This summer’s Women’s World Cup has gone so well that FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, nearly ran out of superlatives to describe it on Friday. Phenomenal, he said. Incredible. Emotional. Passionate. Fantastic. Great.
“It has been the best Women’s World Cup ever,” he finally declared.
So impressed was Infantino with the growth of the tournament — more than a billion viewers worldwide by Sunday, according to FIFA projections, and a doubling of live-match viewership since the last edition, in Canada in 2015 — that he said he planned to propose a significant expansion of the event, to 32 teams from its current 24, and a sizable infusion of cash, doubling not only prize money but also payments to countries and clubs to help their players train and prepare.
For now, this World Cup has only one game left: the United States, a three-time winner and the defending champion, against the Netherlands, playing in its first World Cup final, on Sunday in Lyon, France.
How to watch
Sunday’s final will be broadcast by Fox and Telemundo in the United States. Kickoff is promptly at 11 a.m. Eastern.
Why the United States will win
In the plainest terms, the United States will win because it’s better. Because it has a better sense of this kind of occasion. Because it has better players. Because those players have been here before and because they believe, deep in their hearts, that they will win.
That belief, that swagger — a trait built over decades and reinforced over the team’s six games in France — is the Americans’ most dangerous weapon. It allows the team to brush off hand-wringing about its celebrations, its age and its injuries and just get on with the main task: sweeping aside opponents — even very good opponents — one after another.
Your starting center back is hurt? Slide a world-class replacement into her spot. Lost your spiritual leader on the eve of the semifinals? Send out someone just as good. Or maybe better. And then watch her score. Relentless excellence has been the hallmark of the United States team in this World Cup, and it’s hard to believe the players will let down their guard with the trophy so close.
How will you be able to tell they are ready to finish the job? Look for another early goal, and smothering pressure before and after to thwart any threat of a response. It has been a winning formula all tournament — the United States has scored first in all six of its games, and always in the first 12 minutes — and it has staggered a few opponents before they could get their footing. Against the Netherlands, a novice in the final, that is surely the objective again.
Are there concerns? Doubts even? Sure. Megan Rapinoe sat out the semifinal victory over England with a hamstring injury and joked about her age — she turned 34 on Friday — coming back to haunt her. Rose Lavelle, the engine of the United States attack, left that game with a similar injury. Both said this week they were fine, but players always say that, and the status for each most likely remains a game-time decision for Coach Jill Ellis. But there is always someone else — someone equally good and just as hungry — if Rapinoe or Lavelle can’t go.
That has been the story of the United States’ title defense so far. There is no reason to think it will change now.
Why the Netherlands will win
The real question is: Why not? That’s basically what the Dutch are asking.
“Of course we’ve watched their games,” midfielder Jackie Groenen said of the Americans on Wednesday after she scored the goal against Sweden that sealed the Netherlands’ first trip to the final. “It’s a really strong team — obviously that’s clear, it’s the United States!” But she added: “It’s one game. There are possibilities. Anything can happen.”
That is not exactly the blind confidence that the United States will bring to Sunday’s game, but the Netherlands is relatively new at this. New, but dangerous. Striker Vivianne Miedema won an English title with Arsenal last season, and wing Shanice van de Sanden lifted the Champions League trophy with Olympique Lyonnais. The midfield of Groenen, Danielle van de Donk and Sherida Spitse has been a stabilizing force and a reliable protector of the back line.
Even as the reigning European champion, the Netherlands is a surprise finalist, especially since it was forced into a UEFA playoff just to qualify for the trip to France. But its resilience and self-confidence in the tournament have been impressive: Nine of the 11 Dutch goals in this World Cup have come in the second half or in extra time. The Dutch come with a game plan and stick to it for as long as they must, whether they need an injury-time winner against New Zealand in their opening game or a 90th-minute penalty kick to eliminate a Japanese squad that outplayed them in the round of 16.
“We haven’t been playing our best football and still reached the final, so that’s something incredible for our nation,” defender Dominique Bloodworth told Andrew Keh of The New York Times. She is right. The Dutch also seem to be winning with something that can’t be coached: luck.
In the knockout stages the Netherlands avoided three of the tournament’s leading favorites (the United States, France and England) because they were on the other side of the bracket. And the Dutch didn’t have to play a strong German team because Sweden helpfully eliminated the Germans in the quarterfinals. After the Dutch survived an uninspiring, though shrewdly played, game in the semifinals, who’s to say they will not find a way to successfully navigate 90 more minutes?
“It’s one more match, and we might be world champions,” Groenen said. “It will be difficult, but it really would be incredible to win.”