At this year's Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, seven teams will compete in the tournament for the ninth straight time; Japan, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Nigeria, Brazil and United States. It's an impressive feat, given that there have only been nine iterations of the footballing showcase to qualify for; it's indicative of their place at the forefront of women's football in their regions and how established the women's game has become in these nations.
Though the battle for improved playing and training conditions and equitable opportunity continues, they've at least reached a point wherein they have established a national setup that makes qualifying for a World Cup feel routine.
But inverse to this, you have the 2023 debutants. Eight teams stepping into the unknown when they depart for the antipodes for their first-ever WWC this July. Philippines, Vietnam, Zambia, Morocco, Republic of Ireland, Haiti, Portugal and Panama represent the start of something new this year, marking a significant touchstone for football in their countries as well as validation for the unheralded and often unthanked pioneers that drove the game within them.
With the tournament expanding to 32 nations for the first time there was always a good chance there would be a sizeable number of first-timers, but that does nothing to discount the monumental nature of the achievement,
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For the final three the qualify, their last chance to secure passage after missing qualification in their region would come through intercontinental playoffs staged in New Zealand this week. One last chance to earn history on the pitch without needing to wait at least another four years.
Indeed, before Wednesday, Haiti had never played on the global stage. Across six attempts, both the World Cup and Olympics had proved beyond Les Grenadieres' grasp. Off the pitch, the nation continues to be gripped by a series of societal and institutional crises. Within its football apparatus, then-Haitian Football Association president Yves Jean-Bart was given a lifetime ban from the sport in 2020 for alleged harassment and sexual abuse of female footballers -- a situation that re-emerged into the spotlight just days before the playoffs when the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned the ban.
"There's a lot of unhappiness in the country, and football is the joy," midfielder Danielle Etienne told ESPN before jetting out to New Zealand. "Being able to qualify to the World Cup would be major. We want that for the country as a whole, to have a breath of fresh air and kind of step aside from anything going on."
"It is very hard because a lot of people around me that don't know Haiti tend to have a really bad view of it, and some people are even vocal about it and kind of degrading about it," goalkeeper Lara Larco added. "I want to have a voice and qualify to the World Cup to be able to say, 'Haiti is not what you think it is.'"
The allegations of impropriety aren't, nor should they be, going away any time soon. But after easing past Senegal 4-0 in their opening game and then upsetting Chile 2-1 in their decisive playoff, there is good reason to smile in Haitian football.
At just 19 years old, Melchie Dumornay was already well on her way to making her mark on the global stage; the teenager has signed a deal that will see her join superpower club side Lyon from Reims on July 1. But now, she has a moment in her nation's colours to add to her tale.
Twice, the Mirebalais native beat her future teammate, and arguably the world's best goalkeeper, Christiane Endler at North Harbour Stadium to secure her nation's progression. Driving past defender Carla Guerrero before chipping an effort into the opposite top corner in first-half stoppage time, her first was a world-class effort made to look far easier than it was.
Her second arrived deep into second-half stoppage time, minutes after Endler had saved a Nerilia Mondesir penalty and Chile's Yessenia Lopez had hit the crossbar with a long-range piledriver. The universe seemed to be indicating that heartbreak was in store, but Dumornay had other ideas: scoring a goal that would quickly prove crucial after Maria Jose Rojas pulled one back for the South Americans moments later. Two crucial moments for both Haiti and the career of one of the game's future stars.
Admittedly, placed in a group with England, Denmark and China, the chances of Haiti progressing beyond their group in five months are small. Quite small. There aren't many more inhospitable welcomes to one's first World Cup than the reigning European and Asian champions. Portugal in a group with United States, Netherlands and fellow debutants Vietnam, and Panama now handed the task of progressing at the expense of two of France, Brazil and a rising Jamaica, their odds might be slightly better. But they're still not great.
Nonetheless, regardless of what happens at the tournament, Panama's Las Canaleras (The Canal Girls) now have Lineth Cedeno meeting captain Marta Cox's free kick into the box with a headed effort that broke open an otherwise cagey affair and sent them through to their first-ever WWC 1-0 at the expense of Paraguay. Booked for taking her shirt off in celebration, Cedeno probably didn't care too much about the caution, not if it meant getting her own "Brandi Chastain moment."
They have Yenith Bailey, just five years on from converting from the midfield to goalkeeper and four years on from a breakout performance at the 2018 CONCACAF Women's Championship, adding another chapter by keeping back-to-back clean sheets against Papua New Guinea and Paraguay.
And while they may not carry quite the same levels of romance as the most well-credentialed of the three sides to progress through the playoffs to the tournament proper, Portugal have now secured their biggest touchstone of progress in the women's game yet. And they've done so in a manner that can live long in the memory, their clash with Cameroon concluding in a manner that would have made it notable even without the massive stakes attached.
When Francisca Nazareth's 22nd-minute free kick cannoned off the post only for Diana Gomes to tuck away the rebound, Portugal looked like they were sitting pretty against the Africans, only for The Indomitable Lionesses to come roaring back. In the 84th minute, Michaela Abam broke through and had the ball in the back of the net to bring things back level, only for it to be ruled out for a tight offside call. Then, with just moments remaining and her nation's hopes of a WWC berth hanging by a thread, Ajara Nchout dragged a shot across her body and into the bottom corner of the net.
All the momentum felt like it was behind the Africans. Either through a late, late winner, extra time or penalties, only one result felt like it was coming. But then Estelle Johnson inadvertently blocked away a 92nd-minute shot that VAR adjudged to have come off her arm in an unnatural position. Enter Carole Costa, who slotted the resulting penalty to secure a 2-1 win and a first-ever qualification.
Just over a decade on from a run to the semifinals of the UEFA Women's Under-19 Championship and following back-to-back appearances at the European Championship, Portugal are now on the global stage. The work of former players like Carla Couto, who played for her country nearly 150 times before their emergence onto the European stage, has been capitalised on by a new generation.
The rapid growth of women's football in recent times has been carried by a sense of direction and purpose born from the sensation that this isn't just a sport undergoing a period of expansion but, instead, that it's a broader movement, one whose influence spreads far and wide. One only need look at the horde of corporate sponsors looking to jump on board to see how powerful this is.
Especially on a local level, this phenomenon is inevitable given a greater sense of narrative and momentum, from moments that can be used as both evidence of the potential and as a point of inspiration in the years ahead; as a rallying cry and a foundation of folklore. And through their performances in Auckland and Hamilton; Haiti, Portugal, and Panama have created some.