By ZACH ALLEN Associated Press
AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — For Portugal coach Francisco Neto, his team’s accomplishment hit him during the national anthem.
After all the preparation and 13 qualifying matches, Portugal, like seven other countries, made its debut at this year’s Women’s World Cup. Being here became real for Neto during the pregame ceremony before his side’s opening match July 23 against the Netherlands as “A Portuguesa” played.
“The first time we heard the anthem,” Neto said when asked a moment he cherished at the tournament.
“It was our first World Cup,” he continued. “It was the first time we were there, and we could sing our song. So, I’m very proud of that moment.”
The group stage was the source of enormous national pride for Portugal, the Philippines, Vietnam, Panama, Ireland, Haiti, Zambia and Morocco, all newcomers to the highest level of international women’s soccer.
The debutants played hard, played with spirit and half of them picked up their first Women’s World Cup win. The debuting nations combined for five wins, two draws and 17 losses.
Morocco defied expectations and made the round of 16 with a thrilling upset of Colombia on the final night of the group stage, but the rest of the newcomers were eliminated.
“It’s (the) World Cup. The pressure is so high. We are growing inside the pressure, and that is amazing,” Neto said. “For our players, it is something we need to build because the media, the sponsors, the supporters — everything is different for us. We never have this kind of opportunity.”
Just playing in the tournament is a step in the right direction.
The newcomers were able to compete against some of the strongest sides in the world, many for the first time. Vietnam, for example, had never played any of the three teams — United States, Netherlands and Portugal — in its group until the Women’s World Cup.
The 2023 edition of the tournament was the largest to date, expanding from 24 teams to 32 as women’s soccer continues to grow. It wasn’t planned that the expansion would feature eight new teams, it’s just the way qualification went. But it did give all the debuting teams a chance to learn.
“In this process we have learned to compete,” Panama defender Wendy Natis said. “I don’t think it’s easy to be here. We went through several friendlies and preparation tournaments where we faced countries who are quite large in women’s football.”
Zambia was the lowest-ranked team at the World Cup by a long way, No. 77 in FIFA’s world rankings. The Copper Queens didn’t get lucky with their group drawing either, having to play two top-15 ranked countries in Spain and Japan.
Still, the Zambians were able to pull out a 3-1 win in their final game against Costa Rica, joining Morocco, Philippines and Portugal as the four newcomers to win a match. Portugal topped all debuting countries with a ranking of 21st in the world.
“It’s our first time being here and we are gaining experience day by day, we are improving day by day,” Zambian forward Racheal Kundananji said. “There is no need to be sad. We just need to go back and think of our mistakes.
“Because this is not our last game or our last World Cup.”
The debuting countries connected on only 12 goals, but the shots that did find the back of the net were milestones.
The Philippines was the first newcomer to score, behind a Sarina Bolden header in the country’s second match against co-host New Zealand. It turned out to be the game winner in a 1-0 match.
The Filipinas’ supporters in Wellington erupted, while Bolden’s teammates tried to chase her down as she sprinted away in excitement.
“It was like an out-of-body experience for me to be honest with you,” Philippines defender Jessika Cowart said. “It was an amazing moment. I think it took a little bit for the gravity of it all to sink in, but it was an amazing moment for the team, for the country.”
There is still a lot of work to be done for the debuting countries to become familiar Women’s World Cup competitors, and some are better off than others.
Vietnam finished its tournament with three losses and a minus-12 goal differential, capped off by a whopping 7-0 loss to the Netherlands.
But all paths led back to pride in representing their country for the first time at the Women’s World Cup. For Vietnam specifically, it was the first World Cup in which the Vietnamese, men or women, had ever competed.
“I think the effort has been great and I’d like to thank Vietnam for supporting us. We have been trained and we have matches with strong teams already,” coach Mai Duc Chung said. “In the coming time we’ll have many things to do. First, you’ll see that the players will go back to Vietnam and be good examples for the younger people to train and improve.”
Zach Allen is a student in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.
Contributors included Luke Vargas in Hamilton and Ellen McIntyre in Dunedin, New Zealand, both students in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State, and Anna Ruth Riggins in Sydney, a student at the University of Georgia’s Carmical Sports Media Institute.