There will be 552 players representing 24 countries at the World Cup in France. Some are household names. Many are not. Here’s a primer before the tournament begins Friday.
Best World Cup Finish: Fourth place in 2011, when it lost to the United States in the semifinals.
The Runup: The host nation, France qualified automatically. Les Bleues have shown impressive technical ability and are unbeaten since February. Perhaps more important, France is 2-0-1 in its past three meetings against the United States, a potential opponent in the quarterfinals.
Player You Should Know: France’s vice captain and No. 9, Eugénie Le Sommer, has made more than 150 appearances and scored more than 70 goals for her country, and she just won her sixth Champions League title with Olympique Lyonnais Féminin.
What to Expect: Les Bleues, fourth in the current FIFA world ranking, are in top form and, riding home crowds and a manageable group, should easily move on to the knockout rounds. The biggest tests await there, as does the chance to join France’s men’s team as world champions. No country has held both titles at once.
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 in 2015.
The Runup: Although the Taegeuk Ladies, as the team is known, did not concede a goal in the group phase of the Asian qualifying tournament, two scoreless ties meant the team lost a tiebreaker with Australia and Japan in its group and needed to win a playoff against the Philippines for the fifth, and final, Asian berth in France.
Players You Should Know: While Ji So-yun is South Korea’s career goals leader with 54, the midfielder and captain Cho So-hyun is the team’s most-capped player, meaning she has played in the most international matches. One of only three South Koreans who plays abroad, she has spoken positively about what her time at England’s West Ham Women has meant for her development and her confidence.
What to Expect: After reaching the second round in Canada four years ago, where it was eliminated by France, South Korea returns to the World Cup with more experience and a bit of mettle. But poor results against regional rivals and European opponents suggest the program still has a way to go.
Best World Cup Finish: Champion in 1995.
The Runup: Norway went 7-1 and surrendered only four goals in European qualifying, winning its group and forcing the Netherlands, the European champion, into a playoff. It was Norway’s best-ever result in qualifying.
Players You Should Know: Norway’s most talented player, the Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg, is absent; she has declined to play for the national team as part of her protest of the Norwegian soccer federation’s treatment of the women’s side. So look for Maren Mjelde, a midfielder for Chelsea but a defender for her country, to anchor the squad. Mjelde scored one of the sweetest free-kick goals in Women’s World Cup history in 2015.
What to Expect: Norway’s dream World Cup is one that matches the feat of the 1995 squad, which beat England, Canada, the United States and Germany to claim the trophy. A more realistic one is beating its 2015 journey, which ended with a loss to England in the round of 16.
Best World Cup Finish: Quarterfinals in 1999.
The Runup: Long the dominant power in Africa, Nigeria had a harder time in the Africa Cup of Nations — which serves as the continent’s qualifying tournament — than in past editions. The Super Falcons lost their first match in the group phase to South Africa, and needed to win penalty shootouts in both the semifinals and the final. Nigeria is the only African team to qualify for all eight Women’s World Cups.
Player You Should Know: Asisat Oshoala, a 24-year-old forward signed to Barcelona, is a three-time African player of the year. She won the award for the first time in 2015, only months after she led Nigeria to the final of the under-20 World Cup.
What to Expect: Nigeria’s success in Africa has rarely translated to the World Cup, where it has advanced out of the group stage only once in seven previous appearances. An 8-0 defeat to France in a 2018 friendly was not a good omen, but the Swedish coach Thomas Dennerby has had more than a year to work out the kinks.
Best World Cup Finish: Champion in 2003 and 2007.
The Runup: Germany stumbled to its first-ever home defeat in qualifying when it lost to Iceland by 3-2 in October, but that was the only bump: The Germans won their seven other qualifiers by shutout and cruised to France with a plus-35 goal difference in eight games. They are unbeaten this year, with wins over France and Sweden and a draw against well-regarded Japan.
Players You Should Know: Germany’s captain, Dzsenifer Marozsan, led her team to the Olympic gold medal in 2016, but it is the 21-year-old midfielder Lea Schüller who might be worth watching: She scored the winner against France in February and already has eight goals in 12 games for the senior national team.
What to Expect: The Germans sit just behind the top-ranked United States in FIFA’s world ranking and are due for a big World Cup. Is this the year they match the United States for the most titles?
Best World Cup Finish: Second place in 1999.
The Runup: China qualified easily for France by sweeping its group at the Asian Cup, but it lost to Japan, 3-1, in the semifinals of that event and then finished last in the Algarve Cup, a major winter tournament, earlier this year. A 2-1 defeat against France in a friendly last week was a better omen.
Player You Should Know: The 24-year-old midfielder Wang Shuang, who plays for Paris St.-Germain, is China’s most creative, and most indispensable, player. She also has a knack for big moments: It was her goal that gave China a 1-0 victory over the United States in Abby Wambach’s farewell game in 2015.
What to Expect: With China, one never knows. Host of the first World Cup and runner-up in 1999 — when the Chinese were a goal-line clearance away from victory — China has not advanced out of the quarterfinals since.
Best World Cup Finish: Group stage in 2015, the country’s first World Cup.
The Runup: Few teams have risen as quickly as Spain’s women, who were the first European team to claim a World Cup spot after going 8-0 — with only two goals against — in qualifying. Spain’s 2019 schedule has been full of optimistic results: one-goal losses to the United States and England, and victories over World Cup-bound Brazil, Cameroon and the Netherlands.
Players You Should Know: Veteran Vicky Losada is one of 10 Barcelona players on Spain’s roster, but her club teammate Patri Guijarro, 21, is a symbol of Spain’s rise, and its promise: She won the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot when Spain made the final of the under-20 World Cup last summer.
What to Expect: The team has been working with the motto #JugarLucharYGanar — Play, Fight, Win — and it will take that spirit to France. Spain’s optimism is based on its unblemished journey through qualifying and some solid recent results at the youth level. A run to the knockout round should be the minimum expected.
Best World Cup Finish: This is South Africa’s first World Cup.
The Runup: South Africa booked its World Cup debut after finishing second to Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations, though it’s worth noting it beat Nigeria in the group stage and only lost the final on penalties. The bigger issue may be non-African competition: South Africa hasn’t won a game since November, and among its results in 2019 are heavy defeats to North Korea, Finland, the United States and Norway.
Player You Should Know: The captain and defender Janine van Wyk, she of the spiked and occasionally colored hair, has more caps than any South Africa player, man or woman.
What to Expect: The wonderfully nicknamed Banyana Banyana have started to make strides but for the most part are still finding their way. That most likely will not be enough to advance out of this group.
Best World Cup Finish: Quarterfinalist in 2007, 2011 and 2015.
The Runup: Australia lost to Japan in the final of the Asian Cup, which served as the continent’s qualifying tournament. But its decision to fire coach Alen Stajcic in January after two confidential team surveys found what was described as “a culture of fear” in the team disrupted World Cup preparations, and even shocked a few of its best players. Ante Milicic, a former assistant with the men’s national team, was brought in to put things back together and lead the team in France.
Player You Should Know: Any self-respecting women’s soccer fan should be familiar with Sam Kerr, the 25-year-old striker who made her senior team debut at 15. Anyone who doesn’t know her name surely will by the end of this month. Now Australia’s captain, Kerr has been virtually unstoppable even after recuperating from foot surgery. Stajcic once called her “without question the world’s most dangerous player” in the attacking third of the field. It would be hard to find someone to argue with him.
What to Expect: The Matildas went out in the quarterfinals in the past three World Cups. Coaching turmoil or not, that simply will not be good enough this time, especially with Kerr in her prime.
Best World Cup Finish: Quarterfinalist in 1991.
The Runup: The Azzurre had struggled to return to the World Cup since being eliminated in the group stage in 1999, but their two-decade absence is over. The revival was helped, no doubt, by an increased (though belated) investment in women’s soccer by some of Italy’s top clubs.
Players You Should Know: Striker Cristiana Girelli scored seven goals in the UEFA qualifiers, and Sara Gama — the captain of Italy and Juventus — is the spine of this group. But keep an eye on her Juventus teammate Barbara Bonansea, who has become a midfield force.
What to Expect: Italy’s goal was to qualify for the World Cup after missing the past four. With that accomplished, anything positive will be a bonus. Opening against Australia will be a good test of its improvement, and its nerve.
Best World Cup Finish: Runner-up in 2007.
The Runup: The Canarinhas qualified for their eighth World Cup and did so in style, scoring 31 goals in seven games at the Copa América Femenina while allowing only two.
Players You Should Know: No woman has scored more World Cup goals than Marta’s 15, but in her fifth — and possibly final — World Cup, she is still chasing her first major trophy with Brazil. So is Formiga, who is playing in her seventh World Cup at 41.
What to Expect: Brazil, a participant in every World Cup and a finalist in 2007, nonetheless has been a perpetual underachiever on the game’s biggest stage. For two decades, its whole has somehow managed to be less than the sum of its considerable parts. Now, with a veteran team taking one last shot and expectations lowered amid the rise of other powers, could this finally be the year Brazil goes all the way?
Best World Cup Finish: This is Jamaica’s first World Cup.
The Runup: The Reggae Girlz are the first Caribbean team to book a ticket to the Women’s World Cup, an achievement that came five years after they rose from the ashes of a cut in funding. The turnaround was financed in part by the financial and emotional support of benefactors like Cedella Marley, Bob Marley’s daughter. And the team is built on young players and daughters of the Jamaican diaspora, like Jamaican-American Jody Brown, a Florida high school star who just turned 17.
Player You Should Know: Khadija Shaw, who starred at the University of Tennessee and is known as Bunny, just signed a deal with Nike and is a target of a handful of top clubs. Her 19 goals were the most by any player in this qualifying cycle. Expect her to get a few more in France.
What to Expect: The Reggae Girlz have quite the uphill climb in the group stage: Brazil, Italy and Australia all have World Cup experience and a higher world ranking. But Shaw gives her team a puncher’s chance in any game, and even a single victory will be considered a successful tournament.
Best World Cup Finish: Third place in 2015.
The Runup: England, a semifinalist at the 2015 World Cup and the 2017 European championship, may start its countrymen (and countrywomen) talking about how “it’s coming home” for the second summer in a row. The Lionesses breezed through qualifying, outscoring their opponents by 29-1, and beat Brazil and Japan and tied the United States in the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year.
Players You Should Know: Captain Steph Houghton’s defending was key for England when it won the SheBelieves title, but so was balanced scoring. When Jodie Taylor isn’t the one scoring, she is usually the one making the pass to the player who is.
What to Expect: A quarterfinalist two times in a row (2007 and 2011) and a third-place finisher in Canada four years ago, England will expect to win this group. The team is brimming with confidence and is the beneficiary of huge investments in training and coaching by clubs back home. The sky is the limit.
Best World Cup Finish: This is Scotland’s first World Cup.
The Runup: The Scots, ranked 20th by FIFA, were one of the bigger surprises on the road to France: They got seven wins in the UEFA qualifiers and clinched their group with a win at Albania on the final day.
Players You Should Know: Forward Jane Ross and midfielder Kim Little, the vice captain who came roaring back after an injury that kept her out of Euro 2017, both have 126 caps for the team and more than 50 goals apiece. Caroline Weir, the team’s No. 9, is also angling to take her F.A. Women’s Super League experience to the world stage.
What to Expect: Scotland will arrive wearing tweed and will open with a match against England — eager to avenge a 6-0 defeat to the Lionesses at the last Euros. The roster’s club experience in England, but also in Sweden, Italy and the United States, could give the Scots a leg up against Argentina, though, and a possible lifeline into the knockouts as a third-place team in this group.
Best World Cup Finish: Last place in its group in two previous appearances (2003 and 2007).
The Runup: The Albiceleste almost did not make it to France after finishing third in the Copa América Femenina, but the fact that they did — surviving a rugged playoff against Panama — speaks volumes. Argentina did not play a single international match nor did it have coaching staff from 2015 through the end of 2017, when the players went on strike over continuing issues with the federation over its support (or lack thereof) of women’s soccer.
Players You Should Know: Belén Potassa is one of a select few on this team who played in the 2007 World Cup, when she was 17, and Estefanía Banini has been called the female Messi. (There’s always a female Messi.) But don’t lose sight of forward Soledad Jaimes, the first Argentine to win the Women’s Champion’s League, or Florencia Bonsegundo, who clinched the team’s place in France with a goal from near the corner flag that was both confusing and spectacular.
What to Expect: Argentina has not played in the World Cup in 12 years and opens with games against the former champions Japan and England, so even the players are moderating expectations. “Argentina has never had a win in a World Cup,” Bonsegundo told Fifa.com. “So we believe we could and want to get one.”
Best World Cup Finish: Champion in 2011.
The Runup: Nadeshiko, as the team is known, qualified easily out of Asia and has posted some interesting results this year, including a win against Brazil and a 2-2 draw against the United States in the SheBelieves Cup.
Player You Should Know: Saki Kumagai converted the final penalty kick in the 2011 final, then did the same to clinch Olympique Lyonnais Féminin’s victory in the 2016 Champions League final. A year later, she scored in the shootout again as Lyon retained its title. She is now Japan’s captain.
What to Expect: Ranked seventh in the world after a retooling process that brought in a host of younger players, Japan probably will go deep into the knockout phase. If it ends up in a penalty shootout there, keep an eye on Kumagai.
Best World Cup Finish: Fourth place in 2003.
The Runup: Although Canada wound up second in CONCACAF, the federation that governs soccer in North America, after a 2-0 loss to the United States in the feisty final of the qualifying tournament, it is capable of scoring goals by the bucket. That loss was the team’s only defeat in the last year, and since then, Canada has beaten the World Cup teams Norway, Scotland, England, Sweden and Nigeria.
Player You Should Know: Christine Sinclair, who turns 36 during the group stage, is the beating heart of this team: A 14-time Canadian player of the year, she arrives in France needing only four goals to break Abby Wambach’s international record of 184.
What to Expect: Canada will be desperate to send Sinclair into her (expected) international retirement with a better showing than its quarterfinal effort as the host in 2015. The Canadians will fear no opponent, and they will be a tough out.
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 in 2015, Cameroon’s first World Cup.
The Runup: Cameroon beat Mali for the final African berth in November and then didn’t play again for six months. Its only two official matches since qualification — a 4-0 loss to Spain and a 4-0 victory against the Spanish club Levante — make the team tough to read. A January coaching change makes assessing the team’s plans and style even more difficult.
Player You Should Know: Christine Manie, a defender and the oldest player on the squad at 35, is Cameroon’s captain and helped secure both of the team’s World Cup qualifications. She scored an extra-time goal against Ivory Coast to clinch the 2015 trip and had the last of four goals in November’s win over Mali.
What to Expect: Cameroon’s lack of competitive matches wasn’t the best preparation for the World Cup. A difficult group won’t make its task any easier.
Best World Cup Finish: Group stage (1991, 2007, 2011, 2015).
The Runup: The Football Ferns claimed the Oceania Nations Cup for the fourth straight time without conceding a goal, and with consecutive 8-0 victories in the semifinals (New Caledonia) and final (Fiji). In fact, their qualification out of Oceania has become automatic since Australia moved out of the OFC and into Asia’s confederation in 2006.
Player You Should Know: Abby Erceg has retired from the national team twice since 2017, in part because of a fight with the federation about support for the program, but she has been coaxed back into the fold for a fourth World Cup trip.
What to Expect: New Zealand has never made it past the group stage at a World Cup; in fact, it has never won a match at the tournament. But Tom Sermanni, an experienced coach who once briefly led the United States women’s national team, might have the right tools to end both droughts.
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 in 2015, the Netherlands’ first World Cup.
The Runup: The Netherlands, the reigning European champion, had to qualify through a playoff in Europe after finishing second in Norway’s group, but matching 4-1 victories over Denmark and Switzerland saw the Dutch through. Beaten by Spain and, surprisingly, Poland at the Algarve Cup earlier this year, they have beaten China (on penalties), Mexico (2-0), Chile (7-0) and Australia (3-0) with increasing authority in recent matches.
Players You Should Know: Barcelona’s Lieke Martens was FIFA’s women’s player of the year in 2017, and Vivianne Miedema of Arsenal just added an English league title to the two German ones she won at Bayern Munich. Together they have 100 goals at the international level; the best of them would make any highlight reel.
What to Expect: The Netherlands can be devastatingly incisive in attack — witness its recent thrashing of Chile — but can struggle on defense. Canada will challenge the Dutch. But Cameroon and New Zealand may be hard pressed to keep up with Martens, Miedema and wing Shanice van de Sanden, the engine behind Lyon’s attacks when it won the Champions League final in May.
Best World Cup Finish: Champion in 1991, 1999 and 2015, the Americans have never failed to reach the semifinals.
The Runup: Easy. The United States won its record eighth CONCACAF title with a series of lopsided wins over Mexico (6-0), Panama (5-0), Trinidad and Tobago (7-0) and Jamaica (6-0) before claiming the trophy with a 2-0 victory over Canada.
Players You Should Know: Where to start? The current roster is one of the deepest in a history of dominant United States teams; striker Alex Morgan even joked after the team’s send-off game that the Americans could send two starting elevens to the World Cup. How deep is the United States? Carli Lloyd, the outstanding player of the 2015 tournament and the first to score a hat trick in a World Cup final, comes off the bench these days, often spelling Morgan, who recently scored her 100th goal.
What to Expect: The United States is the team to beat for a reason. But be wary of injuries: Midfielder Lindsey Horan has been battling a leg injury all spring, and right back Kelley O’Hara is still not 100% after ankle surgery. And Crystal Dunn, a midfielder for her club who likes to venture forward, has no obvious backup at left back.
Best World Cup Finish: Group stage in 2015, Thailand’s first World Cup.
The Runup: The Chaba Kaew are traveling to France for their second World Cup two years after the country’s women’s league was revived and with a fourth-place result in the Asian Cup under their belt.
Players You Should Know: The speedy Kanjana Sung-ngoen tormented Australia’s back line with her pace in the Asian Cup semifinals last year, and the California-born forward Suchawadee Nildhamrong, who went by Miranda Nild when she played at the University of California, could be a factor in the Thai campaign.
What to Expect: Thailand struggled in the 2015 group phase, with two overwhelming defeats to Germany and Norway and a win against a barely there Ivory Coast, then the lowest-rated team in the competition. It’s unlikely it will be able to do much better against the United States and Sweden, two of the more experienced teams in the world.
Best World Cup Finish: This is Chile’s first World Cup.
The Runup: The Roja women are one of four debutantes in this year’s field, but it wasn’t easy: The team has struggled for support for years, and it did not play a match from 2014-17.
Players You Should Know: The biggest draw should be Christiane Endler, who was recognized as the best goalkeeper in France last season because of her work for Paris St.-Germain. But midfielder Francisca Lara and forward María José Rojas have shown their class at times, too.
What to Expect: Chile is often physically overmatched against better teams, and the Netherlands tore them apart, 7-0, in April. Recent results have not been any more positive: Chile is winless in nine games entering the World Cup.
Best World Cup Finish: Third place in 1991 and 2011.
The Runup: Sweden, an early power in women’s soccer, was a disappointment at the last World Cup and not much better at the 2017 European championship, though it sandwiched a silver medal at the Rio Olympics between those flops. It had no problems in qualifying for France, winning its group with a 7-0-1 record.
Player You Should Know: Forward Stina Blackstenius, who was the top scorer in the under-19 World Cup four years ago, also scored the only Swedish goals against the United States (in a quarterfinal victory) and Germany (in the gold medal match) in their Olympic campaign. She added five more in seven appearances in qualifying.
What to Expect: Sweden’s record has been inconsistent, but it knows how to lock down games when it needs to do so; just ask Hope Solo. If, as expected, the Swedes finish second to the United States in the group, they could be looking at Canada or the Netherlands in the round of 16.