To say Argentina’s road to the World Cup was rocky would be an understatement. They were already treading on dangerously uneven territory when the long-winded route started to present obstacles at every turn, each of them incremental in the level of fatality and casting a semi-permanent shadow over their hopes of navigating it successfully.
Even before a third-placed finish in the 2018 Copa América hindered their chances of direct qualification, there was a bigger battle taking place outside the confines of a football stadium. Following long-standing issues with the federation regarding their (lack of) support, the players went on strike, seeking better pay and working conditions.
Argentina were so underfunded that they did not play a single international match nor had any staff after the 2015 Pan American Games through to the end of 2017. That was when they regrouped, and through the Copa América they overcame Panama in a rugged Concacaf-Conmebol play-off which finished 5-1 on aggregate. And so, after a 12-year absence, Argentina have returned to the world’s biggest stage.
Unfortunately, that is where the good news ends. One of the tournament’s lowest-ranked sides, and understandably lacking international experience, La Albiceleste have been drawn into the Group of Death that includes two of the top 10. Carlos Borello and Argentina will mark their third World Cup appearance in Paris against one of them – 2011 winners and 2015 runners-up Japan – with a few friendlies against US college teams and a single season of preparation behind them.
Borello’s squad is a combination of players from home and abroad: as many as eight turn out in Spain’s top flight, including captain Estefanía Banini (Levante), Florencia Bonsegundo (Sporting Huelva) and Ruth Bravo (CD Tacón), while Sole Jaimes was signed by Lyon at the start of this year and became the first Argentine to win the Women’s Champions League.
The backbone of the squad remains the same as the one that went to the Copa América and contested the World Cup qualifiers. Although he has not ruled out trying a back three, Borello is likely to put his faith in his preferred formation, setting up with a back four and a midfield triangle that would allow his side to get the best out of Banini: the attacking midfielder possesses the skill and flair to beat multiple defenders on her own, and is La Albiceleste’s biggest hope of stealing a point – or even scoring a goal.
Japan will enter the World Cup as a team in transition. In 2016, former international Asako Takakura made history by becoming the first woman to manage the senior team, taking over from Norio Sasaki after coaching the Under-17 and Under-20 sides for three years.
A host of young players have been brought in and only five of those that appeared in the 2015 final have been retained, while many from the 2011 generation – Saki Kumagai (now captain), Aya Sameshima, Mizuho Sakaguchi, Rumi Utsugi, Mana Iwabuchi – have matured into leaders in the current team.
Approximately half of the squad have previous World Cup experience, at either senior, U20 or U17 level. The new crop include many with plenty of full international experience already: Moeka Minami in defence, Hina Sugita and Yui Hasegawa in midfield, and Rikako Kobayashi and Jun Endo up front.
Setting up in either an orthodox 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation, the injection of new blood has not changed Japan’s reliance on a quick passing game that leans heavily on discipline, technique and hard work, combining patient build-up with coordinated pressing.
It appears Kumagai will be playing at the back, which does mean there won’t be too many defence-splitting through balls from her, but her incredible awareness and anticipation will nonetheless be on full display. At the age of 28 this is now her third World Cup; in her first, she converted the final penalty kick to clinch the crown in 2011.
Also competing in her third tournament is Iwabuchi, who exploded onto the world stage at the age of 15, at the inaugural FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup where she was voted as the best player. Seeing as the current team does not tend to create many chances, her inherent ability to do exactly that will come very handy. A few goals wouldn’t go amiss either: Iwabuchi has now scored in a third of her national team caps; she didn’t feature as prominently in the 2011 and 2015 editions, and will look to take the lead this time.
This new-look Japan’s talent and experience will come together at the world’s biggest stage, and with a mixed bag of results under Takakura so far, it is difficult to tell how good this team can be. All of which sets up an interesting opening clash with Argentina, for whom a successful performance will serve to boost the game back home. At present, one change in particular will be very welcome. “Argentina have never won a match at the World Cup,” Bonsegundo told Fifa.com, “and we want to do it and we believe we can. It would be historic.”