The pressure is on France as they kick off the Women’s World Cup against South Korea on June 7, but while the Koreans, Norwegians and Nigerians are all potentially tricky opponents for the hosts, the format of the group stage leaves them some room to manoeuvre.
The United States have dominated women’s football for two decades, and although the team arrives in France at war with their national federation, there is little doubt they are favourites.
The draw has handed the Americans a favourable group and the format gives strong teams time to find their feet.
The first round will eliminate just eight teams of the 24 teams, with the top two finishers in each of the six groups advancing along with four best third-place teams.
Here AFP, looks at key matches, contenders in all groups:
Teams: France (World Ranking: Number 4), Norway (No. 12), South Korea (No. 14), Nigeria (No. 38)
Hosts France start as one of the tournament favourites, as the backbone of the starting XI play for Lyon, the dominant team in European club football. Sarah Bouhaddi is described by team-mates as “the best goalkeeper in the world”, central defender Wendie Renard captains Lyon while defensive midfielder Amandine Henri captains France. Striker Eugenie Le Sommer has scored 74 goals for the national team.
Further improving their chances in the absence of their star team-mate Ada Hegerberg, who is boycotting a Norway team that should still have enough to advance from the group.
South Korea took the fifth and last Asian World Cup berth in a playoff, but they qualified without conceding a goal.
Nigeria meanwhile are the only African team to have ever made it as far as the quarter-finals, back in 1999, and coach Thomas Dennerby has set that as a target.
“I hope we can get to the quarter-finals and from there, anything can happen,” the Swede said.
Key match: France v Norway. The noveau riche French face one of the women’s games old aristocrats.
Teams: Germany (No.2), Spain (No. 13), China (No. 16), South Africa (No. 49)
Germany remain number 2 in the world and are unbeaten since losing to France in last year’s SheBelieves Cup. They will be tough to beat and coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg is aware of what a good chance this is for her team.
“I am convinced that with this team, we are well set for the World Cup,” said the confident coach.
Barcelona may have been thrashed by Lyon in the Champions League final, but they were the first Spanish club to get that far and their improvement coincides with Spain’s rise in the FIFA rankings. Moreover, they do not have a single player over the age of 29.
Despite president Xi Jinping’s declared dream that China will win the World Cup, the women’s team have slipped back from 1999 when Sun Wen led the Steel Roses to the final with 10 goals and was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
“We know that we are far apart from the world elite of women’s football,” said coach Jia Xiuquan, adding that he was still aiming to win the competition.
“I want them first to dream big and then go all out to achieve the highest goal possible,” he said.
South Africa are distant outsiders.
Key match: China v Spain. The battle for second behind Germany
Teams: Australia (No. 6), Brazil (No. 10), Italy (No. 15), Jamaica (No. 53)
The Aussies have strength in depth. If attacker Mary Fowler appears in the opening match she will do so at the age of 16 years and 155 days. That might make her far younger than the men’s finals record holder, Norman Whiteside, who was 17 years and 41 days when he played for Northern Ireland against Yugoslavia in 1982, but she would only be the fourth youngest women to play at the World Cup.
In the Brazilian squad, the attention is on two 5-foot-4 veterans.
Six-times world player of the year Marta is at 33 trying to improve on her collection of runners up medals from the 2007 World Cup and the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, while Formiga is back for a seventh World Cup at 41.
If the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder plays she will break the record set by Christie Rampone of the USA who was 40 years and 11 days old when she made her last appearance in the 2015 final. FIFA calculated that 150 of the players at this World Cup were not even born when Formiga made her competition debut in 1995.
Italy, with all but one of their squad playing at home, have found cohesion since coach Milena Bertolini took over in 2017, but are not fancied to win the competition.
For Jamaica, supported spiritually and financially by Bob Marley’s family, just reaching the World Cup is a victory. The strike rate of 22-year-old Khadija Shaw, who scored 29 goals in her first 21 internationals, gives the Reggae Girlz hope of landing a big punch.
Key match: Italy v Brazil: Brazil’s veterans take on the less experienced Italians most likely with second place and an assured quarter-final berth on the line.
Teams: England (No. 3), Argentina (No. 37), Scotland (No. 20), Japan (No. 7)
England were semifinalists in Canada four years ago and in the Euros in 2017. That tournament was followed by the removal of coach Mark Sampson for “inappropriate and unacceptable” conduct but his successor, Phil Neville has maintained the momentum.
Despite winning 59 caps for England, Neville never played in a World Cup but he is confident his squad can do well and exploit the goodwill at home.
“We have nothing to fear,” Neville said. “The crowd and media are behind us, we are going into a major tournament as the best-prepared team.”
Japan followed an unexpected victory in 2011 with Olympic silver in 2014 and a runners-up spot in the 2015 World Cup, when they eliminated England in the semis.
A golden generation may have been replaced by a host of players promoted from the under-23s with an eye on the Tokyo Olympic tournament next year, but past results suggest the Japanese are over-achievers.
The Scots have qualified for the first time.
“You can’t just go to a World Cup and say you’re just there to enjoy it,” coach Shelley Kerr told the BBC. “Our priority is getting out of the group stage.”
The 37-year-old midfielder Mariela Coronel, who played in 2003 but missed Argentina’s disastrous 2007 appearance, can set a record for the longest gap between World Cups.
Key match: England v Scotland. England may want revenge against Japan but Scotland are their oldest footballing enemy and the match on the Riviera is guaranteed a big TV audience in the UK.
Teams: Canada (No. 5), New Zealand (No. 19), Cameroon (No. 46), Netherlands (No. 8)
Canada have been to the last six World Cups without ever making the last four.
Christine Sinclair has 282 caps, more than the entire Jamaican squad. She also has 180 international goals, second only to former US star Abby Wambach, and the 35-year-old Sinclair is Canada’s penalty taker.
Cameroon are another team looking to a 35-year-old goalscorer, Madeleine Ngono, who scored the goal that earned them a place in the second round on their debut in 2015.
The Dutch also made their debut in 2015 and also reached the round of 16, which lit the orange touchpaper. In 2017, the Dutch won the Euros. Star striker Vivianne Miedema was named this season’s players’ player of the year in England after leading Arsenal to the league title.
New Zealand have played in the last four World Cups without winning a game. But the Football Ferns are in the world top 20 and should be eyeing a second-round spot.
Their recent history is dominated by a bullying scandal and harassment scandal that provoked a player revolt to force a reluctant national federation to investigate coach Andreas Heraf.
“As horrible as that situation was, that’s a silver lining we can take from it,” said midfielder Sarah Gregorious. “It really highlighted that you can’t get away with that any more.”
Key match: Netherlands v Canada. An early test for two teams who could be title dark horse.
Teams: United States (No. 1), Sweden (No. 9), Thailand (No. 34), Chile (No. 39)
For the US anything other than victory is a failure.
“When you step into a team, when I took over, that was ranked number one in the world you realise that there is zero margin for error,” coach Jill Ellis said when she announced her squad.
Ellis said victory was what matters.
“And if we win in the 80th minute, I’m good with that.”
The US are the only team to be able to draw all their players from their domestic league and their strength in depth is terrifying.
This is the fifth straight World Cup that Sweden have been drawn in the same group as the USA. The Swedes also eliminated the US on penalties in the quarterfinals at the Rio Olympics.
On their World Cup debut four years ago, Thailand lost heavily twice but did beat Ivory Coast. One victory could see them into the second round.
Chile’s woman to watch, though you will have to look hard, is 1.48m (4ft 10ins) forward Javiera Grez, the shortest player in the tournament.
Key match: USA v Sweden In what looks a comfortable group this match has an edge of revenge for the loss in Rio that ended USA’s run of three consecutive Olympic gold.
With AFP inputs