I remember my first World Cup: Germany 2006. On the opening day of the tournament, I can vividly recall running home from school to watch the hosts play Costa Rica. It’s a game that I still hold in high regard – Philipp Lahm and Torsten Frings scored screamers in the 4-2 German victory, while it also introduced me to future World Cup legend Miroslav Klose.
As well as Klose, I watched many young, talented players from outside the Premier League for the first time during that tournament, while I also managed to learn more about the legacy of established stars such as Fabio Cannavaro, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane.
Flash forward 13 years and I had the chance to experience that same sense of discovery again with my first World Cup as a follower of women’s football. Like in Germany ’06, I came into this summer’s tournament with a good knowledge of players from England’s home divisions but I eagerly anticipated seeing and learning about some international stars further afield.
Here, then, are seven players that I’ve discovered and grown to love during the five weeks of World Cup action in France.
Having seen a few National Women’s Soccer League games last season, I had a basic knowledge of the American team. Rapinoe scored a lot of goals for Reign over the past couple of years but I figured the 34-year-old’s age would make her less of a main player on the international scene. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Six goals, which included two match-winning braces against Spain and France in the knockout rounds, plus a penalty in the final, earned her the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards. It was a pleasure to see her perform so well on the left-wing for the US but her outgoing personality really cemented Rapinoe as my new favourite player.
Pink hair, passionate celebrations, on-field stands against inequality and outspoken press conferences have been traits that I’ve admired seeing from a co-captain who once described herself as a ‘walking protest’. I prefer the term ‘living legend’.
The Norwegian team headed to France with some baggage as Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg continued to exclude herself from selection in protest against the Norwegian Football Federation. There wasn’t much hype around Norway’s chances of making a major impact but they managed to reach the last eight with Caroline Graham Hansen as their main attacking asset in Hegerberg’s absence.
Hansen is moving to Barcelona this summer and she showed exactly why the Champions League finalists wanted her in their squad. Selected as Player of the Match in two of Norway’s World Cup encounters, no one completed more dribbles than the 24-year-old in the whole tournament. That strong attacking intent allowed Norway to dominate games and, ironically, if they had a more clinical finisher like Hegerberg alongside Hansen, they could have gone even further.
I first learnt about Renard whilst watching this season’s Champions League final. Her Lyon team demolished Barcelona 4-1 with the centre-back having very little to do in the rout. Jump forward a month, though, and Renard would have a wild tournament playing for the host nation.
Although her defending wasn’t outstanding, the impact she had as a set-piece threat at the other end of the field really impressed me. During the opening match against South Korea, Renard scored two headers to help France earn a comprehensive 4-0 victory in Paris. She then scored again in her next game but this time with a crazy own goal. France eventually won that match but Renard remained a talking point in Les Blues’ final group game as well.
After missing a penalty in the closing stages, Renard had the chance to take the spot-kick again after Nigeria’s goalkeeper was deemed to be off her line. Renard scored the retake and that secured top spot in the group. Later in the tournament, she took her goal tally up to four when she scored late on in France’s quarter-final against the USA but it wasn’t enough to see her side progress. What a ride, though.
There wasn’t much joy to be had in France for South Korea. After their hammering to the hosts and a 2-0 defeat to Nigeria, they found themselves another two goals down against Norway in their final group game. However, in an all-out, nothing-to-lose frenzy, they began to exert themselves in the closing 45 minutes of their tournament campaign.
Chelsea midfielder and South Korea’s star player, Ji So-Yun, started to come alive but winger Lee Geum-Min created the most havoc through her dangerous runs and crosses. Norway held on until the final 10 minutes when Lee laid claim to the assist of the tournament.
Her backheel through the legs of Ingrid Moe Wold found Yeo Min-Ji free in the box to score South Korea’s first goal of the tournament. Soon after, Lee nearly had another assist as her whipped cross found the head of Cho So-Hyun but the ball flew narrowly wide. A point would have been more deserving of South Korea’s efforts but they can at least revel in scoring one of the classiest goals of the World Cup.
Another player who shone despite her team having a disappointing World Cup was Christiane Endler. The Paris Saint-Germain goalkeeper was Chile’s best player by far, keeping a clean sheet against Thailand and making a number of key saves against Sweden to keep them in the game. It was her match against reigning champions the USA which propelled her into the spotlight, though.
Playing at her home stadium in Paris, Endler was named the Player of the Match (despite Carli Lloyd scoring two goals and Chile losing 3-0) thanks to a second half display which saw some outrageous stops. Lindsey Horan and Christen Press were both thwarted by the 28-year-old, with her reaction save from Press’ point-blank header up there as one of the best saves of the tournament.
I first became aware of Martens’ pedigree after reading her featured interview in the official tournament programme. I was impressed by the 2017 World Player of the Year’s team ethos, as well as her own self-confidence, particularly when stating: ‘I know I can decide a game’.
She’s since backed that up with a fine World Cup showing that includes a Player of the Match award in the opening group game, two goals that saw the Netherlands beat Japan in the last-16 and the second-most dribbles of the tournament.
The Dutch may have lost the final but Martens can look forward to another successful campaign at Barcelona next season, especially now Graham Hansen is her teammate. Imagine them two bombing down the wings next year…
I grew up knowing Marta was the best female player in the world but, much like Zidane at Germany 2006, I only truly grasped the greatness of the player in her career twilight. Though she didn’t have a spectacular finals this year, Marta managed to break Klose’s record for the top goal scorer in World Cup history with 17 goals over five tournaments.
This year’s edition could well be her last and in saying goodbye, she gave a passionate speech on live TV about Brazil’s next generation of female players needing to step up. ‘Cry in the beginning so you can smile at the end,’ she said with tears in her eyes. By ending her World Cup career doing the opposite, the 33-year-old trailblazer has left a powerful statement which indicates there’s more work to be done to keep the women’s game thriving in the future.
I could have chosen any member of the US starting line-up for this list as I didn’t quite know how great the Americans were in every position. Rose Lavelle was amazing in midfield, while Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara shut down many great wingers at full-back.
Elsewhere, Amandine Henry had a massive influence on the French, scoring an extra-time winner in their last-16 tie with Brazil and controlling play in the midfield, while the Netherlands had Sherida Spitse providing her own midfield tenacity, along with several assists.
Of the players I knew and admired from the WSL, Vivianne Miedema had a superb World Cup by scoring three goals and becoming the top scorer for her country. Meanwhile England’s Ellen White, Nikita Parris and Jill Scott were incredible in helping the Lionesses reach the semi-finals. Can we start the new season next week, please?