stage. The level of women’s soccer has grown considerably since 2016 and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. New countries have popped into the limelight and associations across the globe have begun to pour more funding into their nation’s women’s national team. An increase in viewership and participation in women’s football will make this tournament something special.
The South American Football Association (CONMEBOL)
The CONMEBOL Copa América Femenina in 2018 was the first confederation to set out on the road to Tokyo and served as the confederation’s World Cup and Olympic qualifier. The winner of the tournament, Brazil, earned an automatic bid to Tokyo, while runner-up Chile will have to face the runner-up of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) qualifying tournament in a two-leg playoff. The Chileans will have to wait until January 23rd to find out their CAF opponent for the Olympic playoff.
In 2018, Brazil won its seventh Copa América Femenina title, beating Chile 3-1, Argentina 3-0, and Columbia 3-0 in the final group. Chile finished atop Argentina by a point to finish in second after beating tying Columbia 0-0 and beating Argentina 4-0.
The Oceania Football Association (OFC)
A few months after CONMEBOL, the OFC started their qualifying tournament. At the end of 2018, eight nations participated in the Nations Cup, which was hosted by New Caledonia. The Nations Cup serves as a qualifier for the World Cup and Summer Olympics for the OFC, with the champion earning the automatic bid.
There was no surprise in the latest rendition of the Nations Cup when New Zealand stormed their way to a fourth straight championship. The Football Ferns scored an astounding 27 goals in the group stage and 43 in total without conceding a goal. In the semi-finals, they walked past New Caledonia 8-0 before playing Fiji in the final. Fiji was able to improve upon their group stage result, losing 8-0 in the final instead of 10-0.
The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)
This time last year, the world prepared for the sixth edition of the Women’s World Cup, which crowned the United States champions and played an important role for the European nations participating. Unlike many other confederations, UEFA does not hold its own qualification tournament for the Olympics. Instead, UEFA elects to use the top three performances of their member nations in the World Cup to decide who will earn their bids to the Olympics the following year.
Last summer, nine UEFA nations participated in the sixth World Cup with Scotland, Spain, England, France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway, and Italy competing for the most coveted prize in soccer. Debutants Scotland was the only UEFA nation to crash out of the group stage, finishing at the bottom of Group D with only one point to their name. The Spaniards were the next UEFA member nation to get knocked out, losing 2-1 the United States in Reims. With seven of the eight spots in the quarter-finals being filled by European countries, the pressure to advance to the semi-finals was even higher.
England cruised past Norway in Le Havre, while host nation France put a valiant effort against the USA in their 2-1 defeat. The third spot in the semi-final was secured by the Netherlands, who scored two late goals against Italy. In the last quarter-final game, Sweden shocked Germany, defeating the reigning Olympic champions 2-1 in Rennes. Since the United States knocked out France, the remaining UEFA nations secured their spot in the Olympics, with England earning the bid for Great Britain.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF)
The CAF has almost completed their five-round Olympic qualifying tournament, with Zambia and Cameron battling for the automatic bid. The loser of the two-leg matchup will have another chance to qualify for the Olympic Games through a two-leg playoff against Chile in March.
Zambia had an easy start to the tournament earning walkover victory over Angola, who withdrew from the tournament, in the first round. In the second round, the She-Polopolo beat Zimbabwe in the first-leg 5-0 with the help of a hat-trick from 22-year-old midfielder Grace Chanda. Zimbabwe failed to show up for the second leg, handing Zambia another walk-over win. The She-Polopolo defeated Botswana 3-0 in two-legs with two more goals from Chanda in the quarter-final. The semi-final saw Zambia narrowly edge out Kenya with midfielder Lushomo Mweemba’s lone goal in the second leg.
Similar to Zambia, Cameron did not face competition in the first round after being handed a bye in the draw. The Indomitable Lionesses scrapped by Ethiopia on away goals after a 1-1 draw in the first-leg. The Democratic Republic of Congo proved a tough task for the Lionesses, clawing back into the tie after a 2-0 defeat in the first leg. Cameronian forward Ajara Nchout scored a goal in the 82nd minute to send her side to the semi-finals. Nchout sent Cameron to the finals after a late penalty, to win the second leg 2-1 after a 0-0 draw in the first-leg.
The two nations will face off on January 13th and January 22nd in a battle for the CAF’s only automatic bid.
Cameroon looks to be the clear favorite, ranked 49th in the FIFA rankings compared to Zambia who is 106th. They are also one of only three African nations to compete in the Olympics, finishing last in their group in the 2012 London Olympics.
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC)
The AFC holds a three-round qualifying tournament with a four-team playoff to determine which teams from Asia earn a bid to the Olympics. The tournament is currently in the third round, which is formed by two groups of two. Group A is comprised of group hosts South Korea, Vietnam, and Myanmar, and North Korea who has since withdrawn from the tournament. Group B is comprised of Australia, China Peoples Republic, Thailand, and Chinese Taipei.
Myanmar made its way into the third round after finishing at the top of their group in the first round, beating Bangladesh 5-0, tying Nepal 1-1, and beating India 2-1. In the second round, they were once again placed in a group with Nepal and India with the addition of Indonesia. Once again, Myanmar topped their group, beating Nepal 3-1 and Indonesia 6-0, and tying India 3-3. India finished level with them on points but missed out on the third round because of their inferior goal differential.
Chinese Taipei dominated their group in the first round, scoring 33 unanswered goals. They beat Tajikistan 9-0, Mongolia 9-0, Singapore 10-0, and the Philippines 5-0 en route to the second round. Once again, Chinese Taipei blew past their competition in the second round, beating Palestine 3-0, the Philippines 4-2, and Iran 4-1.
Vietnam entered the tournament in the second round after receiving a first-round bye, getting drawn into a group with Uzbekistan, Jordan, and Hong Kong. They finished at the top of their group, beating Uzbekistan 2-1, Hong Kong 2-1, and Jordan 2-0.
South Korea, North Korea, Australia, Thailand, and Australia all entered the tournament in the third round.
The top two teams from each group will advance to the play-off round. In the playoff round, the winner of Group A will play the runner-up of Group B and vice-versa. The two playoff winners will be determined on March 11th after the second leg. The winners will earn the AFC’s two bids to the Olympics, with Japan already qualified as hosts.
Australia and South Korea are favorites to win their group, ranked eight and 12 positions higher than the next team in their group respectively. Both China and Vietnam look likely to go through to the playoffs in second.
The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF)
Similar to the AFC, CONCACAF uses a two-group, eight-team system which leads into a four-team knockout stage, with the finalists earning bids to the Olympics. The eight teams are made up of three from the North American Zone, three from the Carribean Zone, and two from the Central American Zone.
Carribean nations were split into three groups and Central American nations into two groups. The winners of each group would earn a spot in the Qualifying Championship.
Hati beat Suriname 10-0 and Puerto Rico 2-1 to earn the first Carribean bid. Meanwhile, Jamaica steamrolled through their group, beating Cuba 12-1, Barbados 7-0, St. Lucia 11-0, and the U.S. Virgin Islands 7-0. In the final Carribean group, Saint Kitts and Nevis surprised many with their dominant performances, tying the Dominican Republic 0-0, beating Aruba 6-1, Trinidad and Tobago 4-1, and Antigua and Barbuda 10-0.
Central American powerhouse Costa Rica cruised to their fifth straight Qualifying Championship, beating Nicaragua 2-0 and El Salvador 5-0. Panama earned the last bid, beating Honduras 3-0 and Guatemala 3-1.
On the other hand, the United States, Mexico, and Canada qualified automatically for the Qualifying Championship because they are the only three teams in their zone.
The United States and Canada are clear favorites to win their groups and earn bids to the Olympics. The two sides are ranked first and eighth in FIFA’s ranking with the next closest team, Mexico, ranked 26th. In addition to this, the USA are reigning World Cup Champions and are the only nation to win the Qualifying Championship, with Canada and Mexico finishing runners-up three times and once respectively.
CONCACAF’s two bids will be determined on February 7th during the semi-finals.
Image Credits: Getty Images and AFP