The World Cup campaign of the England women’s national football team begins on Saturday. The United States are clear favourites to lift the trophy for the third consecutive time. But having won the European women’s championship last summer, the Lionesses may just go all the way.
Women’s football has been getting much more of the attention it deserves in recent years. When England’s Lionesses won the UEFA Euro 2022 tournament, they did so in front of 87,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. Since, there has been a 30% increase in registered women’s football teams and a 15% rise in women’s youth teams (Football Association, FA, 2022).
This growth in women’s football is promising, but many fans still don’t really know too much about the 32 countries competing, from Argentina to Zambia, in the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
We can use the Elo rating system for all 32 contestants in the World Cup to get a sense of this A-to-Z of the women’s game. In Table 1 we calculate Elo ratings based on all recorded international results in the women’s game over the last couple of decades, as per 20 July, the first day of the tournament.
The Elo rating system intuitively updates from every match based on the result relative to the expected result given the relative strengths of the teams taking part.
The favourites are fairly clear from the ratings and any brief understanding of women’s football – it’s the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) that dominates here. They have won half of the eight Women’s World Cups that have taken place since 1991, including the two most recent tournaments.
Aside from the USWNT, the usual European suspects are at the top of the table, with France, Germany (twice World Cup winners), England, Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands making up the next six positions.
The women’s team from Argentina (winners of the men’s World Cup) has the fourth worst Elo rating. But the worst team, according to these ratings, is co-host New Zealand, who surprised many by beating Norway in the tournament’s opening match.
In Table 1 we also produce the official FIFA rankings as a comparison. There is quite a bit of noise – Zambia, ranked 30 by Elo, has the lowest FIFA rank in the competition of 77. This relatively low correlation (about 0.4) may reflect the relative infancy of the women’s game relative to the men’s game, but the top six are quite consistent (only France switching with Sweden). The USWNT tops both rankings.
Table 1: Elo ratings of World Cup contestants, and their corresponding FIFA ranking
|Rank||Country||Elo rating||FIFA Rank|
Source: Results from www.worldfootball.net and www.soccerbase.com, author’s Elo rating calculations, and www.fifa.com for FIFA rankings.
England’s success in the Euros last summer means that expectations are heightened – although injuries to crucial players have undoubtedly tempered hopes somewhat.This is also the World Cup, where the United States have traditionally dominated.
How have things changed though since July 2019, when the United States defeated England 2-1 in the semi-final of that year’s World Cup in France? And since the USWNT followed that up by beating the Netherlands 2-0 in the final of the tournament?
In the time since, England’s women brought football home, beating the men to it. That was the European championship. Can they go that bit further and really bring football home this year? Have England closed the gap on the USWNT?
Figure 1 plots the difference between England’s Elo rating and that of the United States, over the years. Up to 2021, the difference was around 300 – this kind of difference means that England only ever had about a 15% chance of beating USWNT in a match-up. In the last two years, that difference has shrunk to only about 100 – which gives the Lionesses a 35% chance against the US team.
Figure 1: Difference in USWNT and England Elo ratings
Source: Results from www.worldfootball.net and www.soccerbase.com, author’s Elo rating calculations.
Note: Constructed using an adjustment factor, K, of 20.
What about the outcomes we might expect from the tournament? Naturally, expectations align well with the ratings and rankings. The 32-team structure with seeded draws for groups ensures that, to a large extent.
The USWNT is most likely to lift a fifth World Cup on 20 August at 39%, followed by France at 22% to win their first title, Germany at 13% to pick up their third, and England at 10% to win their first.
Table 2: Percentage chance of progress through the tournament
|Country||Elo rating||Last 16||Quarter-finals||Semi-finals||Final||Winner|
Source: Results from www.worldfootball.net and www.soccerbase.com, author’s tournament simulation based on Elo rating calculations.
What is England’s most probable route to the final? The Lionesses are very likely to win their group, at 85%. This would mean that they face Group B’s runner-up in the last 16 – that’s co-hosts Australia with a 40% chance or Canada with a 37% chance.
Assuming they dispatch those opponents, traditional rivals Germany are the most likely opponent in the quarter-finals. The German women are very likely (92%) to top their group and hence progress to face England in the quarter-finals with a 71% chance.
If England can get past Germany – as they did at Wembley in the European championship final – then their semi-final opponents are most likely to be France (59%, conditional on England getting that far). If England make the final, then the USWNT is their most likely opponent (76%).
Where can I find out more?
- Women’s and girls' game sees growth after a memorable year: November 2022 report from the FA.
- World football Elo ratings: Ratings for national football teams.
- Evaluating strange forecasts: The curious case of football match scorelines: study by James Reade and colleagues.
- Going with your gut: The (in)accuracy of forecast revisions in a football score prediction game: research paper by James Reade and colleagues.
- Handbook on the Economics of Women in Sports: book edited by Eva Marikova Leeds and Michael A. Leeds.
Who are experts on this question?
- Alex Krumer, Molde University College
- James Reade, University of Reading
- Carl Singleton, University of Reading
- Simon Gleave, Gracenote
- Daniele Paserman, Boston University
- Eva Marikova Leeds, Moravian University