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A Baptism of Fire Awaits Zambia’s Women in the Waikato Stadium

Zambia women’s football team will make its eagerly-awaited World Cup debut in a matter of days, facing off against Japan on 22nd July at the Waikato Stadium in Hamilton. While there is understandable excitement among fans who will see the Copper Queens in action in a FIFA World Cup for the first time, it should be tempered with a sense of realism. It’s going to be hugely difficult for Zambia to get anything out of the game. Still, the Zambian team has been underestimated in the past, and coach Bruce Mwape will have seen enough from the team he has managed for five years to believe that only a minor miracle will be needed.

Nonetheless, the meeting in Hamilton will see one of the world’s best teams come up against the lowest-ranked team in the tournament. Japan, the 2011 World Cup winners, have been in something of a rebuilding phase over the last few years. But they are starting to gel once again. Indeed, it should not be overlooked that the Japanese youth team finished as runners-up at the 2018 U20 World Cup, and some of that generation is starting to integrate into the senior women’s team. It gives Japan a nice blend of youth and experience, with older players like the talismanic captain Saki Kumagai helping teenage starlets like Aoba Fujino and Maika Hamano.

Banda will be key to Zambian success

The online sport betting markets suggest that Zambia have little chance of getting a result against Japan, but anything can happen in football. Key to Zambia’s hopes will be goal-machine Barbra Banda, but Mwape will also have his mettle tested. Zambia’s defence has been wayward in 2023, with 5 goals conceded to South Korea (twice) and three each to Ireland and Switzerland. A cagey match might suit the Zambians as underdogs, and put the pressure back on the Japanese. Four days later at Eden Park Auckland, an even tougher test awaits for Zambia in the shape of Spain. The women’s football megastar Alexia Putellas is back for the Spaniards after being robbed of many months of her glittering career due to a cruel injury. Unfortunately for Zambia, Spain are so much more than Putellas, as they proved when beating the Japanese last year. In fact, the Spaniards have lost but one of their last 15 games, a running that includes 13 victories. They have largely been disappointing at World Cups, never making it past the Last 16, but there is a sense of a team coming of age.

Costa Rica can be beaten

Mwape and his team will have some internal goals set for the tournament, but surely the underlying one will be to go into the last game against Costa Rica with a chance of qualification. That will likely mean they need to take a point against Japan or Spain, and it feels possible when it is framed that way. Costa Rica are a good team – the draw was not overly kind to Zambia – but they are beatable. Yet, it feels like the Copper Queens must approach the game with something in their pocket. If that’s the case, then all bets are off – and who would wager against Zambia beating Costa Rica?

That means pulling out a performance of a lifetime in Hamilton or Auckland against the Japanese or the Spanish, or perhaps both. But so many World Cup tournaments see the inexperienced teams written off against the powerhouse rivals, only to see a shock result as the minnows pull off the impossible. Both Japan and Spain have been on the receiving end of such narratives before. Zambia are not there to make up the numbers.

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