No Women’s World Cup has ever provided more action than the 2023 edition did. That isn’t some recency-fueled hyperbole — it’s a simple fact. This was the first tournament to feature 32 teams and, therefore, 64 games. And with that greater number of matches, there came a multitude of individual performances which stuck in mind long after each team made their exits from the field.
Spain walked away with top honors while England, Sweden and Australia earned the right to play the maximum of seven matches, but it was a tournament that didn’t seem to have viewers’ collective attention owned by any one team. No star appeared to shine brighter than a half-dozen others, making it a wide-open field for both the right to win it all as well as individual accolades.
With that in mind, writers and editors who covered the tournament for The Athletic have cast their ballots. After tallying the totals, here’s who we’d deem to be the Best XI from the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Zećira Mušović, Sweden
Coming into this tournament, Zećira Mušović wasn’t considered Sweden’s undisputed starting goalkeeper, in fact, after the group stage, manager Peter Gerhardsson was still being asked if Mušović would continue on as the starter. Those questions stopped after her great performance in the round of 16 win over the USWNT. Her saves against the U.S., particularly the one against Lindsey Horan, showed that Mušović had found her footing on the international stage, and that Sweden has found the successor to Hedvig Lindahl.
Mušović’s shot-stopping ability proved to be the difference maker for her team in games against the U.S. and Japan, while her general command of the area has earned her the respect of the experienced defenders in front of her. Mušović has been a steady presence in goal, always looking to calm things down when her team has been under pressure. She leaves the tournament with a third-place medal.
Amanda Ilestedt, Sweden
When she wasn’t sweeping things up but at the back with center back partner Magdalena Eriksson, Amanda Ilestedt was in the other penalty area scoring goals, specifically on set pieces. Whether it was with her head or with her feet, Ilestedt was the go-to for Sweden.
Defensively, her partnership with Eriksson led to Sweden only conceding three goals throughout the tournament, and her overall positioning and reading of the game helped Sweden make a deep run. During the third-place game, Ilestedt was at her imperial best and regularly put in challenges to stop Australia from building any momentum.
Ilestedt finished the tournament with four goals and was vital to Sweden’s set pieces. She may not have added to her tally to push for the Golden Boot award but she did more than enough to be included in the best XI of the World Cup.
Alex Greenwood, England
A member of last summer’s Women’s Euro-winning roster, Greenwood didn’t feature in that final until the 88th minute. However, her expected importance for this World Cup saw a significant increase in the immediate aftermath of captain Leah Williamson’s ACL tear in April. More often a left back last summer, which is where she again opened this tournament against Haiti, the second group match saw Greenwood earn a spot as Sarina Wiegman’s first-choice left-sided center back — Williamson’s usual spot. That’s where she stayed.
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Playing every minute of England’s run, Greenwood capably filled the role with the poise she so often displays for Manchester City. She played whatever part each matchup required, whether it was an ambitious front-footed confronter against Haiti, Denmark and Colombia or a more reserved deep-lying option with playmaking intentions against Australia and Nigeria. In fact, no defender eclipsed the five chances she created against Australia in the semifinal; while none of those key passes led to a goal, the quintet from live play and set pieces alike helped England gain a foothold against a team with an entire nation in vocal support.
As fitting as it was cruel for England, the first game in which an opponent kept Greenwood from creating a single chance was the one that finally saw the Lionesses lose. Still, her ability to take on greater defensive responsibilities in Williamson’s stead while retaining her usual distributive impact was vital for the tournament’s runners-up.
Naomi Girma, United States
If there was one positive to take from the miserable campaign the U.S. had at this tournament, it was the performance of Naomi Girma, a newcomer on the world’s biggest stage. The 23-year-old was asked to partner the veteran Julie Ertz in the heart of the U.S. defense, and from the first whistle to the last, Girma looked like someone who had played in World Cups all her life. She was assured, quick, strong and sophisticated in all the ways you want a center back to be.
Against Sweden, Girma’s true ability shone as she continually stifled any attacks Sweden tried to mount in transition on her side of the field. She managed to match pace with Sweden’s formidable frontline, and made sure that no one could get behind her. Girma cut out passing lanes, bodied any opponents off the ball when needed, and put in perfectly-timed tackles.
Girma was also efficient in her passing, and was relied upon to help the U.S. to build out from the back. Her long-range and short-range passing were some of the best in the team. She was always smart in possession as well, making it easier for her teammates to receive the ball no matter how far away they were.
Despite the way the U.S. went out of the tournament, Girma deserves every bit of praise that comes her way. She is now a mainstay for the American backline, and will be for the foreseeable future.
Ona Batlle, Spain
Only two defenders from any nation created more chances during the tournament than Batlle’s nine from the Spanish right flank, with her sole assist coming on Spain’s second goal against Costa Rica with a perceptive ball recovery and quick pass being rewarded.
And yet, that singular focus on creativity doesn’t do Batlle justice. Her 9.61 true tackles per 1000 opposing touches was right in line with Lucy Bronze’s 9.72, while no defender averaged more interceptions per 1000 opposing touches than her 8.11 clip. She also ranked among the top-15 defenders in per-touch adjusted ball recoveries and tackle win rate, while she led all defenders in per-touch adjusted blocks.
That may be the type of data deluge you’d find on the back of an old baseball card, but put most simply: Batlle was everywhere for Spain in the right half of the field. In all phases of play, the Manchester United defender rose to the occasion, staying progressive in possession and proactive against the ball. The sum of her performances may make her the archetypal two-way inverted fullback, as that role becomes increasingly en vogue.
Aitana Bonmatí, Spain
The Barcelona midfielder has had to step up in the midfield for both club and country after Alexia Putellas’ injury and she did so, in impressive fashion.
Given a more advanced role and tasked to be the one to break lines, Bonmatí became one of Spain’s key figures on La Roja’s tournament-winning run. Her ability to keep her balance as she drifted by challenges, her first touch, her eye for a pass, and her understanding of when to play that pass make her one of the best players in the world.
Bonmatí truly shined against Switzerland, which came into the round of 16 with a reputation of being very difficult to break down. but Bonmatí found a way through them whenever she was on the ball in a dominant 5-1 win.
Alongside Jenni Hermoso and Teresa Abelleira in Spain’s midfield, Bonmatí has been a highlight for anyone who enjoys great midfield play.
Teresa Abelleira, Spain
She flew a bit under the radar, but Abelleira may have been Spain’s best player at the World Cup. The midfielder, who usually plays as a No. 8, was tasked with playing at the base of Spain’s midfield due to Patri Guijarro’s absence. She slipped into the role seamlessly, providing the pivot that Spain relied on to start their attacks, and also help shield the backline.
Her only missteps came against Japan, but she wasn’t the only Spanish player to struggle that day in a 4-0 loss. After that wake-up call, she and the rest of her teammates regained their confidence and played through the likes of Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Against England in the final, Abelleira was supremely in command. When England tried to pass around her, she stepped into the passing lanes to prevent that. When England looked to be more physical, she won those battles as well. On top of that, her interchanges with the backline and midfield made England’s press obsolete. For a player who had only featured sparingly as a No. 6 before the World Cup, Abelleira was key to everything Spain did right against England.
Hayley Raso, Australia
Entering the tournament, all expectations were that the co-host’s fate would be mostly dictated by the form of star striker Sam Kerr. But while Kerr nursed a calf injury through most of the tournament, it was Raso who led the Matildas with three goals including a well-placed finish to clinch a spot in the quarterfinal.
Despite lacking much of the shot and chance creation volume that she displays for Manchester City, Raso came up in the big moments. She had 19.4% of Australia’s total shots on target, often closing in on the box from the right wing to pounce on a ball before placing her attempts. And, with stadiums full of vocal fans, she provided many moments to remember amidst the trio of celebrations she catalyzed.
Kerr’s equalizer in the semifinal was such an electric moment that she’s still likely to be the featured face as Australia remembers the World Cup it co-hosted in future years. However, it was Raso who helped keep the team on course to contend for the title thanks to her effective all-around play.
Hinata Miyazawa, Japan
While Spain will return home from this World Cup with the trophy, Japan can take solace in giving the eventual champion a 4-0 thrashing in the group stage. While Mina Tanaka also had a strong tournament and the whole team’s vibe was one of collective harmony over star individuals, it was Miyazawa who led the entire tournament in goals (five). She did so with well-placed finishing and without any penalties, while also leading all World Cup players by overperforming her xG of 2.55.
All of this came as something of a shock, as Miyazawa entered the tournament with just four career international goals in 23 appearances for Japan. She had been renowned mostly as a midfield technician instead of capping off team sequences with style. That inch-perfect control of the ball was largely to thank for her Golden Boot win; whether it was the opener against Spain or the round of 16-clinching finish against Norway, both saw her run beyond the back line onto a through ball before calmly placing a shot to the post.
Japan’s run captured neutrals’ hearts, but came to an end before they could contend for top-three status. Miyazawa’s individual accolade runs counter to the team’s selfless approach, but her Golden Boot can duly be shared with the many passers who set her up.
Kadidiatou Diani, France
For a third consecutive Women’s World Cup, France exited at the quarterfinal stage. While Les Bleues have yet to match or surpass the program-best fourth-place finish from 2011, they can take some satisfaction in setting a new team record with 12 goals scored in this most recent tournament, as well as a new high mark with a plus-8 goal differential.
This high-flying French side was led by Diani, who was at the top of the team’s goalscoring chart (four) as well as its most generous assister (three). In fact, those seven goal contributions led all players at this World Cup, with her two penalties helping take the edge over Miyazawa and Lauren James (six apiece). With a glancing header against Portugal and a close-range finish off the crossbar against Panama, Diani ensured that France didn’t waste chances in the heart of the box. Still just 28 years old, she’ll hope to be part of a 2027 run that could finally bring Les Bleues back into the semifinal (at minimum).
Linda Caicedo, Colombia
From phenom to bonafide star. That’s the story of Linda Caicedo at this year’s World Cup. After featuring for Colombia at the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, Caicedo earned a big move to Real Madrid. Still, it was a bold move by Colombia manager Nelson Abadia to put so much pressure on an 18-year-old to lift a team in a senior World Cup, but it paid off. Caicedo showed that her potential was being fulfilled in front of the world as Colombia made it to the quarterfinals.
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What makes Caicedo so special is despite her age, she has the understanding of a mature player in the final third and always makes the right decision when she’s in front of goal. She has great balance and can score from any angle, as shown by her goal against Germany in the group stages.
Caicedo faded in and out of games in the knockout stages but she always maintained an air of danger whenever the ball found her feet on the pitch. With so many years ahead of her, Caicedo can only get better as she develops as a player. However, her World Cup performance has shown the world exactly what she can do right now.
(Top photos: Getty Images)