The 2023 Women's World Cup has been notable for a number of reasons, many of them not even connected to what's been happening on the pitches across Australia and New Zealand. For one, it's the first Women's World Cup with two hosts; it's also the first edition with an expanded 32-team field, which has resulted in some stunning upsets (Colombia over Nigeria, anyone?) and some remarkable individual performances.
It's also notable for the number of debutantes in the bigger field, with eight nations -- Haiti, Republic of Ireland, Morocco, Panama, Philippines, Portugal, Vietnam and Zambia -- appearing in their first ever World Cup. Jamaica and South Africa have reached the round of 16 for the first time in their respective histories, but we also saw the youngest player ever to play at a World Cup (men's or women's) when South Korea's Casey Phair took the field on July 25.
Phair is one of three 16-year-olds -- along with Italy midfielder Giulia Dragoni and Costa Rica forward Sherika Scott -- to make waves at this tournament, with each of them stepping up for their countries and stepping into the spotlight with aplomb and composure beyond their years. Though all three nations failed to escape the group stage, the emergence of this trio shows just how bright the future is for women's soccer around the globe.
Casey Phair: "if you work hard from a young age, you can get to the biggest stage"
Amid known teams like Tottenham, Brighton, Hyundai Steel Red Angels and Suwon FC on the South Korea squad list is one player who is credited next to "Players Development Academy." The academy develops players from under-9 level through to under-19, and has two alumni at this tournament alongside one current scholar: Casey Phair.
Amid the disappointing World Cup journey -- South Korea lost twice and then held Germany to a 1-1 draw that eliminated one of the pre-tournament favorites in the group stage for the first time ever -- is a slice of history and reason for optimism. On July 25, Phair became the youngest player in the history of the World Cup -- men's or women's -- when she took to the pitch in the 78th minute against Colombia aged 16 years and 28 days, beating Nigeria's Ifeanyi Chiejine's previous record set in 1999 by eight days.
South Korea manager, Colin Bell, knew this would be a talking point. Phair scored five goals in two games while on Under-17 duty in Tajikstan in April, and her form at the pre-tournament training camp in Paju earned her a spot in the final 23. From the outset, he's tried to protect her from the inevitable attention, which has been intensified by the fact she's the first mixed-race player to represent the national team.
"As far as I'm concerned she's still a kid and it's my duty to protect her so she can blossom and really fulfill her potential," Bell said. "We're taking care of her, she's taken very well to the team. She's in the squad on merit. She deserves, on her performance, to be selected."
Bell said she wasn't going to be a "passenger" and wanted her to bring the "competition," something she's certainly done since being called up. She even celebrated her 16th birthday in Paju -- her teammates brought her a cake, and sang happy birthday to her in Korean and English. After that, Phair was named in the final squad.
Phair was born in South Korea, but her parents, Shane and Hye-young, moved to the U.S. when she was a couple of months old. (Her parents flew out to watch her play, while her two brothers stayed in the U.S.) Those who've paid a close eye on her development have seen her move from defence to striker, and witnessed her incredible pace and physicality for her age.
Then came the moment Phair made history.
"I wanted to throw her in to give her that experience, and as a signal to everyone in our squad that these kind of players are the future," Bell said afterward. In a squad where the average age of the starting XI for their opener was 30 years and 269 days old, Phair is the nod to the future. "We need that at club level in South Korea, need that type of player," Bell said. "Casey has the speed and power -- that's where the rest of the team needs to step up."
Standing on the touchline in the Sydney Football Stadium, she said she felt the butterflies in her stomach, but then went into autopilot.
"Coming into the tournament I was very nervous being the youngest player in the tournament, but I've gained a lot of confidence, I realised it wasn't as scary playing in front of that many people," Phair told ESPN after South Korea's second game. "I feel like I've learned a lot, just from the experience I've had playing on the field.
"I get a lot of support from my friends at home and everyone around me. Colin does a lot to keep me away from the media, and I think the support I feel from everyone else helps me focus and I can block out the pressure."
Phair appeared off the bench again in the second match, getting eight minutes at the end as South Korea chased a goal, only to eventually fall 1-0 to Morocco. After as she assessed her progress, she was disappointed with the defeat, but pleased to continue her development.
"I think it shows that if you work hard from a young age, no matter how old you are if you can work hard you get to the biggest stage," she told ESPN.
After this Phair will return to school and continue her studies, but life will be different. She's made history here and as she said after the first match on her Instagram, "this is just the beginning." -- Tom Hamilton, with reporting from Sophie Lawson
Dragoni: Italy's next great creative talent
Giulia Dragoni turned 16 last November, and it's been a wild ride since.
On Nov. 20, two weeks after her birthday, she made her debut for Inter Milan. In January, she signed for Barcelona, starting with their B team. In March, she was named in Italy's senior squad for the first time. On July 1, she made her Azzure debut, becoming the youngest player to represent her country this century at 16 years and 236 days old. The next day, she was named in the 23-player World Cup squad, becoming the youngest player to ever play for Italy in the tournament when she started their opening game in New Zealand, a 1-0 win over Argentina, aged 16 years and 259 days.
Everything has happened so fast that not everyone in the game has been able to keep up with her rise.
"I have not [trained] with her actually but I have heard a lot of good things and that she is a really talented player," Barca and Sweden winger Fridolina Rolfo told ESPN in a news conference ahead of last Saturday's match against Dragoni and Italy. "The first time I saw her was here in the World Cup and it is good for Barcelona's future to have players like her. I am looking forward to seeing her in the rest of the tournament."
Dragoni kept her place for the 5-0 defeat against Sweden. Wearing the No.16, perhaps a nod to her age, she sat at the tip of the midfield as Italy made a fast start. Good in possession, quick-thinking with the ball and a willing dribbler, you can see why Barca were drawn to her talents. In the end, Sweden made Italy pay for their lack of ability to defend set plays, but Dragoni had made her mark. Rolfo was quickly across to her at the final whistle, asking her for her shirt.
"It was really nice to see her and I told her that," Rolfo told reporters after the game. "She is an incredible player. She has a lot of talent and I think she is really mature for her age. I liked playing against her and I am looking forward to seeing how her future develops at Barcelona. She looked sad after the game and I went to speak with her, asking for her shirt, because we are teammates and I wanted to have it."
Italy coach Milena Bertolini is the one who propelled Dragoni into the spotlight by giving her such a prominent role at this World Cup. The spotlight remained on the creative midfielder even as Italy were stunned 3-2 by South Africa on Wednesday -- Dragoni played the full 90, completing 86% of her passes -- and will intensify when she returns to Barca ahead of the new season.
"She played well," Bertolini said after the Sweden defeat. "She is very young but she has played at a very high level for the World Cup. She has shown that she has personality. Considering her age, she has done so well and she still has a lot to build on as a player. This experience will help her grow and develop her potential. She has a great future ahead of her." -- Sam Marsden
Sheika Scott steps up for Costa Rica
Back at the World Cup after an eight-year absence, it has -- on the surface -- not been a summer to remember for Costa Rica, bowing out at the group stage with three losses and just one goal scored. Yet there is context and promise for Las Ticas as coach Amelia Valverde erred on the side of inexperience and youth in her squad selection, with no better example than her inclusion of 16-year-old attacker, Sheika Scott.
Having made waves at the Concacaf under-20 championship earlier this year where she helped Costa Rica to an unexpected semifinal exit (at the hands of the U.S.), Scott earned the nod for her senior team for the World Cup despite only earning her first senior cap last November.
Regarded for her scoring prowess, netting six times during the Concacaf tournament two months ago, Scott would rather play a deeper role, styling herself on Shirley Cruz, Costa Rica's most famous and renowned female footballer. Keen to emulate Cruz as a No.10, Scott already possesses a keen vision to supply her teammates further up the pitch, but was deployed in a more natural centre-forward role by Valverde in New Zealand.
Given the nod in Costa Rica's first match -- a drubbing at the hands of Spain -- Scott made her World Cup debut on the second day of the tournament, before making her second substitute appearance five days later against Japan. Although only on the pitch for about 15 minutes in both games, the teenager added fire and intensity to the forward line, taking the occasion in stride and showing no signs of being over-awed by the spotlight.
In Las Ticas' third and final game in New Zealand, Scott started against Zambia and although she couldn't find the scoresheet in the 3-1 defeat, she showed plenty of promise for the future.
Scott plays her club football, like many of her international teammates, domestically in Costa Rica, where she recently picked up a title with Alajuelense while playing alongside her idol Cruz, who has since retired. With a nose for goal and calmness that goes long beyond her years -- Scott was the penalty-taker for Costa Rica at youth levels -- there is the understanding that when the time is right, she'll move on to a more competitive league, possibly following in Cruz's footsteps and playing in Europe, where PSG is her dream club. But for now, Scott remains a bright spark for Las Ticas at both youth and senior level, as she acts as a marker for the future of Costa Rica. -- Sophie Lawson