Beliveau: This is a positive era
Women's football is not only in excellent health, it continues to go from strength to strength. One need look no further for proof than the FIFA Women's World Cup™, which has come on in leaps and bounds since China PR hosted the first event in 1991. Now in its seventh edition, the competition is experiencing great success, with Canada 2015 heralding a number of new developments, including the rise from 16 to 24 teams and the introduction of goal-line technology.
Perhaps no one is better placed to take the pulse of the tournament than Sylvie Beliveau, who has been devoted to the growth of the women's game for over 20 years, and also hails from the host country. The former Canada coach led her side to the 1995 Women's World Cup in Sweden, where she was the only woman at the reins of one of the contenders. Two decades on, eight sides kicked off at Canada 2015 with female coaches, while Beliveau herself has been observing the standard of the competition and the tactical trends as a member of the FIFA Technical Study Group (TSG). FIFA.com caught up with Beliveau after the quarter-finals to get her early impressions on the tournament.
The increase to 24 teams This change meant a rise in the number of groups to six plus an extra round – the Round of 16 – which made it possible for four of the teams finishing third across the six groups to still qualify. For some sides, the opportunity to play another game at World Cup level is a way of picking up priceless experience. The teams who benefited the most from the increase to 24 were the less experienced sides. They were able to increase their exposure and raise their profile both at home and within their confederations, which helps in terms of getting the support they need to prepare for competitions. The rise in the number of teams also meant an extra berth at the tournament for each confederation, which allows more teams to believe they can qualify for the World Cup, thus improving levels of motivation and the standard of the competition.
The performances of the less experienced teams The majority of the newcomers at this World Cup have performed well compared to more established sides. In particular, Cameroon, Switzerland and the Netherlands stood up well to Japan, as did Costa Rica against Brazil. We also have to look at the teams with limited experience. Colombia, for example, were playing in only their second World Cup and have less experience than the likes of Germany, USA or even Australia, but they improved considerably on their performance at their first World Cup in 2011. That's why, when you increase to 24 teams, you have to accept that everyone deserves to be there, as long as you give them time. When you change a rule like that, you have to wait four or eight years to see the fruits of it.
The trends in the game It's been interesting to see a whole variety of styles of play. Certain teams have a more 'individualistic' style, such as Colombia or Cameroon, who have special players capable of making the difference, whereas for sides with greater experience a more collective approach has taken hold.
Another trend has been the ability of players to fulfil several different roles. There are more and more full-backs who are capable of playing in midfield or out on the wing, and that forces central defenders to become playmakers. They cannot just defend: they have to read the game, provide good passes and make good decisions. Japan were already masters of this versatility, with midfielders who can operate up front. However, it's an especially new development for full-backs. Right now, there are several teams who, as soon as they gain possession in their own half, have full-backs who pour forward and are no longer in a defensive position when their side loses the ball. They move up to the halfway line and sometimes even higher.
We have seen an evolution of the game with teams that are able to play one or two ball touches in tight spaces. Good teams have shown qualities in the variety of offensive game.
The goalkeepers It's been impressive to see how much they have improved in terms of physicality, decision-making and their participation in play, both in defence and attack. This has probably been the best competition ever in terms of the general standard of goalkeeping. Some of them have even been taking free-kicks far from goal, close to the touch line. That shows how much confidence they have, because the player then has to get back into position. Mentally too, it shows they are prepared to take that risk and make the effort.
The role of coaches Out of the 24 sides, eight had women coaches, and that was especially true of the newcomers like Switzerland, Ecuador, Costa Rica or Thailand. The role of coach has evolved significantly since the first few World Cups. It's obviously still the same job to an extent, but we're talking about two different worlds. Nowadays you get a 'big team behind the team', and the coach has to manage that as well. If there are problems at staff level, it tends to have an impact on the standard of the players and the team. The challenge before was working without personnel, and trying to study opponents without the necessary tools. Everything has now become accessible thanks to videos of games and detailed analysis, which every coach can get hold of to constantly study the opposition. The game becomes interesting as a result because a coach needs to be able to adapt during the match. Since you know your opponent inside-out, you have to be able to surprise, change and adapt to changes during the game – and that's become an important factor.
The road ahead A study of averages (age, size and number of selections) performed during the competition for each team shows that the teams qualified for the semi-finals are in the 1st row of the rankings (excluding Japan on the average sizes ). The statistics clearly can not lead to conclusions, but we can still think that to be competitive at the highest level, you have to have a long experience of a player, having played many international games, and have tall players (or as for Japan, size is made up by exceptional technical qualities and a lot of mobility to avoid duels).
The commitment of the federations, to give the national teams the means to progress, is crucial. The purpose of the federations is to have the best performance in the World Cup. For this, they should provide additional resources in the preparation of their team, have the necessary time between the end of the championships and the start of the competition, and adapt to the reality of women's football: we have a mix of professional and amateurs.
The raised profile of women's football Canada played their first World Cup match on 6 June 1995, and exactly 20 years later they played their first match of the current tournament. Canada played their second game of the 2015 edition on 11 June, but by 11 June 1995 they had already finished their debut campaign, with matches on 6, 8 and 10 June. That's one example, but it goes for all the teams. Before, we used to play at a World Cup to justify our existence and we still had no profile at all. Now, women's football has earned its place. The players deserve their rest days, while goal-line technology, which has no gender, has been introduced in the women's game. That shows that things have progressed. This is a positive era, but there is still some instability and lessons to be learned.