Many predictions didn’t have a single African side making it out of the group stages at the Women’s World Cup, but the continent has once again ripped up the form book – just as it did at Qatar 2022 for the men’s tournament.
Nigeria, South Africa and tournament debutants Morocco have all stamped their tickets to the knockout round of the tournament in Australia and New Zealand, ensuring the presence of three African teams in the tournament’s last 16 for the first time ever.
Zambia fell short of making it four out of four African nations, finishing third in Group C behind two of the competition’s strongest sides, Japan and Spain. Yet the tournament’s lowest FIFA world-ranked team (77th) bowed out in style, claiming their first ever Women’s World Cup win with a 3-1 victory over Costa Rica.
For the three remaining African sides, dreams of replicating – or even surpassing – Morocco’s achievement of reaching the semifinals at Qatar 2022 remain very real.
No team left it as late to qualify from the group stage as South Africa.
Locked at 2-2 with Italy heading into injury time, Banyana Banyana needed a win to leapfrog their opponents into second place in Group G and make into the last 16.
Having suffered an agonizing last-minute defeat to Sweden and surrendered a two-goal lead against Argentina, it looked set to be more World Cup heartbreak for South Africa, who lost all three group games on their 2019 debut.
But Thembi Kgatlana had other ideas, tapping home Hildah Magaia’s pull back to secure South Africa’s first ever Women’s World Cup win and a place in the knockout stages with the flick of a boot.
Racing Louisville striker Kgatlana has been in irrepressible form at the tournament, notching a pair of goals and assists apiece. It marks a remarkable response for a player who was sidelined for most of 2022 following an Achilles injury and lined up against Italy in the wake of great personal loss.
“Over the last two weeks, I’ve lost three family members. I could have gone home but I chose to stay with my girls,” Kgatlana told reporters. “Because that’s how much it means.”
On Sunday, a stern test awaits in the Netherlands. Finalists in 2019, the Dutch were in stellar form in Group E, beating Portugal and holding the US Women’s National Team – the two-time reigning champion – to a draw before crushing Vietnam 7-0 to top the section.
South Africa vs. Netherlands, Sydney Football Stadium, Sunday 3 a.m. GMT (11 p.m. Saturday EDT)
It might have featured two scoreless draws, but Nigeria’s route to the last 16 was not short on drama.
A penalty save from goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie helped the Super Falcons to an impressive 0-0 draw against reigning Olympic champion Canada in their opening Group B game. A solid start for a side who arrived at the tournament having conceded more goals at the World Cup than any other team.
A bout with co-hosts Australia served up one of the games of the tournament so far Nigeria stunned Brisbane Stadium with a thrilling 3-2 victory.
Uchenna Kanu cancelled out Australia’s opener before Osinachi Ohale and Asisat Oshoala powered Nigeria ahead. Australia’s Alanna Kennedy pulled one back in the 10th minute of injury time to tee up a grandstand finish, but Nigeria held firm to complete a famous victory.
A 0-0 draw against already eliminated Republic of Ireland was enough to see Nigeria progress from the group stages for the third time in their history but saw them surrender top spot in the section to Australia after the co-hosts dismantled Canada 4-0.
What would have been a match-up against Group D runners up Denmark is now a showdown with reigning European champion England. To go any further, the Super Falcons will have to stop a team with a perfect record at the tournament so far and beat European opposition at the Women’s World Cup for only the second time in their history.
The first came courtesy of a 2-0 victory against Denmark on their tournament debut in 1999, yet Nigeria are winless in the subsequent 12 matches against European sides.
With Chelsea star Lauren James headlining an array of dazzling attacking talents for the Lionesses, Nigeria will be calling on midfielder Christy Ucheibe to continue her stellar defensive form. The Benfica star has made 18 tackles at the tournament so far, more than any other player.
Nigeria vs. England, Brisbane Stadium, Monday 8:30am GMT (04:30 am EDT)
If few had tipped Morocco to make it out of Group H, even less would have done so after they were crushed 6-0 by tournament heavyweights Germany on their Women’s World Cup debut.
It left a number Moroccan players strewed across the pitch in despair, but they picked themselves up to make history in their second game against South Korea. Striker Ibtissam Jraidi’s goal, the country’s first ever at the tournament, secured a surprise 1-0 win.
More history was made as Nouhaila Benzina became the first player to wear a hijab at a senior-level Women’s World Cup, and the defender came close to doubling the lead with a well-struck volley.
It left Morocco needing to better Germany’s result in their final group match against a Colombia side enjoying an excellent campaign with two wins from two.
Once again the North Africans once upset the odds, Anissa Lahmari’s strike on the stroke of half-time enough to eke out another 1-0 victory.
The nail-biting wasn’t done yet though, as the squad gathered round mobile phones to await Germany’s result. As news trickled through that South Korea had held the Europeans to a draw in Brisbane, bedlam ensued in Perth, as Moroccan players celebrated a historic achievement and a date with France on Tuesday.
The Atlas Lionesses will be hoping to avenge the Atlas Lions, whose 2-0 defeat to France in the semifinals of the men’s World Cup in Qatar nine months ago brought an end to the greatest ever run by an African team at the tournament.
Morocco vs France, Hindmarsh Stadium, Tuesday at 12pm GMT (8:00 am EDT)