The United States may be favourites to retain their Women’s World Cup title but the rapid development of the game globally means they will face a tougher field than ever before when the tournament gets underway in France on June 7.
Hundreds of thousands of tickets have been sold and world governing body FIFA is banking on the women’s game taking a huge step forward on the back of a successful tournament.
The eighth edition of the Women’s World Cup will be contested by 24 teams in nine cities across France, with the hosts facing South Korea in the opening game at the Parc des Princes in Paris.
The top two in each of the six qualifying groups will advance to the knockout stages, where they will be joined by the four best third-placed teams.
The semi-finals and final will be staged in Lyon, home to powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais, historically the most successful club in women’s football in France, with the final slated for July 7.
With a passionate home crowd behind them and a strong domestic league, the French will fancy their chances on home soil, while England, Australia, Germany and Japan will also hope to lift the trophy.
Though France have a tough draw in Group A alongside South Korea, Norway and Nigeria, they will look to win it outright to give themselves the best chance of an easy route through the knockout rounds.
Former champions Norway will be without Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg, who has declined to play for the national side since the end of Euro 2017, citing disagreements over how the team is run.
Two-times winners Germany will face off against China, Spain and debutants South Africa in Group B, while Australia, Italy, Brazil and Jamaica are set to battle it out in Group C.
Despite their rich football tradition, Brazil have never won a World Cup or an Olympic gold medal, and with prolific striker Marta now 33, this may be the last chance for her to grab one of those elusive titles.
There will be no shortage of sparks in Group D where a strong England side have been paired with Scotland, Argentina and 2011 champions Japan, while European champions Netherlands take on Canada, Cameroon and New Zealand in Group E.
The Dutch slipped up in qualifying and needed playoff wins against Denmark and Switzerland to book their berth, but their potent offense will be keen to impress an army of travelling fans.
The United States look to have secured a relatively easy draw with their first two games against Chile and Thailand, but Sweden will pose a problem in their final encounter, which is likely to decide the outcome of Group F.
As ever, discussions about gender equality will never be too far away, and despite the fact that FIFA has doubled the prize money on offer since the 2015 event in Canada, it has still come in for criticism.
However, fans and players are expected to park those discussions, at least temporarily, when the action finally gets underway in Paris.
Henry equipped to lead Les Bleues to world title
Amandine Henry was five when she first showed her potential at kicking a ball and, in the absence of any women’s teams, her father signed her to play with the local boys.
In the 24 years since, she has won 11 French titles and four Champions Leagues but those honours are likely to pale by comparison if she manages to lead hosts France to the title at the World Cup in July.
The only woman in L’Equipe’s list of 30 most influential personalities in French football, Henry has become one of the world’s best defensive midfielders.
“Football made me as a woman, it helped me build my identity,” the 29-year-old told TV5 Monde.
The path from five-year-old taking on the boys to captain of Les Bleues was, as is the case for many women professionals, far from easy, though.
At OSM Lomme, the club she joined at the age of 11 after another team had turned her down because of her gender, Henry had to fight for her place as she was the only girl.
“You have to earn respect on the pitch, and I often had to do more than them,” she recalled.
It was not until she was 15 that she played her first women’s games in Henin-Beaumont before joining the French football academy in Clairefontaine, on the outskirts of Paris.
The best paid French female player, Henry joined Lyon in 2007 but came close to ending her career a year later because of a knee problem.
“I think I will need a prosthetic leg when I retire,” she joked.
A stint in Portland, with whom she won the National Women’s Soccer League in 2017, taught her how better to ‘protect herself’ in a league that is more physical than those of Europe.
Henry made her international debut in 2009 but was dropped after a couple of seasons by then coach Bruno Bini, who omitted her from the France side that took fourth place in the London Olympics in 2012.
There were reports doing the rounds that a personal problem with a team mate led Bini to make do without Henry, but they have never been confirmed.
She made her return in 2013 and has since become one of the first names on the team sheet with current head coach Corinne Diacre handing her the captain’s armband in 2017.
Henry now has the chance to repay Diacre’s faith by leading her country to their first world title.
Japan head to France 2019 with one eye on Olympics
Although Japan head to France for the women’s World Cup focussed on the task at hand, it is only natural that Asako Takakura’s young team should have one eye on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Excitement is building in Japan for the summer showpiece with the demand for home-grown medal winners increasing by the month.
Japan have become a powerhouse in the women’s game, ever since their momentous World Cup victory in Germany eight years ago.
That victory may have been a surprise but the emotions attached to the victory, which came months after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, mean the Nadeshiko hold a special place in the hearts of the Japanese people.
It has also raised expectations of what Takakura’s team can achieve on home soil at the Olympics.
“When I imagine Tokyo 2020, it is natural to feel the pressure when you are inside Japan because you hear a lot about it,” Takakura told Reuters via email.
“But I believe that you can change that pressure into a positive strength.”
Japan, fresh off the back of winning both the Asian Cup and the Asian Games gold medal in 2018, are building a young team with the Olympics in mind but also remain hopeful of causing another surprise in France.
“The aim is to win the tournament but we would like to concentrate on taking one step at a time,” said Takakura, who knows her team, with an average age of just 23, are still a work in progress.
“I feel that the team has grown when we won even though we had some challenges.
“However, no one in this team is satisfied with where we are because we are a team that welcomes challenges rather than enjoying achievement.
“That is more valuable than winning.”
For the recent friendlies in Europe – a 3-1 loss to France and a 2-2 draw with Germany – Takakura chose to call on nine players from dominant Japanese outfit Nippon TV Beleza.
Beleza have won the last four L.League domestic titles and possess an exciting array of attacking talent who will be looking to catch the eye of big European clubs during the World Cup.
Talented midfielder Yui Hasegawa is the pick of the Beleza players and has already made 35 appearances for Japan at the age of 22.
Rikako Kobayashi, 21, is another in-form Beleza product who could form a deadly attacking partnership with Kumi Yokoyama, scorer of four goals during the Asian Cup triumph.
Midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi, who has made over 120 appearances for Japan and won the L.League’s MVP award three years running from 2015-2017 has been recovering from a knee injury leaving Takakura sweating over her fitness.
However, Takakura believes in her young players and wants them to grow during the tournament.
“It is true that they are young, but the ones who will be at the final selection will be strong,” assured Takakura.
“I would like them to play with confidence… and I would like them to grow during the tournament.
“I want them to play to their maximum no matter what their ages are.”
Japan, ranked seventh in the world, have been drawn in Group D alongside Argentina, Scotland and England, who defeated Japan in the final of the SheBelieves Cup in March.
Expectation levels soaring for England’s Lionesses
As a player Phil Neville was used to the often ridiculous expectation levels surrounding England before major tournaments and they are soaring again ahead of the Women’s World Cup in France.
That is partly down to the strength of a squad containing a mix of exciting youngsters and vastly experienced senior players but also because of a golden year for English football.
Gareth Southgate’s men’s side captivated the public with a run to the semi-finals of last year’s Russia World Cup and will compete in the Nations League finals next month.
Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur will contest the Champions League final in Madrid on June 1, a few days after Chelsea and Arsenal meet in the Europa League final in Baku.
In March, Neville’s side beat 2015 World Cup runners-up Japan 3-0 to win the SheBelieves Cup — setting down a marker ahead of their World Cup opener against Scotland in Nice on June 9.
While English optimism has often been of the rose-tinted glasses variety, there is a huge amount of goodwill behind Neville’s Lionesses for whom a semi-final berth will be the immediate target. Then who knows what is possible?
Women’s soccer has made huge strides in England since they finished third at the 2015 tournament, with many players becoming household names, media exposure on the rise and the game much more visible on television.
With the BBC televising every match of the tournament, Neville knows his side have a gilt-edged opportunity to cement the women’s game in the consciousness of the masses.
“The public will be inspired by this team,” Neville said after a high-profile squad announcement in which David Beckham, Prince William and actress Emma Watson played a role.
“This is a tipping point for the women’s game. The quality has improved massively and we’re in a period where we can only get bigger and better. It will be a great tournament.”
Eleven of England’s squad will be playing in their first World Cup, but there are plenty of older heads.
Chelsea winger Karen Carney is about to embark on her eighth major tournament having debuted in 2005, while Manchester City defender Steph Houghton, who also has more than 100 England caps, will captain the side again having worn the armband in Canada four years ago.
Manchester City’s Jill Scott, another centurion, remains a key cog in England’s midfield.
While Neville knows the value of players with tournament experience, it is his young guns who could provide the spark to lead England to their maiden World Cup triumph.
In Olympique Lyonnais right back Lucy Bronze, England possess a player for whom the “world class” tag looks fitting.
Bronze announced herself with a superb goal against Norway at the last World Cup and will be key to England’s hopes in France.
Arsenal’s Beth Mead, who scored against Japan in the SheBelieves Cup, is joined by club team mate Leah Williamson who has impressed as a ball-playing defender.
Chelsea’s Fran Kirby offers a cutting edge in the final third while impish winger Nikita Parris, who has announced she will be leaving Manchester City, has the potential to take the tournament by storm.
Parris finished this season’s Women Super League as the second-highest scorer with 19 goals and won the Football Writers’ Association Women’s Player of the Year award.
No wonder Neville is not modest about his side’s chances.
“I’m confident these girls can deliver the trophy,” he said.
Germany eye return to world elite after decade in doldrums
Germany are targeting a return to the world’s elite at the Women’s World Cup next month after a string of disappointing results for the two-times champions in recent years.
The Germans won the World Cup in 2003 and 2007 but were eliminated in the quarter-finals in 2011 and finished fourth in 2015, and the fans’ passion for women’s football appears to have waned.
A shock quarter-final exit at the 2017 European Championship, an abysmal performance at the invitational SheBelieves Cup and a poor start to their World Cup qualifying campaign led to coach Steffi Jones being sacked last year.
Former Germany international and youth coach Horst Hrubesch took over on an interim basis to secure World Cup qualification, and after restoring order with seven wins and a draw from his eight games, handed the reins over to Martina Voss-Tecklenburg.
The Germans, who have been drawn in Group B with Spain, China and South Africa, are widely expected to advance to the knockout phase, where they should avoid hosts France and defending champions the United States until a potential final.
“We obviously want to win the group,” Voss-Tecklenburg said.
“That is our first aim. Then we reach the knockout stage and as we want to qualify for next year’s Olympics we need to reach minimum the quarter-finals or the semi-finals (depending on the number of European teams.) This is our minimum demand.”
The former Switzerland coach, who took over in November, named 23 players in her squad with five more players set to join Germany’s training camp in Bavaria later this month as alternates in case of last-minute injuries.
Voss-Tecklenburg has retained a backbone of experienced players in the side, including Olympic champions Dzsenifer Marozsan, Melanie Leupolz, Alexandra Popp and Lena Goessling, among others, while bringing in several younger players.
There is also some experience on the sidelines with two-times world champion Birgit Prinz joining the team as a sports psychologist.
Recent wins over heavyweights France and Sweden and a draw against former world champions Japan have boosted confidence and kept Germany second in the FIFA rankings behind world champions the United States going into the June 7-July 7 tournament.
“We have a good mix of experience and youth. Germany are always among the favourites,” Voss-Tecklenburg added. “We are number two in the world. We know we have these expectations.
“I’m certain if we show our potential on the pitch that we will go far.”
Brazil optimistic for Women’s World Cup despite nine-game losing run
Once one of the most feared nations in women’s football, Brazil head to the World Cup in France in the midst of their worst run in history.
“We need to be unified,” midfielder Erika told Reuters after Brazil’s last warm-up game, a 1-0 loss to Scotland.
“Nine defeats in a row for a Brazilian team that always wants to win is not normal but we are working hard and I think that whoever goes to the World Cup will go there stronger and more experienced and I am sure that we will go with a new mentality.
“This is the preparation phase,” added the Corinthians midfielder. “When we get there it will be 0-0 for everyone.”
Brazil are in Group C alongside Jamaica, Australia and Italy and will be aiming to surpass their best-ever finish in 2007 when they lost to Germany in the final.
Since beating Japan 2-1 last July, Brazil have failed to win any matches either at home or away. That streak includes losses to World Cup favourites United States, France, Japan and England.
They are now 10th in the world standings, their lowest ranking, and Erika acknowledged that will encourage their opponents.
“The other teams will see that we are weaker psychologically more than on the field, and they will not respect us as much,” she said.
“I think they can see that we are a bit weak and they will feel emboldened but that will change, we will have to make the other teams fear us.”
Part of Brazil’s problem has been the instability common at all levels of the game in South America.
They have changed coach five times since 2011, with the current boss back for a second stint in three years, and the only female coach controversially dismissed in 2017 after just 10 months in charge.
They may also be struggling to cope with a changing of the guard.
Star striker Marta, the only person to win the FIFA Player of the Year award six times, is still a force to be reckoned with but is now 33.
Stalwart midfielder Formiga is 41. Only five of the starting 11 against Scotland were in the 2015 World Cup squad.
Erika, however, insisted the South Americans are capable of springing what some might see as a surprise.
“We never go to a tournament thinking about qualifying from the group or getting second place, we think of winning the gold medal and that is still our objective,” she said.
“I agree that we have lost that essence in our last games but we’ll get it back… We’ll surprise a lot of people.”
Argentina return but face uphill task in toughest group
Argentina will return to the Women’s World Cup after a 12-year absence but have been drawn in arguably the toughest group and results this year indicate they might struggle to improve on past performances to record their first global triumph.
Argentina’s main task will be to do better than in 2007 when they lost all three games having scored once and conceded 18.
They have been handed a mammoth task next month in France in what is the hardest section of the six groups by world ranking.
Two of their Group D rivals, England and Japan, are in the top 10 with Scotland 17 places above them in 20th.
Argentina qualified for a third World Cup after finishing third in South America and beating Panama in a playoff.
They have struggled since, losing all three of their friendlies without scoring, but they are optimistic.
The domestic game is growing quickly, with a professional league due to start this year and the Argentine FA announcing the creation of a new high performance centre in Buenos Aires.
Clubs are also taking the women’s game more seriously, with the Boca Juniors team playing at the fabled Bombonera stadium for the first time in March. The game was the first to be broadcast live in Argentina.
“The (friendly) results don’t change anything,” attacking midfielder Maria Florencia Bonsegundo told FIFA.com.
“It was the first time we’ve played World Cup teams on official FIFA matchdays. They’re strong sides and we know what we’re up against. They were really useful games for us, though, and we’ll keep on working.
“Argentina are showing that we have what it takes,” added the Sporting Club Huelva player.
“We need to spend more time together, but we’re making progress and we want to make a mark. We know this is just the start, the start for a generation that will make people sit up and take notice.”