The top women’s footballers on the planet will be in action when the first 32-team Fifa Women’s World Cup kicks off on Thursday in Australia and New Zealand.

The United States are favourites to win an unprecedented third consecutive title in a landmark month for women’s football. It has been a rapid expansion for a tournament that started in 1991 and featured only 16 teams till as recently as 2011, then 24 in France four years ago when the USA retained the trophy.

That reflects a dramatic rise in interest in women’s football over the last decade beyond its traditional heartland of the United States, and a swarm of European sides, who will be aiming to snatch the title.

This World Cup is not just bigger in terms of the number of competing nations.

Fifa has tripled the prize money compared with 2019 and the total pot, which also covers compensation for clubs releasing players, is up from $50 million four years ago to $152 million.

It is a vast hike on the $15 million offered in 2015, and confirmation that it is a boom time for women’s football. Big crowds at club and international matches, particularly in Europe, are more evidence that the game is at an all-time high.

Nevertheless, the prize pot still pales in comparison with the $440 million dished out at the 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar.

The tournament kicks off with New Zealand facing the Norway team of 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg in Auckland, and Australia playing Ireland in front of a sell-out crowd of more than 80,000 in Sydney.

Here’s a look at five players to watch out for:

Alexia Putellas (Spain)

Spain's midfielder Alexia Putellas looks on during the Women's International football match between England and Spain at the Carrow Road stadium, in Norwich, on February 20, 2022. | Credit: AFP

The 29-year-old attacking midfielder is considered by many to be the best women’s footballer in the world.

Winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or in each of the last two years, in February she retained her crown as the best player for 2022, despite missing the second half of the year with an anterior cruciate ligament injury.

Barcelona star Putellas is the first woman to reach 100 caps for Spain and they badly missed her creativity and goals at the 2022 European Championship, where they lost to eventual champions England in the quarter-finals.

Putellas was among the Spanish players demanding change within the national side, but did not join in with 15 players who last year asked not to be called up, amid differences with coach Jorge Vilda and the Spanish football federation.

Sam Kerr (Australia)

Australia's Sam Kerr runs with the ball during the 2023 Cup of Nations women’s football match between Australia and the Czech Republic in Gosford on February 16, 2023. Credit: AFP

If the co-hosts are to go far at the World Cup they will need Chelsea forward Kerr firing on all cylinders.

The 29-year-old Australia skipper made her international debut aged just 15 and has played over 120 times for her country, averaging a goal every other game. She scored five times at the 2019 World Cup.

Her numbers are just as impressive at Chelsea, hitting 29 goals in 38 appearances this season.

Kerr is such a big name at home that she was Australia’s flag-bearer at the coronation of King Charles.

Megan Rapinoe (United States)

USA's forward Megan Rapinoe celebrates scoring her team's first goal during the France 2019 Women's World Cup quarter-final football match between France and United States, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris on June 28, 2019. Credit: AFP

She needs little introduction as the most instantly recognisable player in women’s football.

The attacker has played 199 times for the United States, scoring 63 goals and making 73 assists. She has won the World Cup twice. Now Rapinoe plays in the United States for OL Reign.

She is set for retirement at the end of this season and is something of a fading force at 38, but she remains the face of women’s football for the casual fan.

Off the field, the openly gay Rapinoe is outspoken on a number of issues that go beyond sport, including advocating for LGBTQ rights. Rapinoe was also one of the USA stars who led their fight for equal pay, resulting in a landmark collective-bargaining deal last year, meaning the country’s men and women would evenly share World Cup prize money paid by Fifa.

Keira Walsh (England)

Barcelona's British midfielder Keira Walsh controls the ball during the Uefa Women's Champions League final football match between FC Barcelona and Wolfsburg in Philips Stadium, in Eindhoven, on June 3, 2023. Credit: AFP

England’s hopes of winning the World Cup for the first time have taken a hit with the injury loss of several key players, putting even more onus on midfielder Walsh.

Barcelona snapped her up from Manchester City for a reported 400 thousand pounds ($508 thousand) last September, a world record for a woman footballer.

With her passing, reading of the game and ability to win the ball back, Walsh was instrumental in Sarina Wiegman’s England winning the European Championships on home soil in 2022.

She was named player of the match when England defeated Germany 2-1 in the final at Wembley in extra time.

Ada Hegerberg (Norway)

Norway's striker Ada Hegerberg (L) controls the ball during the Uefa Women's Euro 2022 Group A football match between Norway and Northern Ireland at St Mary's Stadium in Southampton, southern England on July 7, 2022. Credit: AFP

The Norwegian was the first winner of the Women’s Ballon d’Or, in 2018, and is a prolific striker with leading French side Lyon.

Her Norway career has been stop-start, however. She withdrew from the international scene in 2017, citing concerns over the inequality of treatment given to men’s and women’s teams by the Norwegian federation. She only returned last year.

The 28-year-old forward has also been dogged by injuries.

But when in-form and firing, she is one of the best players in the world, and averages more than a goal a game for her club.

She is the all-time top scorer in the Uefa Women’s Champions League with 59 goals.

With inputs from AFP