Ellis led the USA to victory in the last two FIFA Women’s World Cups™, but while the reigning holders entered the current tournament heavily fancied to make it a hat-trick, events on the pitch have shown defending the title will be far from easy with a number of nations making ground-breaking strides.
“Gone are the days of predictability, would be my overall take,” said Ellis, who is head of FIFA’s Technical Study Group (TSG) for the tournament. “We're seeing incredible parity, we're seeing competitive games, we're seeing debutants making noise, powers going out of the tournament. I mean, I think to date, it's probably been the least predictable tournament we've seen.”
Seven countries have picked up an historic maiden win in the tournament while it is the first time at least one representative of all six FIFA Confederations has won a match. Nigeria became the first African nation to go through the group stage unbeaten to reach the knockout stages for only the second time, and the Super Falcons are joined in the Round of 16 by debutants Morocco.
Colombia are only the second South American nation to be crowned group winners and Jamaica are only the third CONCACAF team to reach the Round of 16. They secured their spot by preventing Brazil from scoring for the first time in 23 FIFA Women’s World Cup™ group-stage games – a run stretching back to 1991 – and the 2007 runners-up are already back home along with two-time former winners Germany. Only one of the four former world champions that started the tournament, Japan, ended top of their group.
“We talk about the gap closing. There's going to be even less of a gap as we continue to evolve the women's game globally between the perennial giants of the game and the countries that are now making a name for themselves on the world stage,” explained Ellis.
“I think before, countries had special players here and there, now we're seeing every team has a very special player that could play on any team in the world, probably. I think that's a massive step forward and speaks to development. But I just think, overall, the level of organisation, defensive sophistication, is making these games a lot more competitive.”
All those aspects will be amplified in the make-or-break scenario of the knockout stage. Ellis is excited at how nations less accustomed to life among the game’s heavyweights will learn from the experience and fuel the dreams of future generations watching their exploits back home.
“Teams are going to have to be better and I love it because there is this concept of iron sharpens iron. If everyone else is getting better, it forces you to get better and that’s what causes this domino effect in terms of growth. So, I think that’s just really exciting; it’s exciting for the fans. It’s inspirational,” said Ellis, who is also President of National Women’s Soccer League outfit San Diego Wave FC.
“You see a team like Haiti, you see a team like Morocco, Portugal – those players are going to be heroes back home because they are in this tournament and they are playing well and they are showcasing their talents.”