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Japan’s Yui Hasegawa, Zambia’s Barbra Banda and Spain’s Ona Batlle – ones to watch (Photos: Getty Images / Design: Archi Banal)

SportsJuly 7, 2023

Eleven New Zealand-based players to watch at the Fifa Women’s World Cup

women wearing snazzy football kit on a blue background
Japan’s Yui Hasegawa, Zambia’s Barbra Banda and Spain’s Ona Batlle – ones to watch (Photos: Getty Images / Design: Archi Banal)

Some of the biggest names in women’s football will be in Aotearoa for at least their first three games of the Fifa Women’s World Cup. Thomas Airey picks a starting XI of players worth keeping an eye on.

The squad lists are almost all locked in and some of international football’s brightest stars will soon be Down Under for the Fifa Women’s World Cup.

Sharing the tournament’s hosting with Australia means New Zealanders won’t get to see the superstars of England, Brazil, France and Germany in person during the group stages, but with reigning champions the USA and European powerhouses Spain, the Netherlands and Norway all coming to Aotearoa, we’ll still get to see more than our fair share of outstanding talent.

Every team will play across at least two of our four host cities, so punters in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Dunedin will all get their chance to watch some top-notch football.

So who should we be looking out for? Here’s a starting XI (4-3-3) of players to watch. 

GK: Anna Leat (New Zealand)

22 years old | 9 caps | Aston Villa FC (English Women’s Super League)

A bit of a flier between the posts as Arrowtown’s finest (the Leats moved up to Auckland when she was 10) is likely to be the Football Ferns’ third-choice goalie. Vic Esson has recently overtaken longtime number one Erin Nayler as the starter, but neither can match the elite potential of Anna Leat, who saved four Manchester United penalties to win a League Cup tie in her Aston Villa debut. If the promising young keeper does make the pitch at this World Cup, it’ll be her first international on home soil.

LB: Fridolina Rolfö (Sweden)

29 years old | 78 caps | FC Barcelona (Spanish Liga F)

We’ll likely see Frida playing much further up the pitch for Sweden, but because Barcelona has so much attacking firepower she typically plays a flying fullback at club level. Scored the winner in this year’s UEFA Women’s Champions League final as Barça came back from 2-0 down. One of the best footballers in the world, Rolfö will bless the field against South Africa (23 July) and Italy (29 July) in Wellington, then Argentina (2 August) in Hamilton.

CB: Julie Ertz (USA)

31 years old | 118 caps | Angel City FC (USA National Women’s Soccer League)

Bossed the backline in 2015 as USA won their record third World Cup, then commanded the midfield in 2019 when they ran it back for number four. Ertz has largely played in that holding role since moving up the pitch in 2017, but might be needed at the back once more with captain Becky Sauerbrunn missing the tournament with a lingering foot injury. The USWNT will need her back at her best to win an unprecedented third straight World Cup, but Ertz is still to find peak form after recently ending a 611-day break from international football due to a knee injury and giving birth to her son Madden. Her club captain is Football Ferns skipper Ali Riley.

CB: Irene Paredes (Spain)

31 years old | 90 caps | FC Barcelona (Spanish Liga F)

If we’re being real, this XI could easily be made up entirely of Spaniards, Swedes, Norwegians and Americans, but I’ve done my best to share the love. Even so, the talismanic Paredes has to feature because a) she might be the best defender in the world and b) she spoke out as part of widespread protest against playing conditions and the training, tactics, and authoritarian nature of coach Jorge Vilda, who has somehow kept his job through all the controversy. Paredes stopped short of joining “Las 15”, the group of players who each wrote the same letter to the Spanish federation expressing their concerns and asking not to be called up for La Roja, but backed her teammates all the way and acted as a quasi-spokesperson for her sisters-in-exile.

RB: Ona Batlle (Spain)

24 years old | 28 caps | FC Barcelona (Spanish Liga F)

One of three members of “Las 15” to return to the national team ahead of the World Cup, along with new Barça teammates Mariona Caldentey and Aitana Bonmatí. Batlle and Bonmatí came up together at the famed La Masia youth academy but Ona left as a teenager to get first-team opportunities elsewhere. The prodigal daughter has her return to Catalonia to look forward to after three seasons at Manchester United, where she grew to become their best player and one of the world’s premier fullbacks, but first she has a World Cup to win.

Lia Walti on the ball for Arsenal (Photo: Alex Burstow/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

DM: Lia Wälti (Switzerland)

30 years old | 108 caps | Arsenal FC (English Women’s Super League)

It’s tempting to go for the obvious Swiss analogies when defining how the one they call “Snake Hips” plays football: the simple yet intricate elegance of a watch, the versatility and cutting edge of an army knife, the deliciousness of cheese… Switzerland’s captain, Wälti is the smoothest of operators in the middle of the park, effortlessly linking defence to attack and vice versa. She’s a jazz drummer, always on time to break up the opposition’s play and set the tempo going the other way.

CM: Daniëlle van de Donk (The Netherlands)

31 years old | 139 caps | Olympique Lyonnais (French D1 Feminine)

A former teammate of Wälti’s in North London, DVD is in a lot of ways the exact opposite type of player. Magic on the ball and an absolute tiger off it, her diminutive stature and baby face belie a tenacious tackler. The Oranje will rely on her ability to create and score goals in the absence of forward/midfielder Vivianne Miedema, one of the best players in the world who is among the many superstars missing the tournament due to an ACL injury.

CM: Raquel Rodríguez (Costa Rica)

29 years old | 100 caps | Portland Thorns FC (USA National Women’s Soccer League)

“Rocky” is another do-it-all midfielder who started for Portland as they won the NWSL last season. Her rise has coincided (and I’m going with causation over correlation here) with a golden age for Las Ticas – she scored their first ever World Cup goal at their only previous tournament appearance in 2015. She’s immensely proud to represent her country, although knew from a young age the lack of resources available for women’s football meant she’d have to leave it for a college scholarship and eventual professional career in the USA.

Yui Hasegawa playing for Manchester City (Photo: Lexy Ilsley – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

LW: Yui Hasegawa (Japan)

26 years old | 65 caps | Manchester City FC (English Women’s Super League)

I imagine we’ll see Yui – among the shortest players at the World Cup at 5 foot 2 – running the midfield for Nadeshiko Japan the same way she does at club level. But since she played plenty of football up there before dropping into the deeper role at City in 2022, I’ve put her out wide. It’s been a conversion Pep Guardiola himself would have been proud of – turning the attacking dynamo into the regista style holding midfielder capable of replacing the world’s best number 6 Keira Walsh after she left for Barcelona.

RW: Caroline Graham Hansen (Norway)

28 years old | 98 caps | FC Barcelona (Spanisha Liga F)

Having Yui tucking into midfield from the left will free CGH up to do what she does better than anyone in the world – dribble past players and bang in goals. Norway have a plethora of attacking superstars in Ada Hegerberg, Guro Reiten and Frida Maanum, but Graham Hansen is definitely the jewel in the crown. Expect her to light up Eden Park in the opening game on July 20 – the Football Ferns’ defenders will have their hands full if Norway can manage to announce their contender credentials from day one.

Striker: Barbra Banda (Zambia)

23 years old | Shanghai Shengli (Chinese Women’s Super League)

Spain and Japan are the comfortable favourites to progress from Group C, but if the Copper Queens can cause an upset it will be through the goals of captain Banda. History-making consecutive hat tricks at the last Olympics shot her to international prominence, then Banda became even more famous when she was banned from the 2022 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations for failing an overly strict gender eligibility test for high natural testosterone levels. Now clear to play again, her strike partnership with Madrid CFF’s Racheal Kunandanji (25 goals in 29 Spanish Liga F games last season) will be formidable.

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