The draw for 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup European qualifying took place on Friday and Cymru manager Gemma Grainger was excited to finally discover her opponents as she targets a place at the finals.
Cymru were drawn into Group I and were joined by Slovenia, Greece, Kazakhstan, Estonia and top seeds France. “They're all different and all of the games will be challenging in different ways,” said Grainger. “For me, there's never any easy games in international football. Every team has their own strengths and their own weaknesses, but the focus for us is on ourselves. That was our mentality in the last camp and that's going to be our mentality for this qualification campaign.”
A defeat to Canada and a credible draw with Denmark offered Grainger a first look at her squad during April, but with the opposition confirmed for the qualifying campaign that begins in September, the focus will now turn to the challenges ahead. “I'm pleased to finally have the draw,” Grainger added. “Now we're able to plan and it gives us something to focus on. It's an exciting draw and the competitive nature of the games is something that I'm really looking forward to. To have the group on paper is a big thing for me. I love planning and I love preparing.”
France are currently ranked 4th in the FIFA Women's World rankings and qualified for EURO 2022 without conceding a single goal in their eight group games. Boasting a wealth of individual talent in their ranks, Corinne Diacre's side will be main attraction when the competitive action begins. “We will have our way of playing and our mentality will be focused on us and how we can be competitive and win games,” said Grainger. “It's a long campaign, and we will be taking it a game at a time. There will be twists and turns, and we have to play to our potential. Whoever we play, we will be preparing in the same way.
We're hoping the fans can get behind us and give us that competitive advantage. The support that we have from the country as a whole makes us want to be the best that we can be.
“The group of six was a preference for me. It's consistent in that you play two games every window, so for us there will be consistency in our preparation and recovery. France are one of the best teams in the world, but if we're going to do it, we have to test ourselves against those teams. We have to be ourselves and find a way to be competitive and get a result. It's only going to move us forward as a team and I can't wait for those games.”
Former Cymru manager Jarmo Matkainen will return to Wales with his Estonia side, while Kazakhstan will be familiar opposition for a number of the current squad as they have been drawn in the same group as Cymru in two of the last three qualifying campaigns. Meanwhile, Grainger was keen to emphasise the importance of getting supporters back into the stadiums by the time the fixtures come around.
“We're hoping the fans can get behind us and give us that competitive advantage,” she explained. “The support that we have from the country as a whole makes us want to be the best that we can be. I hope there are fans in the stadium for that first game in September. It's crucial that we have fans back as we want to inspire people, so it's very important. They're crucial to what we do.”
The nine group winners will qualify for the finals while the nine runners-up will compete in the play-offs that will take place in October 2022 with a further two teams directly progressing to the finals via that route. A third team from the UEFA play-offs will then compete in the inter-confederation play-offs, which will be a tournament of ten teams from the six FIFA confederations to decide the remaining three places.
GROUP I OPPONENTS IN PROFILE
Although widely-regarded as one of the best teams in the women's game due to the individual talent at their disposal, France have never made it past the quarter-finals in their six appearances at the EURO finals, while their best finish at the FIFA Women's World Cup was back in 2011 when they reached the semi-final stage. However, with a number of players competing in the domestic league with two of the best teams in Europe in Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain, France are a formidable opponent for any nation.
- FIFA ranking - 4th
- Head Coach – Corinne Diacre
- Captain – Amandine Henry
- Random country fact – The camera phone was invented in France by Parisian Philippe Kahn in 1997.
The closest that Slovenia ever came to reaching the finals of a major tournament was in EURO 2009 when they were defeated 5-0 by Ukraine on aggregate in the qualification play-offs. However, clear progress was evident in the EURO 2022 qualifying campaign as the side won six of their ten games but finished third behind the Netherlands and Russia. Slovenia ended the campaign with a 9-0 victory over Estonia in Tallinn.
- FIFA ranking - 50th
- Head Coach – Borut Jarc
- Captain – Mateja Zver
- Random country fact – There are over 90,000 registered beekeepers in Slovenia.
With the majority of the squad playing in the Greek domestic league with PAOK, Greece only registered victories over the minnows of Montenegro during EURO 2022 qualifying, but did hold the Republic of Ireland to a 1-1 draw in Athens. Although they have never reached the EURO or World Cup finals, the side did compete at the 2004 Olympic Games after qualifying as the host nation, but lost all three group games without scoring a single goal.
- FIFA ranking - 64th
- Head Coach – Dimosthenis Kavouras
- Captain – Natalia Chatzigiannidou
- Random country fact – One of the sunniest places in the world, the Greek city of Rhodes has around 300 days of sun per year.
After initially competing in Asia during the 1990's Kazakhstan became part of UEFA in 2001. The side were drawn against Cymru in both EURO 2017 and 2019 World Cup qualifying, with Cymru winning all four games in the respective campaigns. Currently at their lowest position in the FIFA rankings, Kazakhstan lost all eight of their EURO 2022 qualifying games to finish bottom of Group G, losing 12-0 to France in their last competitive match.
- FIFA ranking - 81st
- Head Coach – Aitpay Jamantayev
- Captain – Begaim Kirgizbaeva
- Random country fact – The ancient Kazakhs are regarded as the first people to ride horses.
The lowest-ranked side in the group, Cymru played against Estonia in a friendly back in March 2020 in what proved to be the last match for the side with supporters inside the stadium before the pandemic, as goals from Megan Wynne and Nadia Lawrence earned a 2-0 victory. Under the management of Jarmo Matikainen there is a long-term plan in place for the side to develop and progress. However, their last competitive game ended in a 9-0 defeat at home to Slovenia.
- FIFA ranking - 106th
- Head Coach – Jarmo Matikainen
- Captain – Katrin Loo
- Random country fact – Estonia has the highest number of meteorite craters per land area in the world.