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Update on the Women’s World Cup: is football coming home again?

England have done well in the group stage of the Women’s World Cup, setting up a last-16 match against Nigeria. But the United States – usually dominant in the women’s game – have underperformed, scraping through to the knock-out round. This bolsters the chances of the Lionesses lifting the trophy.

Last week, as the first ball was being kicked at the World Cup, we suggested that the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) was by some distance the most likely team to win the competition. As it’s turned out, but for the width of a goalpost, Portugal may have eliminated the overwhelming favourites. The USWNT beat Vietnam comfortably, as they were expected to, but then despite having an 80% chance of beating the Netherlands, they stumbled to a 1-1 draw, and against Portugal, they had a 92% probability of winning.

But this is football. And to add to the sense that this has been a surprising World Cup so far, Germany, twice winners of the tournament and European Championship finalists in England last year, have gone home after losing to Colombia (4% chance) and drawing with South Korea (9% chance).

Canada, the Olympic champions, have also been eliminated after labouring to a win over Ireland, drawing with Nigeria (10% chance) and being thrashed by hosts Australia (21% chance). And Brazil – a traditional powerhouse of the men’s game, as well as being a top-10 team in women’s football – have already left the tournament after losing 2-0 to France and being held by Jamaica (11% chance).

England’s start was slow – with narrow 1-0 wins over Haiti (expected goals, xG, 5.6) and Denmark (xG 2) – before an explosive 6-1 win against China (xG 2.3) sealed the Lionesses’ place in the Round of 16. Does all this mean that England are more likely to ‘bring it home’ again? The bookmakers certainly think so, installing England as favourites, even above the United States.

We have also updated our projections for the tournament (see Table 1). We are not quite as bullish as the bookmakers on England, but the Lionesses’ chances of winning the World Cup have jumped from around 2% before a ball was kicked to 11% after the group stage.

The USWNT’s chances have fallen from around 60% down to just 17.6% after their unconvincing showing so far, and their resulting tough last-16 assignment against Sweden (ranked third in the world by FIFA, and fifth in the world by our Elo ratings). If the US beat Sweden, they then face either Japan or Norway, both former World Cup winners. While the US are still a fearsome proposition in the women’s game, their mediocre performances so far have left them with a much more difficult route through the knock-out stages.

Table 1: Percentage chance of progress through the tournament

CountryElo (pre-groups)Elo (post-groups)Quarter-finalsSemi-finalsFinalWinner
South Africa1075108136.71165.322.06
Source: Results from and, author’s tournament simulation based on Elo rating calculations.

France are just behind the US at 15.5%. This in part reflects a relatively ‘easier’ path through the Round of 16 (Morocco) and quarter-finals (Australia or Denmark). But like the US, the French team struggled in the group stage, being held surprisingly by Jamaica (6% chance) before trailing and conceding three goals to Panama (who had just a 3% chance of winning the game) in a 6-3 win.

England face Nigeria in the Round of 16 and have an 88% chance of winning that match, and after that they face the winners of the match between Jamaica and Colombia. England against France is the most likely semi-final match-up (18%), reflecting the point that both teams are most likely to reach. Given their similar Elo ratings, such a match would be expected to be very close. The most likely semi-final in the other half of the draw is the US against either the Netherlands (14.1%) or Spain (13.8%).

What does all this mean? It appears to suggest that the women’s game is showing a greater depth of competitiveness than perhaps it has been credited with. Alex Krumer on Twitter has documented this, looking at total goals (2.63 per game) and the goal difference (1.92 per game), noting that this is better than might be expected given the World Cup has expanded to 32 teams this year.

More broadly, in the 372 women’s international matches in 2023 so far, there has been on average three goals per game, and an average goal difference of 1.95 per game (similar numbers to the group stage of this World Cup). In 2019, though, at the World Cup group stage, the goal difference was 2.06 compared with 2.73 in the 571 women’s international matches that year, and the total goals stood at 2.94 at the World Cup and 3.7 in all matches.

Tighter, lower scoring matches are indicative of better organised teams and greater competitiveness. And through its expansion, the World Cup is broadcasting a more accurate picture of women’s football around the globe. It is becoming much more competitive, much higher quality, and closing the gap on the men’s game, which has had a great deal longer time in which to develop. In the men’s international game, the total goals has been at 2.7 since the mid-1970s (when its World Cup expanded), and the goal difference at about 1.7.

In economic terms, this can be thought of as a case of convergence. Growth theory shows that where production technology is similar, poorer countries will catch up with richer ones. The production technology in football is a ball and something to count as goalposts.

More broadly, there is much human capital in football – tactical knowledge, understanding regarding conditioning of the human body, and recovery from injuries. Thomas Peeters and colleagues have documented the international transfer of know-how within men’s football, and it seems plausible that the same process has been taking place in the women’s game. Stefan Szymanski and Melanie Krause have found convergence within the men’s game, and again it seems reasonable to think that this has happened in the women’s game.

So far, this year’s Women’s World Cup has shown that teams are evenly matched, creating exciting games for spectators. From an England perspective, there could (with an 11% chance) well be another major trophy on the way. On a wider level, the success of the first stage of the tournament points to positive progress in the overall status of the women’s game. Whichever team ends up lifting the World Cup, this competition is cause for optimism.

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Author: James Reade
Picture by Batuhan Toker on iSplash
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