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Lionel Messi’s title in Qatar inspires Argentina women’s team ahead of World Cup

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Argentina’s team will draw inspiration from Lionel Messi’s achievement in Qatar in its quest to advance to the knockout stage of the Women’s World Cup for the first time.

Argentina has a long and proud history in the men’s tournament, including the run to last year’s title six months ago, but has never won a match in three previous trips to the Women’s World Cup.

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Breaking that drought could mean a spot in the Round of 16 in the tournament being co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, and that would be cause for celebration.

“It is a big inspiration, but the expectation is not the same,” striker Paulina Gramaglia told The Associated Press, comparing the objectives of Argentina’s men’s and women’s teams. “We don’t have the same foundation that they have, we are not seeking to win the trophy. We have our own goals and our context.”

Argentina is in Group G with Sweden, which won the bronze medal at the 2019 World Cup and is third in the FIFA rankings, Italy and South Africa.

They’ll start the tournament against Italy on July 24 in Auckland, travel to New Zealand’s South Island to take on South Africa four days later and return north to close the group stage against four-time semifinalist Sweden in Hamilton on Aug. 2.

The four years leading into the World Cup have coincided with a dramatic change in the Argentine soccer association’s philosophy after decades of neglecting the women’s game. The national women’s league went professional in 2019 and there has been more support for youth teams, which includes infrastructure, uniforms and international competition.

Those improvements have allowed the Argentine women’s national team to rise compared with its performances at the 2019 World Cup in France, where it secured its first competition points with draws against Japan and Scotland.

“Argentina’s league has grown a lot in recent years, the infrastructure and the opportunities at the clubs are improving. That is also improving the teams’ fitness a lot, and that improves the overall level,” Gramaglia said. “We are still falling short in comparison with other countries of the region, but this is a good path.”

Argentina placed third in last year’s Women’s Copa America behind Brazil and Colombia. That was the first tournament the team played under coach Germán Portanova, who took over from José Carlos Borriello.

Borriello, who led the Argentines in the 2003, 2007 and 2019 Women’s World Cups, was replaced in 2021 after the players rebelled against his coaching methods.

“The first thing they told me right after I arrived was that there was a match against Brazil. I said ‘Let’s do it.’ We lost 3-1 and 4-1, but we played well in many moments,” Portanova said. “I would always take on Brazil, with no fear of losing. We will be a little closer (after) competing against them.”

Portanova’s challenge is to find an ideal lineup in a squad filled with veteran players such as goalkeeper Vanina Correa, who will turn 40 in August, and 32-year-old midfielder Estefanía Banini, who is considered Argentina’s best-ever female player.

The Argentine squad will also be counting on youngsters like Sophia Braun, a defender who was born in the United States but chose to represent her mother’s country.

“All of us here are aware of the things that have been achieved until this moment and of the things we can still achieve,” said Gramaglia, a 20-year-old forward. “It is not too little that one of the objectives is to win for the first time in a women’s World Cup. We will fight for that.”

Reporting by The Associated Press.

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