Colombia players celebrate a dramatic 97th-minute winner against Germany. (Photo: FIFA Women's World Cup Twitter)

Ranked 39 in the world and appearing at their second-ever FIFA Women’s World Cup, Thailand arrived at the 2019 tournament with the hope of building on their experience four years prior.

Reigning world champions USA dented any sort of optimism, emphatically humiliating the Asian nation 13-0 in the opening game of the group stage.

Despite criticism aimed at the Americans for not taking their foot off the pedal, questions were raised as to whether the gap between the elite and the developing countries was becoming greater.

So when FIFA announced the decision to expand the World Cup from 24 to 32 teams for this year’s edition, many were sceptical that women’s football was ready to take this step but results from previous tournaments would suggest this.

2019 World Cup:
USA 13-0 Thailand

2015 World Cup:
Germany 10-0 Ivory Coast
Switzerland 10-1 Ecuador

2007 World Cup:
Germany 11-0 Argentina
Norway 7-2 Ghana

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Last week the United States found itself in a similar scenario to that of four years ago, this time opening its campaign against World Cup debutant Vietnam.

The match was touted to be a grim repeat of the Thailand outcome, however, it was anything but.

In fact, the Diamond Girls served their country incredibly proud as they withstood constant pressure in a 3-0 defeat that many had feared would be close to double-digits.

Although that was only the sixth game of the tournament, the trend was present from the get-go.

Co-hosts New Zealand defied the odds, defeating European powerhouses Norway 1-0.

The Football Ferns demonstrated that football is more than skill and possessing the best players, showing great organisation, a willingness to defend as a group and take advantage of their strengths.

The following day saw 11-time African champions Nigeria rattle Olympic gold-medalists Canada, holding them to a scoreless draw.

Ranked 40 in the world, the Super Falcons would then overcome the Matildas, benefiting from their strengths on the counter-attack and some individual brilliance from one of the world’s best forwards in Barcelona’s Asisat Oshoala.

Coming into the tournament, it was known that the African nations possessed talent in the attacking third and thrived on high pace and intensity, but defensive frailties would always pose problems.

Clean sheets against Canada and Ireland helped Nigeria advance from the group stage for just the third time in its history.

Meanwhile, South Africa stunned the world when it scored a stoppage-time winner against Italy to reach the knockouts for the first time. Banyana Banyana almost walked away with the three points against Sweden taking an early lead, before an own goal and an 89th-minute header underpin their hard work.

All eyes were on current European champions England and how many goals it would put past little-known Haiti making its first appearance on the world stage. It was anything but a blowout, and the most surprising aspect about the 1-0 defeat was that Haiti could count itself unfortunate not to pinch a result.

For a country handed little resources and still recovering from the 2011 earthquake, the development of this new generation is simply inspiring, with the vast majority playing its football in France’s top division.

They aren’t the only Caribbeans to make a statement, as Jamaica impressively held the French to a 0-0 draw before claiming its first-ever win at a World Cup against Concacaf rivals Panama.

Another goalless draw proved enough to eliminate Brazil which completed the improbable fairytale to reach the round of 16, still yet to concede a single goal. Seriously, who would have predicted that?

Make no mistake, the momentum has shifted in the development of women’s football, but it arrived quicker than what people may have first expected.

What an absolute joy the Colombians have been throughout this World Cup thus far. You would be wrong to assume that the South Americans are all about ‘too much’ physicality.

Two wins against South Korea and world number two Germany embodied what this tournament is all about. Passion, flair, constant belief, and the crazy and colourful support received from their Colombian admirers.

A 6-0 drubbing of Morocco to open proceedings in Group H would lead to the inevitable presumption of the Germans progressing on top of the group. Instead, it was the Africans who made history and shocked the world by knocking out the two-time world champions.

As for the Portuguese, they were literally millimetres away from confirming their passage through to the round of 16 at the expense of the USA if not for the post.

The Americans are not the same dominant force they once were in previous campaigns, but that all but confirmed how much the gap has closed between the elite and the up-and-comers.

Over the past few years, the talk has predominately been around the growing attention on women’s football in Europe and how countries have come to realise the benefits of increasing spending and infrastructure.

Look at the rapid rise of the Women’s Super League in England, the Italian Serie A women becoming professional, the Dutch reaching the 2019 World Cup final, and Spanish football reaping the rewards for their investment in Barcelona and Real Madrid.

We knew this before the tournament kicked off, but what we should have realised is that the rest of the world is also catching up at a fast pace.

China’s first exit in the group stage in their eighth showing is just one of many examples.

Without a doubt, there will be those who will point to some heavy defeats during this year’s World Cup:

Germany 6-0 Morocco
Netherlands 7-0 Vietnam
England 6-1 China

The difference is that those teams with less quality are being productive in their possession and are looking to create instead of reverting back to the old habit of keeping it tight at the back until the wheels fall off.

Whether it be Linda Caicedo’s sublime finish against the Germans or Marta Cox’s dead ball screamer, the record attendances have gathered in flocks to appreciate top-calibre football.

Clearly, there is more structure and organisation, helped also by the quality of players coming through the ranks. The progression of the women’s game has never been more evident.

No longer are we witnessing the same nations in the form of the USA, Germany and Sweden dominating in the biggest tournaments, because the gap is closing and it’s only just the beginning.

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