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‘The gap is closing.’ Why the underdogs are impressing at the Women’s World Cup


By Ben Church, CNN

(CNN) — Just six days into the 2023 Women’s World Cup and many of the tournament underdogs are already making a name for themselves.

The Philippines securing its first World Cup win on Tuesday was just the latest in a series of surprise results. On Sunday, Jamaica earned a goalless draw with world No. 5 France, its first ever point at a World Cup, while New Zealand won its first Women’s World Cup game by beating Norway – before itself being on the wrong end of an upset against the Philippines.

Even when results haven’t gone the way of the so-called smaller teams, many games have been much closer than expected.

Haiti, for example, was unlucky not to get something from its match against European champion England on Saturday and the Republic of Ireland could have stolen a point against cohost Australia on Thursday.

After guiding his own side to an historic result against France, Jamaica’s manager Lorne Donaldson said he wasn’t surprised by the way smaller nations were performing.

“Starting from everything, from the diet, to the coaching, to the physical training, the smaller countries are getting an understanding,” he told reporters.

“We might not have the resources that bigger countries do, in terms of equipment and travel, but I think there is an understanding there with coaches and technical staff […] our preparation is a little bit better.”

For the first time, 32 teams are competing in this year’s Women’s World Cup – including eight nations making their tournament debut.

It led to concerns that nations such as the USWNT, England and France, which boast comparatively bountiful resources, would walk over the less experienced sides.

During the 2019 edition in France, the USWNT humiliated Thailand 13-0 in a game which highlighted the disparity in the women’s game – some even criticised the US players for not taking mercy on their opponents.

But this year, in its first game of the tournament, reigning champion USWNT only managed to win 3-0 against Vietnam which, in truth, was a closer scoreline than many had expected.

There has been some one-sided games, though. Japan thrashed Zambia 5-0 on Saturday and Germany beat Morocco 6-0 on Monday, but such score lines have not been commonplace in the opening fixtures.

“Once upon a time, the US in particular was very dominant but you see the gap is closing and the smaller nations are jumping on that bandwagon,” Donaldson added.

“The smaller nations are believing that they can get this done.”

Donaldson praised the number of promising youngsters coming through the ranks and said the opportunity for players to play in the world’s top leagues was helping to raise the level of the team.

For the Philippines – the first team of any gender from the Southeast Asian nation to play at a World Cup – the squad has been boosted by a large contingent of dual US nationals. More than half of the squad are Filipina-Americans.

Jamaica’s Deneisha Blackwood, who was player of the match on Sunday, echoed her manager’s thoughts and said players are now confident they can stand up to the sport’s biggest stars.

“Not saying the bigger team doesn’t have heart but I think smaller countries coming into these games have a lot on the line and I think we just play with our heart,” she told reporters, after celebrating Jamaica’s 0-0 draw as if it was a win.

“The football world is growing and it shows in smaller countries too.”

Jamaica is now one of the less experienced teams dreaming of a place in the knockout stages of the competition.

And after becoming the first of the debutant teams to win at the 2023 Women’s World Cup, the Philippines has a real opportunity to make yet further history by reaching the knockout phases.

But, whatever happens next, Donaldson said Jamaica, ranked 43rd in the world, has already made history against the French.

“I would say it was the number one result we’ve had so far,” he said. “You’re playing a team like France which is just fantastic.”

Eyes will be on all the underdogs to see if they can keep competing against the bigger teams once players get settled into the tournament.

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