France set for women's World Cup draw as countdown to 2019 finals begins
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With just six months to go until the tournament's opening game in Paris, anticipation is growing ahead of the 2019 women's World Cup as the French capital prepares to host the draw for the finals on Saturday.
The spotlight on the women's game continues to grow, and next year's competition in France -- which runs from June 7 to July 7 -- will be the most lucrative yet.
There remains a chasm, though, compared to the men's World Cup that will take some years yet to close, in financial terms and in terms of the media spotlight.
However, there are some advantages to that -- twelve months ago, President Vladimir Putin took the stage in the Kremlin at a politicised draw for the World Cup in Russia, but this time at least the football can be the sole focus.
The hosts will be among the top seeds for the 24-team tournament, in which the United States will defend their crown while Olympic champions Germany will be strong contenders too.
Competition is likely to be intense, however -- 2011 winners Japan will fancy their chances, as will Phil Neville's England, semi-finalists at the last World Cup and at Euro 2017.
"We've got the experience now but we want to make sure we go all the way," England star Fran Kirby told The Guardian recently.
Getting beyond the group stage may not be too hard for them, even if the overall standard of women's football is improving all the time.
"I think this will be the first women's World Cup ever that will be highly competitive all the way through," Australia coach Alen Stajcic told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Beyond the leading names, this is also a big occasion for Scotland, whose women have qualified for their first World Cup in the same country where their men last went to a major tournament, back in 1998.
"I'm not one bit interested in drawing glamour countries," Scotland head coach Shelley Kerr admitted to the BBC.
"I'm hoping that we get a favourable draw that gives us the best possible chance of getting out of the group."
- Hegerberg set to miss out -
The ceremony at La Seine Musicale in Boulogne-Billancourt, just outside Paris, takes place on a weekend when the French capital is preoccupied with the threat of more violent "yellow vest" protests over rising living costs in the country.
France, though, successfully staged Euro 2016 despite terrorism concerns and is sure to put on a show for the women's game as Les Bleues aim to match the achievements of the men, World Cup winners in Russia.
The last tournament in Canada was the first with 24 teams and FIFA president Gianni Infantino proudly announced recently that total prize money had doubled since then, to $30 million, including a record $4 million for the winners.
That represents a step in the right direction, but a long way short of the figures in the men's game -- France pocketed $38 million for winning in Russia.
The standing of women's football was highlighted again this week when prolific Norwegian striker Ada Hegerberg was awarded the first women's Ballon d'Or.
The Lyon star called it a "historic" victory, and yet coverage of her success focused largely on host DJ Martin Solveig's bizarre request for her to "twerk" on stage. Hegerberg's achievement did not deserve to be overshadowed in such a way.
However, the 23-year-old may not be paying too much attention to Saturday's draw, which begins at 6:00pm (1700 GMT).
Norway, winners in 1995, have qualified, but Hegerberg has not played for her country since their meek exit from Euro 2017.
It would be a real shame for the tournament, the final of which will be played in Lyon, home to Europe's dominant club side, if she did not change her mind.
© 2018 AFP