LIVERPOOL, England – The gap has closed. The rest of the world has caught up.
We have been hearing the proclamation for months building up to the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup. As the United States, ranked No. 1 in the world, struggled through qualifying and teams like Colombia and Equatorial Guinea found their way to the final stage of the tournament through strong qualifying campaigns, it further solidified the point.
Mexico beat the United States in CONCACAF qualifying in November to send the Americans into a two leg playoff with Italy, where they prevailed to (surprisingly) become the last team to qualify for the tournament. And teams like France and England, previously middle-of-the-road teams that have no proven track record of success on the big stage, are one step away from a semifinal appearance (with one of those two are guaranteed a spot since they face each other in the quarterfinals).
So with several surprisingly tight matches in the group stage between world powers and underdog squads, has the gap truly closed between the world super powers (United States, Germany and Brazil) and the rest of the pack?
The answer is a complicated 'yes and no.' The US team's struggles are used as the basis of the argument that the gap has closed, but the reasoning is slightly misguided.
As the world's No. 1, the U.S. is under constant pressure to not only perform well but dominate its opponents. Throughout the 90's, that was reality, for the most part. Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and a whole cast of stars led the way to World Cup titles in 1991 and 1999 and an Olympic gold medal in 1996.
But now this current US team somewhat unfairly has to live up to those expectations and has faced harsh criticisms for a lack of convincing play. While the Americans certainly have had their struggles (over the past year, in particular), much of the media and fans quarrels come from overly dramatic knee-jerk reactions that the US is no longer the top team.
Gaetane Thiney (R) of France and team mate Louisa Necib are part of a France team that's closed the gap to the traditional powers. (Photo: Alex Grimm/Bongarts)
Recent developments are less about the United States falling from grace and more about the rest of the world developing the women's game at an increased pace. The US just did this at a far earlier time. One team can only be dominant for so long until the tides turn. That is sport.
So now the gap has closed, but just how much?
While the middle tier of teams has clearly closed the gap on the US, German and Brazil, the rest of the world still has a long way to go.
The emergence of France and England are of particular note in the argument. England has never gone beyond the quarterfinals and France had previously never advanced out of the group stage, but there is a legitimate case to be made that one could be the next world champion.
France just provided a barn-burner of a match in a 4-2 loss to Germany on Tuesday, the same day that England upset a Japan team that was arguably the best in the tournament through the first week of group play. Five years ago, none of that was very realistic.
So yes, that gap certainly has closed. But the superpowers are still somewhat held on a quickly shortening pedestal, evidenced by Sweden's celebrations following Wednesday's group stage win. Clearly, beating the United States is still a big deal.
But further down the line, the gap is still pretty large. The United States could have easily doubled its 3-0 victory over Colombia had Amy Rodriguez and Abby Wambach put on their collective finishing boots. Teams like New Zealand and North Korea - both extremely young squads - are still at least four years away from being serious threats and Equatorial Guinea is a great example of talent that needs direction and discipline.
And still, this World Cup features just the top 16 teams in the world, half that of the men's World Cup. In 2015, the women's tournament expands to 24 teams. Whether or not the women's game is ready for that is tough to say, but it is a positive step for the long-term development of the game.
However, it will also bring further fringe teams into the picture on the world stage, meaning the gap from one through 24 will be very evident. It's the gap from one through 12 or 16 that should continue to close, and as it does, game will continue to develop worldwide. In a truly competitive and developed women's soccer scene, every quarterfinalist should be a legitimate contender to win the title. That is truer than ever in 2011.