The 14 World Cup players you need to know — from Brazil's Pele 2.0 to the top scorer in the history of soccer

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  • The 2023 World Cup kicks off in Australia and New Zealand on Thursday.

  • The highly anticipated tournament will feature some of the biggest stars across women's soccer.

  • Players to watch include Alex Morgan, Sam Kerr, Marta, and Barbra Banda.

The 2023 World Cup is upon us.

Thirty-two of the best teams in the world of women's soccer — up from 24 squads at the tournament in France four years prior — have descended upon Australia and New Zealand in pursuit of their sport's ultimate prize.

The group stage kicked off Thursday at 3 a.m. ET (7 p.m. local time) with New Zealand against Norway followed by Australia vs Ireland. Both home teams won their matchups in front of record-breaking crowds, with the Ferns upsetting Ada Hegerberg's Norwegian side and the Matildas taking down the Irish without their leading star.

Ali Riley reacts to New Zealand's 1-0 win over Norway in the opening match of the 2023 World Cup.

The US Women's National Team, which is seeking to make history as the only men's or women's team to win three consecutive World Cups, will begin its title defense against Vietnam Friday at 9 p.m. ET (1 p.m. Saturday local time). But outside of the reigning champions, there are plenty of names worth learning as the tournament gets underway.

Take Marta, who is embarking on her final of six career World Cup appearances. The eponymous Brazilian hero whom Pelé once dubbed "Pelé in skirts" became the first player — man or woman — to score in five consecutive World Cups during the 2019 tournament. Now, she's seeking to extend that streak en route to Brazil's first-ever World Cup victory on the women's side.

And you can't forget Christine Sinclair, the world's all-time leading goal scorer regardless of gender who led Canada to its first-ever gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Now, the 40-year-old forward will seek to carry that momentum into Australia and New Zealand in what will likely be her final appearance on soccer's biggest stage.

As play gets underway Down Under, here are 14 superstars you need to know while watching the World Cup:

Sam Kerr

Sam Kerr.
Sam Kerr is the face of the host nation Australia Matildas.Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

Country: Australia

Club: Chelsea

What to know: Kerr is one of the most lethal strikers on the planet — an assertion she's underscored by winning at least two Golden Boot awards (given to the top scorer of the season) in three different top-flight professional leagues on three different continents. Australia's captain is also the all-time leading scorer for her country despite not yet turning 30 years old.

Now, after a Round of 16 loss at the 2019 World Cup and a heartwrenching fourth-place finish in the 2020 Olympics, the Chelsea superstar is looking to lead her Australia Matildas to World Cup glory on home soil. She's starting out the tournament on the bench with a calf strain, but if we're lucky, she'll come back full-force and surprise the crowd with her signature goal celebration: a backflip on the pitch.

Alexia Putellas

Alexia Putellas.
Alexia Putellas has won the Ballon d'Or Féminin in each of the past two years.AP Photo/Steve Luciano

Country: Spain

Club: FC Barcelona

What to know: The reigning Ballon d'Or Féminin winner and The Best FIFA Women's Player twice over, Putellas has dominated the world of women's soccer in recent years despite tearing her ACL over the summer of 2022. The crafty midfielder spent the first half of 2023 returning to form with her club, and now she's ready to help Spain make its mark on the world's stage.

Putellas helped Spain to its best-ever Women's World Cup result in 2019, when "La Roja" lost to the eventual champions — the USWNT — in the Round of 16. But with Barcelona's recent Champions League success, Spain and Putellas have high expectations heading into Australia and New Zealand.

Lieke Martens

Lieke Martens.
Lieke Martens scored the Netherlands' first-ever Women's World Cup goal.AP Photo/Leila Coker

Country: Netherlands

Club: Paris Saint-Germain

What to know: Having competed on the Netherlands' first-ever Women's World Cup team in 2015 and having helped the Dutch reach the finals four years later, Martens has the experience and the drive to help take the "Leeuwinnen" to the very top.

The PSG midfielder has scored 58 goals for her country. But with the Netherlands' all-time leading scorer, Vivianne Miedema, unavailable for the tournament after tearing her ACL, expect Martens to take on some additional responsibility on the attack.

Barbra Banda

Barba Banda.
Barba Banda is Africa's all-time leading Olympic goalscorer.REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Country: Zambia

Club: Shanghai Shengli

What to know: Africa has never seen a goal scorer quite like Banda, the Zambian forward who has scored more Olympic goals than any other player from her continent. She put her name on the world's radar by scoring back-to-back hat tricks during the Tokyo Olympics and, despite playing in just three matches, tied for second for most goals scored in the tournament.

At just 23 years old, Banda is tasked with helping Zambia make a mark in its first-ever World Cup appearance — for men or women. She's off to a strong start, scoring two goals to lead the Copper Queens to a shocking 3-2 upset of No. 2 Germany in their final friendly ahead of the World Cup.

Wendie Renard

Wendie Renard.
Wendie Renard has long been the captain of France's national team.AP Photo/Rui Vieira

Country: France

Club: Lyon

What to know: A 6-foot-2 center back for "Les Bleues," Renard has been the stalwart of France's defense since earning her first cap with the senior national team in 2011. Just two years later, the Martinique native earned the captaincy for the squad and, with it, responsibility for leading Les Bleues on the world's stage.

Despite receiving the captain's arm band exactly a decade ago and still maintaining top form heading into the tournament, Renard was at serious risk of missing this year's World Cup. A long-lasting conflict with former head coach Corinne Diacre — who stripped Renard of the captaincy for five years — led the Lyon superstar to announce that she planned to step back from the French team and miss the World Cup "to preserve my mental health."

But France's federation parted ways with Diacre in March, prompting Renard and two other teammates who had pulled out of the World Cup to rejoin the team ahead of their trip Down Under.

Christine Sinclair

Christine Sinclair
Christine Sinclair has scored more international goals than any other soccer player — man or woman — in the history of the sport.NurPhoto / Getty Images

Country: Canada

Club: Portland Thorns

What to know: With 190 goals over the course of her illustrious career, Sinclair has scored more international goals than any other soccer player — man or woman — in the history of the sport. Canada's captain already has five World Cups and four Olympic tournaments under her belt, and while she finally broke through to win gold at the Tokyo games, her sixth World Cup appearance is likely to be her final chance to hoist soccer's most prestigious trophy.

The 40-year-old forward is leading with confidence. She told Insider earlier this year that the reigning champions and world's top-ranked team — the US Women's National Team — looks "beatable" and doesn't instill "the same level of fear" as it once did.

Saki Kumagai

Saki Kumagai.
Saki Kumagai is a mainstay on the successful Japanese national team.Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Country: Japan

Club: AS Roma

What to know: Japan's captain and oldest player, Kumagai has been a mainstay for the "Nadeshiko." The always-dependable defender is embarking on the fourth World Cup appearance of her career; she scored the championship-winning penalty kick at the 2011 World Cup and helped Japan to a second-place finish four years later.

But after failing to advance beyond the Round of 16 at the 2019 tournament, Japan — led by Kumagai — is looking to reclaim its position atop the world of women's soccer.

Marta

Marta.
Marta is considered one of the greatest women's players ever.AP Photo/Francisco Seco

Country: Brazil

Club: Orlando Pride

What to know: The all-time leading scorer in World Cup history regardless of gender, Marta is a living legend headed to the sixth World Cup of her illustrious career. She became the first player — man or woman — to score in five consecutive World Cups and, at the Tokyo Games, became the first woman to score in five consecutive Olympics. It's no surprise she's been named FIFA World Player of the Year a whopping six times.

Despite all of her success on the club and international level, the 37-year-old has yet to win a major international tournament with "As Canarinhas." Brazil finished second at the 2007 World Cup and took home silver medals from the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Marta will look to bring her country its first victory on the women's side in the final World Cup of her career.

Asisat Oshoala

Asisat Oshoala.
Asisat Oshoala has dominated on the club level with FC Barcelona.Andrew Katsampes/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Country: Nigeria

Club: FC Barcelona

What to know: With a record five African Women's Footballer of the Year awards to her name, Oshoala is widely regarded as the most accomplished and decorated women's soccer player on her continent. At the club level, she's won league championships on three different continents; most recently, she helped FC Barcelona to two UEFA Champions League titles and several domestic crowns in a three-year span.

But Oshoala — who has scored a remarkable 107 goals through 148 appearances for Barcelona — is still looking to earn some hardware internationally. Nigeria did not advance past the group stage of the World Cup during her first tournament in 2015, and while the Super Falcons made it further in 2019, they fell 3-0 to Germany in the first game of the knockout round.

 

Alex Morgan

Alex Morgan.
Alex Morgan looks to lead the US to a record third consecutive World Cup victory.AP Photo/Roberto Martinez

Country: US

Club: San Diego Wave FC

What to know: Morgan is the fifth leading scorer all-time and the top active scorer for the mighty US Women's National Team. After helping the Stars and Stripes to three World Cup finals and two victories through three trips to the sport's top tournament, Morgan is aiming to help the USWNT make history as the first-ever national team to win three consecutive World Cups.

Now a captain for the world's top-ranked team, the 34-year-old striker became a mom shortly after the 2019 World Cup victory. But even after giving birth to her daughter, Charlie, and coming back into form through the pandemic, Morgan is playing some of the best soccer of her career and is poised to make a significant impact on the field for the USWNT.

Lucy Bronze

Lucy Bronze.
Lucy Bronze is one of the most elite defenders in women's soccer.Getty/Robbie Jay Barratt

Country: England

Club: FC Barcelona

What to know: Bronze has long been a force to be reckoned with at right-back for England. Now 31 years old and embarking on the third World Cup of her career, the Barcelona star is better positioned than ever to hoist a trophy with the Lionesses.

Bronze — The Best FIFA Women's Player of 2020 — helped England take down Norway, Spain, Sweden, and Germany en route to the 2022 UEFA Women's Euro title. With momentum on their side, the fourth-ranked Lionesses hope to advance to the first World Cup championship game in their team's history.

Kosovare Asllani

Kosovare Asllani.
Kosovare Asllani is one of Sweden's most lethal weapons on the attack.AP Photo/Rui Vieira

Country: Sweden

Club: A.C. Milan

What to know: Asllani is the vice captain of a star-studded Swedish squad that has long been considered a top contender on the international stage but has never broken through at the Olympics or World Cup. After back-to-back silver medals at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics and a third-place finish in the last World Cup, Sweden is hungrier than ever to take home a trophy.

As her country's top active scorer with 44 international goals, Asllani will look to help Sweden over the hump during this year's tournament Down Under.

Ada Hegerberg

Ada Hegerberg.
Ada Hegerberg was the first-ever recipient of the Ballon d'Or Féminin.REUTERS/John Sibley

Country: Norway

Club: Lyon

What to know: At her best, Hegerberg is arguably the most talented player in women's soccer. But injuries and a years-long hiatus from the Norwegian national team left the first-ever recipient of the Ballon d'Or Féminin largely absent from the biggest international competitions in women's soccer.

Now, five years after stepping away from the "Gresshoppene" in protest of the federation's treatment of the women's team, Hegerberg is back for the biggest tournament in the sport. She'll look to lead Norway — FIFA's 12th-ranked squad — to its first trip to the semifinals in over a decade and, ideally, its first World Cup title of the century.

Alexandra Popp

Alexandra Popp.
Alexandra Popp is Germany's captain and top scorer.REUTERS/Molly Darlington

Country: Germany

Club: VfL Wolfsburg

What to know: Popp has been an unstoppable force on Germany's front line since joining the senior national team more than a decade ago. Now the team's captain, the 32-year-old is tasked with leading a talented squad to title contention for the first time since Germany won back-to-back World Cups in 2003 and 2007.

Popp and second-ranked Germany head to Australia and New Zealand with extra motivation; they did not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics despite winning gold in 2016, then fell just short of winning the 2022 Euros.

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