When Julie Ertz returned from maternity leave this year and began a race to get herself ready to play for the United States at the World Cup, she expected life on the national team to be different. But different because she was adjusting to life as a mother and had new off-the-field responsibilities, not different because she would be playing a new position.
Yet when Coach Vlatko Andonovski reached out and asked her if she would consider returning as a center back, a role she had not played in years, instead of as a defensive midfielder, Ertz said yes right away. Anything, she told Andonovski, to help the team win.
The switch was, at the time, a closely held secret inside the team. In several weeks of practices, Ertz took the place of Alana Cook in the back line and set to work trying to develop a working relationship with her new center-back partner, the World Cup newcomer Naomi Girma.
The Ertz-Girma pairing made its public debut in the team’s 3-0 victory over Vietnam on Friday. And in 90 scoreless minutes, they seemed as if they had been playing side by side for years.
Ertz, who had played center back for the Americans’ 2015 World Cup-winning team before becoming one of the best defensive midfielders in the world, didn’t miss a beat. Girma was not surprised: She called her new partner “one of the best on the team at that communication, of leading, organizing.”
The familiarity and relationship between Ertz and Girma will be even more important for the United States when it tries to fend off its second opponent, the Netherlands, on Wednesday. The Dutch, whom the United States played and beat in the World Cup final in 2019 and during the Tokyo Olympics two years later, will pose a much stronger threat to the Americans than Vietnam did. They beat Portugal on Sunday and move the ball around quicker and more accurately. Their precise passing — honed over years together and in the world’s best leagues — has the capability of picking apart even the strongest, and sturdiest, defenses.
Girma did not seem worried on Monday.
“Us two balancing off of each other in the middle of the game, being like, ‘OK, I think we should do this a little differently,’ and making those small adjustments during the game, was really good for us.” Girma said.
Andonovski said he got the idea to move Ertz out of the midfield and onto the back line not long after the U.S. team’s captain, Becky Sauerbrunn, was ruled out of the World Cup with a nagging foot injury. The team needed a strong replacement. And just as Sauerbrunn had once served as a steadying influence for Ertz, who was still a relative newcomer ahead of the 2015 World Cup, Ertz now took a turn in the leadership position.
“I think it today it showed that how good she can be in the back line, in possession and out of possession,” Andonovski said of Ertz’s performance after the Vietnam game. “So I’m glad that we made that decision.”
Germany kicks off its World Cup campaign on Monday with the same objective as always: to win it all. Germany, a two-time champion that has never failed to reach at least the quarterfinals, drew a favorable group this year, with Morocco, Colombia and South Korea. So even though it has a good chance to reach the final eight again, it has set its sights much higher.
Another top competitor taking the field is Brazil, a team better known for one player, Marta, than the overall strength of its roster. However, with Pia Sundhage, the former United States coach, at the helm, Brazil could be a tougher out than usual.
First, though, came Italy, a team in transition and, on Monday, one that featured two teenagers in a win against Argentina, 1-0.
Italy vs. Argentina
Italy reached the quarterfinals of the last World Cup, a solid result after a 20-year absence from the tournament. But after missing the knockout stage of the European Championship last year, the team began a generational transition, with Coach Milena Bertolini dropping a number of veterans to make way for new talent.
Giulia Dragoni, a 16-year-old midfielder whom some have nicknamed Little Messi, only made her debut earlier this month in a scoreless draw against Morocco. But she started against Argentina, part of a lineup that also featured the 18-year-old forward Chiara Beccari.
Italy nabbed a victory over Argentina with a single goal, a header from Cristiana Girelli, who came off the bench and scored her fourth World Cup goal.
HER FOURTH CAREER FIFA WOMEN’S WORLD CUP GOAL!
An absolute class finish from Italy’s leading goalscorer Cristiana Girelli 🇮🇹 pic.twitter.com/ytI6m5FfvU
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 24, 2023
Dragoni could be the face of Italy’s team for the next decade. “I have no expectations,” she said this week. “I can’t because I am still so young and I came here to learn and to have some experience.”
Argentina has never advanced past the group stage, failing to win a World Cup match and scoring only five goals in three tournaments. But the Argentines won four of their five friendlies ahead of this tournament.
Germany vs. Morocco
Germany won the World Cup in 2003 and 2007, and also has eight European Championships and an Olympic gold medal from Rio 2016 in its trophy case. But it lost to England in the final of last year’s European Championship, and its form has been erratic in recent months, with losses to Brazil and Zambia and a narrow win against Vietnam in a friendly in June.
Morocco, by contrast, is one of the eight first-time qualifiers in the field. Its qualification has won the team new fans back home. But reaching the tournament is one thing. Knocking off Germany in it is quite another.
Brazil vs. Panama
All eyes are on Marta. The Brazilian legend is appearing in her sixth World Cup at age 37, and still hoping to capture an ever-elusive title. Marta is considered by many to be the greatest player in the history of the game, but she has often carried the load for her national team alone.
The closest the Brazilians have come to winning the tournament was nearly a generation ago, when they lost to Germany in the 2007 final. This year’s team is not considered as strong as some past iterations, but in Sundhage it has a respected coach with a decorated history of her own.
Brazil’s first opponent is Panama, another World Cup debutante and the final country to earn a place in this tournament. Panama has its own Marta: Marta Cox, the 26-year-old midfielder who scored off a bicycle kick in Panama’s World Cup qualifying match against Paraguay.
Colombia vs. South Korea
Colombia is coming off a strong performance in the Copa América Championship, where it beat Argentina in the semifinals and fell to Brazil in the final, 1-0. Those results suggest a readiness to contend on the world stage. But that competitiveness may have gone too far in a recent friendly against Ireland: That match was called off after 20 minutes for what the Irish labeled “overly physical” play from the Colombians. Colombia rejected that characterization and defended its style; it said the Irish simply “preferred not to continue playing.”
Colombia will face South Korea, the runner-up in the 2022 Asian Cup. The South Koreans have made it to the knockout stage once in three previous World Cup appearances, in 2015. Four years ago, the Koreans lost all three of their games.
Australia’s team has been tight-lipped all week about the status of its star striker Sam Kerr, who was ruled out of the first two games of the World Cup last week with what team officials referred to as a calf injury.
Australian officials said at the time that Kerr’s injury would be reassessed after the second game of the group stage on Thursday, and in doing so held out hope she would return to the field.
But one of Kerr’s teammates, the 21-year-old midfielder Kyra Cooney-Cross, caused a stir on Monday when she told reporters at Australia’s camp that Kerr had a torn calf muscle — a far more serious injury that would almost certainly rule Kerr out of the tournament.
“It’s unfortunate that Sam tore her calf before the game,” Cooney-Cross told reporters. “But I think, as a team, we’re just focusing on Nigeria. Sam’s doing her own thing to get back as quick as possible and that’s also important.”
Team officials immediately try to row back Cooney-Cross’s statement. A team press officer said in a text message that Cooney-Cross had misspoken, using “inaccurate wording as a young player” and “colloquial language rather than medical language.” In a separate message, a senior federation official said the suggestion that Kerr had torn a muscle was “not accurate,” and that the original diagnosis — a mild calf strain — was still in effect.
Australia beat Ireland in its opener, 1-0, but the loss of Kerr is a potentially devastating blow to its hopes of making a deep run in the tournament on home soil.
Morocco’s presence at the Women’s World Cup already has yielded a string of notable moments. It is the first North African team to qualify for the field, as well as the first from a majority Arab nation. And on Monday, when it faces Germany, Morocco could become the first to field a player wearing a hijab.
The player, defender Nouhaila Benzina, has worn an Islamic headscarf in matches for years. And if she enters the game against Germany as a substitute — she was not in the starting lineup — or any of Morocco’s games in the tournament, she would become the first player wear one at a World Cup.
A decade ago, Arab countries, led by Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, the head of Jordan’s soccer federation, successfully fought against a prohibition on hijabs in soccer. Arab officials and players had argued that outlawing headscarves would limit the participation of young girls and women in soccer, particularly in majority Arab countries where hijabs are a common feature of public life.
Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, eventually lifted the hijab ban, which had been in place on the grounds that head coverings exposed players to risk of injury, though France has moved recently to reinstate it.
France’s top court in June backed a prohibition on hijabs by France’s soccer federation on the grounds that headscarves were at odds with France’s secular traditions. Several players on the Moroccan squad were born or raised in France. Benzina plays for a club team in Morocco.
But while the presence of a player in a hijab might be a cause for celebration for Muslim players, Morocco’s presence led to an uncomfortable moment during the team’s pregame news conference on Sunday.
Nearly a half-hour into the questioning of Morocco’s French coach, Reynald Pedros, and the team’s captain, Ghizlane Chebbak, a reporter from the BBC was handed the microphone.
“In Morocco it’s illegal to have gay relationships,” the reporter began. “Do you have any gay players in your squad? And what’s life like for them in Morocco?”
Pedros’s eyes went wide as the question was translated into French in his headphones. Chebbak at first narrowed her eyes before briefly closing them. Then a FIFA official handling the news conference intervened before either the coach or the player could answer.
“Sorry, this is a very political question,” the official said, beseeching the journalists in the room to “stick to questions related to football.”
The BBC journalist fired back, pleading that Chebbak be allowed to answer, saying there was nothing political about what he had asked. “It’s not political; It’s about people,” he said before the microphone was handed to another reporter in the room. Chebbak, who appeared to not quite believe the words that came through the translation device rendering them in Arabic for her, seemed disinclined to respond.
The episode reflected the type of scrutiny on women’s players at a tournament that has been a magnet for social issues, including the rights of those in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Several of the most prominent players in the tournament, including Megan Rapinoe of the United States, are gay, and Canada’s roster includes a transgender player, Quinn.
Like Chebbak, Pedros did not answer the question. But the fact it was asked at all elicited audible frustration from some members of the Moroccan news media present at the session at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, and some criticism on social media that merely asking the question had put Moroccan players at risk.
One of eight first-time qualifiers in the Women’s World Cup field, Morocco may not win a game playing in a group that includes a former champion (Germany), an Asian regular (South Korea) and the second-best team in South America (Colombia).
But the fact that Morocco is playing in this tournament, which began Thursday in Australia and New Zealand, and that its women’s team exists at all, is serving as an inspiration and a measurable source of pride at home and abroad.
Morocco is the first Women’s World Cup qualifier from North Africa, and the first from a majority Arab nation. Still, its squad was little known even to most Moroccans before it hosted the event that served as the continent’s World Cup qualifying tournament on home soil last July. As it posted win after win, however, the country’s stadiums started to fill with fans, many of them seeing the team play for the first time.
In a country where soccer is revered but where interest in the women’s game is a new phenomenon, that success raised the team’s profile. “They showed us that they can fill stadiums and make Moroccans happy,” the team’s French coach, Reynald Pedros, said. “They did it on the African stage. Now we are hoping to do the same on the international one.”