Women's World Cup kicks off with interest at a new high
The women's World Cup kicks off on Friday amid unprecedented attention as hosts France take on South Korea in Paris.
"It's going to be a remarkable World Cup. The level of competition four years on from the last one has exponentially increased," said Jill Ellis, coach of the US team, the reigning champions.
"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."
Interest from the public is high with both semi-finals and the final, all to be played at the 69,000-capacity Groupama Stadium in Lyon, sold out as well as the opening game at the Parc des Princes. The cheapest group game tickets are just nine euros ($10).
The United States are the queens of the game after winning the World Cup three times and the Olympics four times and that experience is clearly visible in their current lineup.
At the end of May, FIFA calculated that the US had collected 1,893 caps between them and included eight players with at least 100 international appearances. Among them Carli Lloyd has 274 caps, Alex Morgan 163 and Becky Sauerbrunn 158.
For France, the key members of the Lyon team that has won four straight Champions League titles, Sarah Bouhaddi, Wendie Renard, Amel Majri, Amandine Henry and Eugenie Le Sommer, are fast becoming French celebrities.
Germany, who can boast another Lyon star in Dzsenifer Marozsan, have won two World Cups and 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 that some of the other traditional football powers, who for years 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 title. Spain, the Netherlands and Italy are all in the top 15, with the Dutch reigning European champions.
- Competition getting stronger -
The 24-team format means the group phase will eliminate only eight teams. The top two nations in each of the six groups and the four best third-place finishers will qualify.
That means the underdogs know that one victory could be enough to reach the second round.
"Aside from USA, France and the Netherlands, teams like Australia, Canada, Sweden and Norway are also playing very well," German coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg told broadcaster ARD.
"It will be a very tight tournament, and I think there will be some upsets in the group stage."
"I think this World Cup is a tipping point for the women's game where I think it's just going to go boom," England manager Phil Neville said.
Yet, as they prepared to try to emulate the men's national team and win the World Cup, France's women's team received a reminder that they are still not quite equal.
They had to move out of their rooms in the "chateau" on the grounds at Clairefontaine, the French football federation's luxurious training base, when the men's squad arrived last week to prepare for two Euro 2020 qualifiers.
There are other subtle differences.
When France hosted the men's World Cup and Euros, the finals were held at the 80,000-capacity Stade de France. A 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."
The enthusiastic demand for tickets has surprised the hosts.
"We didn't see it coming," said Erwan Le Prevost, head of the local organising committee.
- 'Virtuous circle' -
Jean-Michel Aulas, the president of Lyon, told AFP that "it was a gamble at the time that we bid for the games."
Aulas believes the improvement of the French team and the rise of fan interest are linked.
"We are in a virtuous circle with an audience that will come and watch," he said.
In many countries, women's football remains an afterthought, yet even in the nations where women's football is strongest, players feel 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 internationally.
Women's Ballon D'Or winner Ada Hegerberg, who scored a hat trick for Lyon in the Champions League final, will be absent from the World Cup. 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.
? 2019 AFP