Women's football reaching 'tipping point' as World Cup approaches
As the 24 teams go through their final preparations for a Women's World Cup featuring more heavyweight contenders than ever, many have one eye on an even greater prize than a winner's medal.
The competition kicks off in Paris in a week's time and after years of painstaking development and increasing media coverage, this is expected to the year the women's game makes its definitive leap into the big time.
"I think there's a bigger picture ... this summer," England manager Phil Neville said at the unveiling of his squad.
"I think this World Cup is a tipping point for the women's game where I think it's just going to go boom."
The signs are encouraging on the field and off it.
Hosts France kick off the tournament on June 7 when they take on South Korea at the Parc des Princes in the capital, and ends on July 7 with the final at the Groupama Stadium in Lyon, which holds just over 69,000.
However when France hosted the men's World Cup and Euros, the finals were held at the 80,000-capacity Stade de France, and large proportion of the matches at this summer are taking place in stadiums with a capacity of 25,000 or less.
"We did not always choose big grounds because we didn't want any empty stadiums," Noel Le Graet, the president of the French Football Federation, told AFP.
"We got the women's World Cup in 2015 ... At the beginning, possible host cities were not exactly shoving each other out of the way to come forward.
"I was a bit scared about the Parc des Princes, but the opening match sold out in five minutes."
- Out of the blue -
The demand for tickets has surprised the hosts.
"We didn't see it coming," said Erwan Le Prevost, head of the local organising committee.
Jean-Michel Aulas, the president of Lyon, who will host the semi-finals and final told AFP that "it was a gamble at the time that we bid for the games."
Enthusiasm is running high for the eighth official Women's World Cup in part because pool of competitive teams is deeper.
"We are in a virtuous circle with an audience that will come and watch," said Jean-Michel Aulas, the president of Lyon, who will host the semi-finals and final.
The United States are the queens of the game after winning the World Cup three times and the Olympics four times, while Germany follow close behind with two World Cups and a whopping eight European Championships. Japan and Norway have both won the World Cup once.
However the power of the Americans and Germans is set to be challenged now some of the other traditional football powers, who for a long time did not take women's football seriously, are catching up.
England and France, ranked third and fourth in the world, arrive with genuine hopes of winning the whole thing. Spain, the Netherlands and Italy are all in the top 15, with the Dutch reigning European champions.
International women's football is following a pattern Aulas observed in club competition, in which Lyon beat Barcelona in May to win a fourth straight Women's Champions League title.
"At a European level, we have probably provoked the desire in all the big clubs to be able to do the same thing," he said.
- Ongoing battle -
Neville said that his older squad members had told him stories he found hard to believe about how tough things used to be, say that there were "no bibs, no balls, no pitches (and) being treated so badly".
Some of the teams at the World Cup continue to face the same issues, yet even for the strongest nations attitudes are not changing fast enough.
The US team, whose popularity in their homeland has been the financial motor that has driven women's football, arrive embroiled in a legal dispute with their federation.
They want to be paid the same as the US men's team, who remain also-rans and whose best World Cup finish was a third place in 1930.
Women's Ballon D'Or winner Ada Hegerberg, who scored a hat trick for Lyon in the Champions League final, will also be absent. She is boycotting the national team even though Norway pays women and men internationals the same, because she believes that more needs to be done to improve the way women footballers are treated.
Yet when the opening whistle blows, those players who are in France will be focused on winning what promises to be the toughest Women's World Cup yet.
"It's going to be a remarkable World Cup. The level of competition four years on from the last one has exponentially increased," said USA coach Jill Ellis.
"Different teams are now rising and it's going to be a very open World Cup and we're excited to go out there and attack it."
? 2019 AFP