The 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off yesterday (July 20) in Australia and New Zealand, and it’s going to be the Blackest tournament yet.
Women’s soccer — or football, depending on your preference — is having a moment. Stadiums around the world pulse with sold-out crowds of fans eager to watch these elite athletes compete, while leagues, teams, and players are increasingly being granted the funding, resources, and support they’ve long deserved to perform their best.
When FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, voted last year to expand the team pool from 24 to 32, it opened the door for teams that were once on the cusp of tournament entry (like Haiti, Panama, and Portugal) to contest for a World Cup trophy. All three teams have players of African descent. Add to that the African teams that had already qualified (Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, and Morocco); African diaspora nations across the Global South (Jamaica, Brazil, and Colombia); not to mention teams in North America (United States and Canada), Europe (France, England, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland), and Asia (the Philippines), and more than half the teams in the tournament will have at least one Black player on the roster — and all of them are extremely talented.
Naomi Girma, Kadidiatou Diani, Kadeisha Buchanan, Rasheedat Ajibade, Thembi Kgatlana, Geyse Ferreira, and Melchie Dumornay—all seven of these players have put in the work to become household names within the soccer community as formidable stars. And as female soccer players gain more agency, they’ve also become more vocal about issues of social justice; in many cases, the aforementioned players are leading those battles. Girma is spearheading a campaign for athletes’ mental health that will run throughout the World Cup; Diani was among France’s stars who threatened to withdraw from the tournament if their federation did not fire a coach they claimed was toxic; Ajibade was reportedly one of six senior Nigerian players who planned not to play their opening match to protest their federation’s decision to withhold their tournament bonus money; Ferreira has spoken out against the anti-Black racism corroding the beautiful game; the Canadian and South African national teams are both locked in dispute with their federations over equal pay. That these players are fighting on multiple frontlines, as athletes and as Black people, while performing on the biggest stage in global soccer is just one more reason to support their journeys.
The group stage matches offer ample opportunity to watch these Black footballers stunt, and for those easing themselves into the World Cup waters, here’s a brief, not-by-any-means exhaustive guide on who to follow if you’re rooting for everybody Black.
The role of center back is often reserved for a team’s veteran leaders. Saddled with the high-pressure responsibility of guarding the most dangerous shooting areas on the field, center backs, at their best, are confident custodians, timing their tackles with precision and keeping the rest of the defenders organized and calm. This will be Naomi Girma’s first World Cup, but you’d never know by how intuitively she plays. Her ability to read the game with ease allows her to stay five steps ahead at all times, forcing goal-hungry attackers to figure out how to work around her, rather than the other way around. It’s no wonder this Stanford alum was selected as a No. 1 draft pick in the National Women’s Soccer League when she turned pro in 2022 and was named both Rookie and Defender of the Year that same season. No doubt, she will cook this World Cup.
When watching France, it won’t take long to notice a streak of icy aquamarine braids — or lavender, or gray, depending on Kadidiatou Diani’s mood — tearing down the side of the field, bullying the opposition with her exquisite footwork. A mainstay on Les Bleues’ front line, Diani will be one of the craftiest players on the ball this World Cup, carving the ankles (and egos) of any defender attempting to suppress her stride and distributing crosses with the tight curl of a ribbon sliced by scissor’s edge. She plays with a stoic expression that sometimes even the most gorgeous of goals can’t crack, but don’t be fooled into thinking she’s not enjoying herself. It’s just that as soon as she scores, she becomes even more ravenous for another, tightening her grip on the game and inciting fear in everyone around her. That’s how she enjoys herself most.
Fear? Kadeisha Buchanan doesn’t know her. That trait is typically reserved for offensive players, who need courage and a touch of arrogance to fire off shots, even when they have a half-chance of success. Defenders, on the other hand, are expected to be more conservative and calculating in their movement; after all, if they bet wrong, their team could get scored on. But Buchanan is unburdened by those conventions, which is what makes her so much fun to watch. She guards the goal with “fuck around and find out” energy, often emerging from the crunchiest of tackles with a mere shoulder shrug as her victims writhe around on the ground, demanding a foul call that may or may not come.
It’s fitting that Rasheedat Ajibade’s fans call her Rash. A trickster with the ball and a menace without it, she probably has that effect on her opponents when she goes to battle with the domineering midfield of Nigeria’s Super Falcons. Ajibade is known as much for her signature blue hair as she is for her audacity; many of her recent goals have been scored because she sees a sliver of a chance and forces it wide open by sheer power of will. You can’t leave that kind of player alone for too long, and Ajibade knows that, which is why, when players surround her, she simply finds one of her unmarked teammates and supplies them with an assist. Light work.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a player who moves with the urgency of Banyana Banyana striker Thembi Kgatlana — and not just because she’s got lightning-fast pace. Plenty of players are fast, but when Kgatlana, who’s made a triumphant comeback after suffering a tournament-ending injury last summer at the African Women’s Cup of Nations, takes possession of the ball, her determination is palpable. She flies down the field with near-reckless abandon, tempting defenders to stab at her quick feet, which often ends badly for them. Kgatlana is comfortable scoring from just about anywhere on the field and at any moment, a lethal quality for a forward.
There aren’t many constants in this rapidly-changing women’s game, but it’s always a safe bet to expect Brazilians to put on a show for the eyes. But even when entertainment and beautiful soccer are a given, Ferreira emerges as a superstar. She’s simply built different, absorbing defensive pressure with ease, injecting the game with flair no matter the stakes — she’s essentially the epitome of Black joy on the field. Historically, Brazil has been criticized for putting too much of an emphasis on aesthetics, occasionally leaving behind the most crucial aspect of any team’s strategy: winning. Ferreira saw those concerns and raised us relentless ferocity on both sides of the ball. As a bonus: she’s another player who takes her braids seriously, so chances of cornrows in the colors of the Brazilian flag are high.
This young phenom put most of the world on notice with a stellar performance at last summer’s CONCACAF Women’s Championship, earning her the Best Young Player of the Year award from the regional football association, and her price has increased astronomically since. Melchie Dumornay appears to be unfamiliar with the concept of limits; her explosive speed and creativity mean that her body can actually follow whatever her mind cooks up, so don’t be surprised when — not if, when —she pulls off acrobatic feats on the pitch that compel you to shake your head in appreciative disbelief. Dumornay is That Girl, and though Haiti has a steep hill to climb to get out of their group and into the knockout stage of this tournament, there’s no doubt that we will be saying her name for several tournaments to come.