And so there were four.
After weeks of grueling Women’s World Cup action, only Spain, Sweden, Australia and England remain in the competition with an opportunity to get their hands on the coveted trophy they’ve all been fighting for.
Japan’s exit to Sweden in the quarterfinals means this year’s tournament will see a first-time world champion crowned and their names written into the annals of time.
With just two games standing between them and World Cup glory, let’s have a look at everything you need to know about the four semifinalists.
La Roja’s run to its first ever Women’s World Cup semifinal hasn’t been a straightforward one and the road has been filled with highs and lows.
The issues began even prior to the tournament’s start, when 15 players declared themselves unavailable for selection in September last year, citing their emotional and physical health and an unappreciation of them, primarily focused on the practices of head coach Jorge Vilda.
The Spanish federation (RFEF) chose to stand behind Vilda and six players – including two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas – eventually reversed their decisions, but it left in its wake a fractured group of players; albeit a talented one.
Despite the noise surrounding preparations for the World Cup, the Spanish players showed no signs of being bogged down in their opening two group games, blowing past both Costa Rica and Zambia, scoring eight and conceding none.
However, in its final game in the group stage, a warning was sent to La Roja as it was stunned 4-0 by Japan in one of the performances of the tournament, sending shockwaves throughout the competition.
When it appeared that its Women’s World Cup hopes might be teetering on the edge, Spain – with Putellas coming off the bench while coming back from a dreaded ACL injury – has found its feet again, comfortably beating Switzerland in the round-of-16 and advancing to its first ever semifinal thanks to a 2-1 victory over the Netherlands, with teenager Salma Paralluelo scoring the decisive goal in extra time.
Sweden has shown remarkable determination to reach its second straight Women’s World Cup semifinal – and its fifth overall.
The Blågult needed a last-minute goal to put away South Africa in its opening game and a penalty shootout to upset the US in the round-of-16.
And it produced arguably its best performance of the tournament so far against a formidable Japan side in the quarterfinals, managing to hold on for a 2-1 victory despite a late Japanese comeback attempt.
Nothing quite epitomizes the Swedish doggedness like two of their standout performers: goalkeeper Zećira Mušović and defender Amanda Ilestedt.
Mušović has become pivotal to the Blågult’s run to the semifinals, particularly against the US when she produced a heroic performance, making 11 saves. Since records began in 2011, that was the most saves in a single game at the Women’s World Cup for a goalkeeper who kept a clean sheet, according to Sky Sports.
The 27-year-old was born to Serbian parents who had escaped the war in their home country. She preferred table tennis to soccer in her youth, according to FIFA, but quickly felt at home in the latter when she switched from being an outfielder to a goalkeeper aged 12.
And her almost mythical presence in between the posts continued against Japan, only finally conceding late on in the match.
Ilestedt is enjoying quite the tournament personally too. The 30-year-old center-back scored Sweden’s opening goal against Japan, her fourth of the tournament, putting her just one behind the Nadeshiko’s Hinata Miyazawa in the race for the tournament’s Golden Boot award for the top goalscorer.
In recent years, Sweden has fallen at the final hurdle when it comes to claiming a major international trophy – notably losing in the final at the 2003 Women’s World Cup and in the gold medal match at the two most recent Olympic Games – but has another opportunity to banish those demons once and for all.
It’s been a tournament to remember for the tournament co-host, both on and off the pitch.
Plenty was expected of the Matildas playing on home soil, led by one of the world’s best players in Sam Kerr and in front of a home crowd.
But things began in ominous fashion when Kerr was ruled out of Australia’s first two group games with a calf injury. And the team’s performances on the pitch didn’t leave fans with much hope either, struggling to a 1-0 victory over the Republic of Ireland in its opener and being stunned by Nigeria in its second.
However, like any good tournament team and with the return of Kerr to the bench, Australia has gradually grown into the tournament.
A 5-0 thumping of Olympic champion Canada saw it reach the knockout phase before it ground out a hard-fought victory over Denmark in the last-16 to reach the team’s first ever Women’s World Cup quarterfinals.
Arguably its performance of the tournament came in the quarterfinals though, with Australia more than holding its own against France before eventually prevailing in a dramatic penalty shootout to continue the country’s historic run.
The team’s success has captured the imagination of many Australians too, with FIFA reporting that 7.2 million people tuned in to watch the team beat France on penalties – 10% more than its previous match – and that it had an average viewership of 3.69 million, the No. 1 Australian TV sports broadcast of the last decade.
FIFA also reported that 472,000 people streamed the game against France on 7Plus, the most viewed event ever in Australia.
Australia prime minister Anthony Albanese has shown his support for the team, publicly backing calls for a national holiday should the Matildas win the Women’s World Cup.
“I’ve said that the state and territory leaders should consider it and I know that it’s received a pretty warm reception in most quarters,” Albanese said in a radio interview with state broadcaster ABC when asked if calls for a public holiday were justified.
“This is something much more than just a sporting event. This is an inspiration to young girls in particular, but also young boys.”
Now, with Kerr’s fitness issues seemingly fading in the rearview mirror and the support of a nation behind it, Australia is on the brink of World Cup glory.
England entered the tournament as one of the favorites, so a run to the semifinals isn’t that surprising.
The European champion is jampacked with star-studded talent, and it is this quality – as well as its world-class manager, Sarina Wiegman – which has been the key driving force behind its recent success in Australia and New Zealand.
Narrow victories opened its campaign, with Lauren James a particular standout amongst some underwhelming early performances.
A 6-1 thumping of China reestablished England’s credentials as contenders, only for its last-16 and quarterfinals performances – a penalty shootout victory over Nigeria having been thoroughly outplayed and a comeback victory over Colombia – to perhaps display some of the cracks in the Lionesses’ armor.
It will miss James for its semifinal against Australia though, the Chelsea star serving the second of her two-game suspension after she was sent off for stepping on the back of Nigeria’s Michelle Alozie during the round-of-16 game at Brisbane Stadium.
But with a spine consisting of Mary Earps, Millie Bright, Kiera Walsh, Georgia Stanway and Alessia Russo – not to mention Chloe Kelly and Bethany England off the bench – this England team remains a threat no matter the opposition.
So who is the favorite to win the Women’s World Cup?
The lack of previous Women’s World Cup winning experience has made the semifinals and final even more exciting if that’s even possible.
All four teams have differing strengths and weaknesses, with no clear favorite standing out unlike in years past with the previously all-conquering US team.
With just four games left in the tournament – including the third-place match between the losers of the semifinals – Sweden has become the favorite to claim its first title, according to sports data company Gracenote.
Based on approximately one million simulations of the entire tournament, Sweden has a 32% chance of victory, while Australia and England both have 24% chance and Spain with 21%, says Gracenote.
Sweden is the highest-ranked team left in the tournament – third in the world – but if it was to face England in the final, the Blågult might have bad memories, as its last encounter at a major tournament was a 4-1 loss to the Lionesses in the semifinals of the 2022 Women’s Euros.
In any case, we’re set to have an incredible finale to what’s been a World Cup for the ages.