New linchpins emerge on the road Down Under

  • FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying in Europe has been dominated by established powers

  • Some new and returning stars have been making their mark for the continent’s giants

  • We look at five players who’ve become mainstays after missing out on starring roles at France 2019

Europe’s heavyweights have been flexing their muscles during the continent’s FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™ qualifiers.

But while familiar names peer down from the sections’ summits, their impressive campaigns have often been underpinned by players who’ve only recently come – or returned – to prominence.

With France, Spain and Sweden already assured of their places, and England, Germany and Norway firmly on course to join them, FIFA+ looks at five players who didn’t dazzle in 2019 but seem sure to star in 2023.

Leah Williamson (ENG)

Though Beth Mead has brought the goals and Lauren Hemp the attacking inspiration, Williamson is the rock on which Sarina Wiegman has chosen to build her Lionesses. The Arsenal stalwart, who was a bit-part player at France 2019 - playing just six minutes of the team’s four knockout-stage matches – was recently installed as the team’s new captain, a role in which she has succeeded the long-serving Steph Houghton.

The 25-year-old has made herself one of the first names on Wiegman’s teamsheet not as a centre-back, the position in which she continues to excel for her club, but as a dominant, assured holding midfielder in the England engine room.

The quote "Leah is a great player and she connects people on and off the pitch, so that’s why I made her captain. I followed her before I came in here as the manage - she’s a very talented player. Now she has so many more high-level and high-intensity games in her legs and in her brain. That’s really helped her.” Sarina Wiegman, England manager

ALICANTE, SPAIN - APRIL 07: Ona Batlle of Spain looks on during the international women friendly match between Spain and Brazil at Jose Rico Perez Stadium on April 07, 2022 in Alicante, Spain. (Photo by Aitor Alcalde Colomer/Getty Images)

Ona Batlle (ESP)

Sensational in attack during the 2023 qualifiers, Spain have also yet to concede a goal. The only ever-present in that seemingly unbreachable defence has been a 22-year-old right-back who didn’t even make the squad for France 2019. Batlle, who grew up in Barcelona idolising the buccaneering Dani Alves, has also contributed six assists to reinforce her value to La Roja at both ends of the park.

The quote “Since she was a child, it was really clear that Ona wanted to be among the best players. She always tries to give her best, to improve herself. She is a player you can trust. And she's not an inconsistent player – she’s always on the top. She could be soon among the best defenders in the world.” Jorge Vilda, Spain coach

Marie-Antoinette Katoto (FRA)

Omitting Katoto from France’s 2019 squad was contentious even at the time, and it’s hard to imagine that - privately at least - Corinne Diacre doesn’t regret that decision now. The PSG striker has been sensational since returning to the Bleues’ fold, firing the team to glory at the Tournoi de France and contributing ten goals in just eight appearances during the Women’s World Cup qualifiers.

A starring role in Australia and New Zealand now seems assured for this dynamic and prolific 23-year-old.

The quote "Our personalities are different. I would like to have some of his confidence. I'm not saying I'm not confident, but I need to find a good balance. When I don't score for one, two or three matches, I start to overthink it.” Katoto on being compared to Kylian Mbappe

Lea Schuller (GER)

Though long regarded as one of Germany’s hottest prospects, this talented forward was unable to make a major impression at the 2019 Women’s World Cup. Schuller’s status and influence has continued to grow in the time since though, and her coronation as the country’s player of the year for 2021 reflected her dazzling form for both the national team and Bayern Munich.

The player herself insists that she “hasn’t reached her limit” and “still has potential she wants to exploit”, but a team-leading haul of 11 goals from seven 2023 qualifying appearances has cemented her position as Germany’s player to watch.

The quote "She needed time, but she has gone through a process of maturity and change. Lea has taken the next step." Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, Germany coach

Ada Hegerberg (NOR)

A new star? Hardly. But after a five-year period in international exile which took in the last World Cup, the UEFA Women’s Champions League’s all-time leading scorer is back with a bang.

A hat-trick in her comeback appearance – a 5-1 win over Kosovo – made for a triumphant return, and fortified Norway’s position at the top of Group F. It also raised hopes that, with one of the greatest players of her generation again within their ranks, the 2019 quarter-finalists could go even further in 2023.

The quote "Naturally, this is a piece of the puzzle that will be important to us. It will hopefully give us an X factor. Ada is after all one of the world's best strikers." Martin Sjogren, Norway coach